By Kristina Wong - 08/02/15 09:00 AM EDT
So-called 'side deals' have become a big problem for the White House in its efforts to sell skeptical lawmakers on the Iran nuclear agreement.
The White House is characterizing the deals as "standard" yet confidential. But Republicans say the administration is required to submit them under a law passed by Congress that gives lawmakers authority to review the deal.
At the same time, cabinet officials admitted this week that they've only been briefed on the side-deals, rather than having examined the wording — and that they only know of one administration official who's actually seen the agreements. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described that state of affairs as "absolutely astounding."
Republicans are seizing on the confusion — which is sowing unease even among Democrats — to drive opposition to the overall deal.
As lawmakers prepared to leave for the August recess, Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzO'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' Va. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick MORE (R-Texas) introduced a resolution that seeks to reset the 60-day clock for Congress to consider the deal until the text of the side deals are submitted.
And Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonGOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy The Trail 2016: Berning embers MORE (R-Ark.) mocked the administration Friday in a video statement posted to YouTube.
“Secret side deals? Not-so-secret side deals?” the video's text asks. “The only mystery is why this administration can’t keep its story straight."
What are the "side deals"?
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran agreed on a "roadmap" on July 14 to resolve a key U.S. concern. From the American perspective, Iran needs to "come clean" on any prior work on a nuclear weapon, so officials know how close Tehran is to getting a nuclear bomb.
The roadmap mentions two documents to address those concerns. These documents are what Republicans refer to as the "side deals" or "side agreements."
One of the documents details the arrangements under which Iran will answer questions on its past weaponization work, and the other sets out the access IAEA inspectors will have to Iran's Parchin military site, where Iran is suspected of having tested detonators for nuclear devices.
After a classified briefing by administration officials last week, Sen. Jim RischJim RischOvernight Defense: Senate rejects new FBI surveillance powers | Brexit vote looms | Push for new military aid deal with Israel Senators push vote to condemn Russia's 'reckless actions' Overnight Finance: Senate taking up Puerto Rico bill this month | Dems attack SEC chief | House votes to limit IRS donor data MORE (R-Idaho) revealed that, under the arrangements, Iranian scientists would provide their own soil samples from Parchin to the IAEA to detect any cheating. Such an agreement is certain to be met with deep skepticism by Republicans.
Administration officials have not disputed Risch’s remarks, but say the IAEA would have access to any site where there is a suspected violation, including Parchin, after a 24-day process.
Do these "side deals" fall under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act?
The administration rejects the view that the documents in question fall under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 — which allows Congress to evaluate, and vote on, the deal. But Republicans argue that the act’s provisions specifically say the side-deals do indeed come under its remit.
The provisions of the act state: "Not later than 5 calendar days after reaching an agreement with Iran" relating to its nuclear program, President Obama "shall transmit to the appropriate congressional committees and leadership" the agreement as defined in the law, including all related materials.
The law then defines "agreement" as including any "joint comprehensive plan of action entered into or made between Iran and any other parties, and any additional materials related thereto," including annexes, appendices, codicils, and side agreements.
Kerry said the documents were not "side agreements," but "separate" comprehensive safeguards agreements (CSA) that the IAEA normally creates with Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories — and which are expected to remain confidential.
"It's a confidential agreement, which is the standard procedure of the IAEA," he said.
Who has seen the "side deals" so far?
Amb. Wendy Sherman, a lead negotiator for the United States, said Thursday she has seen the arrangements, but was not allowed to keep the text.
"I saw the pieces of paper, but was not allowed to keep them. All of the members of the P5+1 did in Vienna, and so did some of my experts who certainly understand this better than I do," she said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
(The “P5+1” is the group of nations that negotiated the deal with Iran. The name is derived from the fact that the group is comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France — plus one other nation, Germany.)
However, a day before, Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryDozens of Clinton meetings left off State schedule: report Overnight Cybersecurity: Sit-in disrupts cyber hearings | Trump tries to defend claim Clinton was hacked Kerry backs government access to encrypted data MORE had said he was not sure if Sherman saw the final version, or just a draft or summary of the deals.
Sherman said she briefed House leadership — "chairs and ranking members" — on the arrangements on Wednesday, and was trying to organize a briefing for senators in the coming days.
The White House argues that since Sherman was not allowed to keep the text, "Congress has everything that the Obama administration has."
Could the U.S. request to see the "side deals"?
One nuclear expert and former IAEA official said the U.S. could request to see the documents.
IAEA rules and practices dictate that the IAEA secretariat cannot disclose its agreements to other member states on its own initiative. But there are ways for U.S. diplomats to access them, the expert told Business Insider.
Iran can make them available by asking to distribute them to all IAEA member states, said Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Or, any member state that sits on the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors could request their distribution, Heinonen said. An objection could be overridden by a simple majority vote of at least 18 members.
The U.S. is a member of the board, as are the other P5+1 members, except for China.
And although IAEA policy on such agreements states that the agency "shall not publish or communicate to any State, organization or person any information obtained by it in connection with the implementation of the Agreement," "summarized information" may be published upon decision of the Board if the nations directly concerned agree.
How do the side deals affect the JCPOA, or the main agreement?
White House officials say if Iran does not fulfill its commitments under the side deals, sanctions will not be lifted.
"The whole deal won’t go forward — none of it will go forward — unless Iran complies with the requests that have been put forward by the IAEA for access and information to write their report," White House press secretary Josh Ernest said earlier this week.
The documents require Iran to address IAEA concerns by October 15. The IAEA director general will then provide a final assessment on the resolution of those concerns by December 2015.
Iran’s compliance "is a prerequisite" to sanctions relief, Kerry said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday. "If they haven't complied with the IAEA and lived up to the dates that are laid out in the program, August and October, they will not get relief."
However, he said, the "outcome" of the IAEA's assessment wouldn't matter, just whether Iran complied with the IAEA.
"We know what they were doing. We've already drawn our conclusion about 2003. We know they were engaged in trying to make a weapon," he added.