WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain warned Wednesday that the world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran could put US military personnel at risk, and complained that “side agreements“ with Iran unexamined by the United States limited Congress’s ability to assess the viability of the agreement.
“The Iran agreement not only paves Iran’s path to nuclear capability, it will pave Iran’s path toward becoming a dominant power in the Middle East,” McCain admonished administration officials in his opening comments to the committee.
“Instead of enhancing our deterrence in Iran, it seems to enhance Iran’s deterrence of us,” he warned, adding that should the two states find themselves in conflict, “US service members’ lives are more at risk because of this agreement.”
The heated session of the powerful Senate committee saw the first public testimony by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey since Congress began its review of the controversial agreement.
“When we consider these broader strategic consequences of the agreement — the second-order effects — what is already a bad deal only looks that much worse,” McCain declared.
He grilled Carter and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on what he described as “side agreements” between Iran and the IAEA over verification procedures and past military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program.
McCain said that by allowing Iran to negotiate these topics independently with the IAEA, world powers had ceded Iran too much control over key details left out of the signed deal.
Moniz explained, “The agreement with the JCPOA is that Iran must cooperate with the IAEA.”
“In every country like Iran, the devil’s in the details,” McCain retorted, after Moniz told him that neither he nor Carter had obtained access to the documents outlining Iran’s commitments to the IAEA. “It is absolutely astounding that you have not seen the documents which outline the practice of verification,” he said. “Otherwise how can we determine if we can enforce and verify?”
McCain expressed concern that Congress is expected to vote on the deal months before the agreements between Iran and the IAEA are finalized.
Kerry defended the arrangements between Iran and the IAEA, arguing that such agreements are typical of the interaction between the IAEA and all of the states it oversees – and that all of those agreements are kept private between the states in question and the international nuclear oversight body.
Kerry acknowledged that neither he nor any members of the administration had actually had access to the agreement itself.
“We are aware of what the basics of it are,” he asserted, adding that the agreement “is not shared with the world, but we do get briefed on it.”
According to McCain, Kerry, Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew all came to the meeting at their own request. McCain said that he had only issued invitations to Dempsey and Carter to brief the committee on the military dimensions of the deal, but that the three had asked to attend.
Kerry, Moniz, and Lew form the administration’s go-to triumvirate for selling the nuclear deal to Congress. The three testified Tuesday before a contentious session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and last Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Carter moved to reassure senators that the deal “takes no option away from a future president,” adding that it is “a deal that deserves your support.”
Carter, who visited Israel last week in an effort to calm the waters after the world powers reached a nuclear agreement with Iran earlier this month, told committee members that the US is “committed to making [Israel] even stronger and more capable” militarily.
He acknowledged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to staunchly oppose the Iran deal, but emphasized American support for Israel’s defense, including the anticipated 2016 delivery of top-of-the-line F-35 airplanes and the ongoing collaboration between the US and Israel on the David’s Sling, Arrow, and Iron Dome missile defense systems.
Under pressure from McCain, Joint Chief of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey acknowledged that in the past, he had pushed for strong rules governing Iran’s conventional weapons purchases and sales.
“It will not surprise you that my recommendation was to keep pressure on Iran as long as possible,” he told the committee.
Dempsey was pushed on statements he made to the same committee weeks before the nuclear agreement was reached in which he warned that Iran’s conventional weapons capacities represented a threat, after the administration said that ballistic missiles fell outside the purview of the nuclear deal.
The final agreement with Iran lifts restrictions on its sales and acquisition of conventional weapons technology within eight years.
Dempsey said that the administration had discussed the issue of conventional weapons with him, explaining that he was “consulted or asked for my advice episodically when military issues became relevant” and that “a week or two before the agreement was finalized I gave my final recommendation regarding sanctions.”
Dempsey’s testimony sounded a more cautious tone than that of his colleagues. When asked about the deal’s impact on Iranian threats to the region, the outgoing military chair said that Iran’s non-nuclear threats “run the gamut from ballistic missile technology to weapons trafficking, to the use of surrogates and proxies to naval mines and undersea activity — and last but not least to malicious activity in cyberspace.”
“Ultimately, time and Iranian behavior will determine if the nuclear agreement is effective and sustainable,” he added.
Dempsey was also queried by military veteran Sen. Joni Ernest on whether there was really no alternative to the deal but war, as US President Barack Obama has suggested repeatedly in recent weeks. Dempsey responded, “As long as we agree that military strikes against a nation is an act of war, but there are things between here and there.”