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‘Side deals’ cast shadow over Congress Iran review

Lawmakers complain about secret agreements between Tehran and UN watchdog over Parchin military site and nuclear program’s ‘military dimensions’

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

2004 satellite image of the military complex at Parchin, Iran. (AP/DigitalGlobe-Institute for Science and International Security)
2004 satellite image of the military complex at Parchin, Iran. (AP/DigitalGlobe-Institute for Science and International Security)

WASHINGTON — As top administration officials prepared for what will be their first day of unclassified testimony in Congress Thursday in support of the Iran nuclear deal, a very public row erupted Wednesday over whether the administration could — and would — disclose what some lawmakers called the “secret side deals” of the agreement.

Even as the White House deployed Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to Capitol Hill for a series of classified briefings Wednesday meant to shore up support for the Iran deal in a dubious legislature, lawmakers demanded more details on agreements reached between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran with the consent of the P5+1 group of world powers. Those agreements were not previously revealed to Congress as part of the 60-day review process required under law.

One day after Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Mike Pompeo said that an IAEA official in Vienna had told them about the agreements with Iran, administration officials denied these constituted “secret side agreements” that were kept out of the nuclear agreement presented to Congress for review.

“There’s no side deals, there’s no secret deals, between Iran and the IAEA, that the P5+1 has not been briefed on in detail. These kinds of technical arrangements with the IAEA are a matter of standard practice, that they’re not released publicly or to other states, but our experts are familiar and comfortable with the contents, which we would be happy to discuss with Congress in a classified setting,” State Department Spokesman John Kirby said during his daily press briefing.

Tom Cotton (Courtesy United States Congress)
Tom Cotton (Courtesy United States Congress)

Kirby explained that the so-called “side deals” involved “issues between Iran and the IAEA,” referring to them as “technical agreements” and emphasizing that such agreements “are never shared outside the state in question in the IAEA.” At the same time, the US had been briefed on the agreements and administration officials were willing to discuss them with lawmakers.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice during an interview with Charlie Rose on the Public Broadcasting Service, February 24, 2015. (screen capture/YouTube/Charlie Rose)
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice during an interview with Charlie Rose on the Public Broadcasting Service, February 24, 2015. (screen capture/YouTube/Charlie Rose)

National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Wednesday confirmed the existence of the side agreements, telling reporters that they dealt with Iran’s documentation of previous military dimensions of its nuclear program, a key aspect of intelligence about the program that enabled a better assessment of its scope and purpose.

Although Rice claimed that the arrangements between the IAEA and Iran were “no secret,” the firestorm began when Cotton and Pompeo, following a meeting in Vienna Friday with representatives of the IAEA, said officials from the watchdog group had told them the agreements would remain secret.

“The agency conveyed to the lawmakers that two side deals made between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IAEA as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will remain secret and will not be shared with other nations, with Congress, or with the public,” the lawmakers said in a statement.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran on April 14, 2015. (JTA/Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran on April 14, 2015. (JTA/Win McNamee/Getty Images)

One of the agreements covers inspection of the Parchin military complex, a site that the IAEA suspects was being used for experiments related to weaponization of Iran’s nuclear technology. The second details how the IAEA and Iran will resolve outstanding issues in determining the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, Cotton and Pompeo said.

Although Rice and Kirby claimed that US negotiators were familiar with the contents of the IAEA-Iran agreements, Cotton and Pompeo said that they were told that the agreements would not be released even to the P5+1 member states who negotiated the broader deal.

Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed earlier this year, the administration is required to provide Congress with all documents related to the agreement, including “annexes, appendices, codicils, side agreements, implementing materials, documents, and guidance, technical or other understandings and any related agreements, whether entered into or implemented prior to the agreement or to be entered into or implemented in the future.”

On Wednesday, the author of the law, Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, teamed up with Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, to write their second letter to the administration in as many weeks expressing concern over whether it had adhered to the law’s requirements.

This time, the bipartisan duo reportedly requested that Kerry provide them any available documents related to the IAEA-Iran agreements.

Cardin is one of many Democratic senators who have yet to say whether they will support or oppose the deal with Iran when it comes to key Senate and House votes on deal-killing legislation that will likely be placed before Congress within the allotted 60 days. The administration needs to win over at least 34 senators or 146 House members to ensure President Barack Obama’s veto of any such legislation cannot be overturned.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, an announced supporter of the deal, has expressed optimism that the White House can prevail, and Senator Dick Durbin, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, declared his support for the agreement this week.

AP contributed to this report.

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