Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday said a final nuclear deal with Iran would likely allow that country to enrich uranium in some capacity, a nonstarter for many lawmakers.
“That deal was on the table a hundred years ago,” Kerry answered. “But that deal, I'm afraid, has ... been lost.”
Kerry said language in an interim deal reached last month in Geneva calls for a final deal in six months that would allow some Iranian enrichment within “mutually agreed parameters” for “practical needs,” such as medical research and power generation. He said such a deal would make the U.S. and Israel safer.
“At the end of this, I can't tell you they might not have some enrichment,” Kerry said, “but I can tell you with certainty it will not be possible for them to be able to turn that into a weapons program without our knowing it ... far in advance.”
He warned the drive for a nuclear agreement could unravel if lawmakers pass new sanctions.
“We're asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and space to negotiate,” Kerry said.
“This is very delicate diplomatic moment. ... We have an obligation to give these negotiations a chance to succeed.”
Kerry said America's negotiating partners — Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany — could balk “if we appear to be going off on a tangent.”
The argument failed to convince crucial members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“My concern is that we have bargained away our fundamental position, which is enshrined in six U.N. Security Council Resolutions — that Iran should not be enriching and reprocessing — in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bomb-making technologies,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the panel’s chairman.
“Iran is not just another country. It simply can’t be trusted with enrichment technology because verification efforts can never be foolproof,” Royce said. “An agreement in which Iran purchases and returns spent nuclear fuel for energy generation is one thing, but allowing enrichment is too high risk, going beyond the lines of realistic international control.”
The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), shared the same concerns. He defended the administration's diplomacy, saying Obama inherited an “almost nonexistent strategy” from George W. Bush, but expressed “serious reservations” about the agreement.
But before the hearing began, Kerry and the White House appeared to have succeeded in their effort to keep Congress from passing new sanctions against Iran, though lawmakers said the issue could re-emerge in January.
There is little time for Congress to act on new sanctions with the House finishing work for the year on Friday and the Senate adjourning next week.
“I'm inclined to support [Secretary of State] John Kerry” and hold off for now, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) told The Hill when asked about a sanctions bill. “We'll see. Not this year.”
Still, members from both parties on the Foreign Affairs panel expressed disapproval with the interim deal, which lifted $7 billion in sanctions but allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium.
Engel warned the administration would have to convince lawmakers that Iran has abandoned its alleged nuclear weapons program before Congress would ever agree to lift the sanctions that are now in place.
Kerry said the interim deal requires Iran to dilute its 20 percent uranium, which could be further enriched to weapons grade, while stopping work on a plutonium reactor.
“While we negotiate ... Iran's nuclear program will not move forward,” Kerry said. The interim agreement “halts the progress of Iran's nuclear program and rolls it back ... for the first time in nearly 10 years.”
He also pushed back against accusations that the deal could cause the “disintegration” of international sanctions. He said the total amount Iran could get under the deal is less than $7 billion over six months and called higher estimates “outlandish” and “absolutely not true.”
“Taken together, these first steps will prevent Iran from using the cover of negotiations to continue pursuing its program in secret,” Kerry said.
“We now have the best chance we've ever had to rigorously test this proposition without losing anything,” he said.
— This story was first posted at 2:27 p.m. and has been updated.
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