White House defends Iran deal before Senate

The Obama administration aggressively defended its preliminary nuclear deal with Iran to a skeptical Senate on Tuesday, ramping up its efforts to ward off new sanctions.

The president's top nuclear negotiator and top sanctions official dismissed reports that Iran's economy is on the mend during their first congressional appearance since a six-month interim deal went into effect on Jan. 20.

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They downplayed Iranian comments that have minimized that country's obligations under the deal, notably President Hassan Rouhani's remarks that he would not agree to destroy any of Iran's approximately 20,000 centrifuges.

“I believe that is for domestic consumption and an opening, maximalist negotiating position,” said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. “And I wouldn't expect any less. What I will care about — what we should all care about — is what Iran does.”

Republicans were having none of it.

“I do not support what's been done. I think this thing's a disaster,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “I was stunned when I saw what the agreement was. I've been disgusted as we've gone forward and I hope that you will prove me dead wrong but I don't think [you] will, given the history of these people.”

The contentious hearing comes as 59 senators have signed onto new sanctions that would set in if Iran reneges on the interim deal or fails to sign a final one in six months that meets their demands. President Obama has said he would veto the bill, arguing that it would doom negotiations.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel, accused the White House of using the sanctions bill as a “red herring” to avoid telling Congress how much it is willing to cede to Iran in a final deal.

“I think it avoids the topic of you, candidly, clearly laying out to us what the end state is that you're trying to negotiate,” he told Sherman.

And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked what the administration's “line in the sand” was on uranium enrichment, which the Iranians say they will not abandon.

“Our line in the sand on the enrichment issue is that any comprehensive agreement should give us full confidence and assurance, in a verifiable manner, that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon,” Sherman said.

Sherman said the administration believes Iran cannot justify its underground, fortified enrichment facility at Fordow or its heavy water reactor at Arak as part of a peaceful nuclear program. But she played down the usefulness of having Iran dismantle all its installations, arguing that Iranian scientists cannot unlearn their knowledge.

Risch said that the White House should demand the release of imprisoned Pastor Saeed Abedini, a constituent, and two other Americans before the Iranians get “another penny” under the interim deal. The deal allows Iran to recuperate about $4.2 billion in frozen assets, the first $500 million of which were released over the weekend.

Risch also slammed reports that business executives have begun flocking to Iran.

“The optics of this are such that the rest of the world says, it's back to business as usual,” Risch said. “Whose job is it going to be to put the genie back in the bottle when this thing fails?”

Sherman said the administration has warned foreign leaders that trade delegations to Iran are not helpful to a nuclear deal. She said business executives are putting their reputations on the line if they strike deals with Iran before a final deal is reached and U.S. and international sanctions are removed.

“We hope people don't go to Tehran — that is our preference,” Sherman said. “But those who go raise hopes that the Rouhani administration is going to have to deliver on. And the only way they can deliver on those hopes is a comprehensive agreement that we will have agreed to.”

She also dismissed a Reuters report that Iran and Russia are negotiating an oil-for-goods swap worth $1.5 billion per month.

“We are very crystal clear that anything like such an agreement between Russia and Iran might have potential sanctionable action,” Sherman said. “My own sense is that it’s not moving forward at this time.”

David Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the Iranian economy has been improving since Rouhani's June election. He said there had been “essentially no change at all” in the inflation rate or the value of the Iranian rial since the interim nuclear deal was struck in November.

Other lawmakers pressed Sherman on how many nuclear centrifuges would have to be shut down under a final deal and whether it would require inspections of Iran's military installation at Parchin, a suspected site of nuclear weaponization.

Sherman wouldn't give a number regarding the number of centrifuges that would remain operational in a final deal, but told Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that it would have to be fewer than the current 20,000. And she rejected his claim that Iran has turned down the administration's request to open up Parchin for inspection over the next six months.

“They have not rejected it,” she said. “I hope it is addressed within the six months while we are addressing the comprehensive agreement.”

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