White House launches Iran side deals counterattack

Getty Images

The Obama administration is launching a fierce counterattack against Republican arguments that so-called “side deals” between Iran and international nuclear inspectors represent a good reason to oppose the Iranian nuclear deal.

Republicans have seized upon bilateral agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to turn public opinion against the deal.

They hope that if the public rejects the agreement, it will be harder for Democrats to back the administration on votes to unwind the deal that are expected in September.

Republicans would need two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to overcome an expected veto by President Obama.

Highlighting agreements involving Iran’s past military-related nuclear activity are meant to undercut the Obama administration’s argument that the nuclear pact built on verification, not trust of Iran.

Republicans also are using the fact that the documents are being kept secret to accuse the administration of withholding information.

As the “side deals” argument gained traction in GOP circles, administration officials stepped up their effort to fight back.  

“I know there has been a suggestion by some Republicans that there are some agreements that were cut off to the side,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “The fact is, this is a critical part of the agreement.”

The White House also took to Twitter to rebut GOP claims. 

“There's no ‘secret’ or ‘side’ deal with Iran. Congress has everything we have on the #IranDeal” read one tweet on @TheIranDeal account, set up by the White House to sell the agreement to the public. 

“Lots of misperceptions re the #IranDeal,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted. “This is a good deal that should be judged on its merits, not distortions.” 

Administration officials say the Iran-IAEA agreements aren’t side deals, but standard practice in crafting arms-control pacts.

Yet the administration’s initial response to the GOP arguments was muddled.

While State Department spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday said there were no “side deals” and that the IAEA arrangements were normal, Rice described the arrangement as an agreement between Iran and the IAEA.

She hastened to add that the deals were not secret, that the administration new their contents and were “satisfied” with them. She also pledged administration officials would hold classified briefings for lawmakers on the details. 

Republicans pounced. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a vocal critic of the agreement, argued the September vote should be pushed back until Congress receives the documents, something the administration has said won’t happen. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) penned a letter to President Obama demanding Wednesday administration officials turn over the documents, a signal Republicans are making the deals a central part of their argument against the Iran agreement.

Winning the battle of public opinion on Iran could prove crucial, as lawmakers will face heavy pressure from outside groups and their constituents when they go home for August recess.

Polls show public opinion is mixed when it comes to the deal, which provides Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for accepting limits on its nuclear program.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed 56 percent of Americans support the deal, but more than six in ten are not confident it will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. 

A Pew Research Center survey showed just 38 percent approve, while 48 percent disapprove.

During a Thursday Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, top U.S. negotiators faced a barrage of criticism from Republican senators, who alleged an agreement governing a sensitive military sites would allow Iran to collect samples themselves for IAEA weapons investigations.  

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said the inspections regime was so flawed “even the NFL wouldn’t go along with this.”

“The worry is that this has set a precedent that will allow the Iranians to deny IAEA inspectors access to any military site in Iran, gutting the verification regime,” said Omri Ceren of The Israel Project, a group that opposes the deal.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz denied Iran will be allowed to police itself, saying Tehran knows it must produce evidence that can withstand scrutiny in an international network of laboratories, including tests in the U.S. 

But in a concerning development for the administration, Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.) the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the classified documents ought to be revealed to the U.S. side because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Iran deal.

“From what we can tell, if we can get eyes on that document it may answer some of our questions,” he said.