Republican senators on Thursday ripped Obama administration officials about the nuclear deal with Iran, telling them they were “fleeced” and “bamboozled” in the talks.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew faced a barrage of criticism during the first public hearing on the deal, with Republicans lining up to denounce the agreement that would lift sanctions on Iran in return for limits on its nuclear program.
"Not unlike a hotel guest that leaves only with a hotel bathrobe on its back, I believe you’ve been fleeced," said Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
"With all due respect, you guys have been bamboozled, and the American people are going to pay for that," said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), adding that the inspections regime was so flawed that "even the NFL wouldn't go along with this!"
“Anyone who believes this is a good deal really joins the ranks of the most naive people on the face of the earth,” Risch added.
The fiery criticism highlights the difficult path that lies ahead of the Obama administration, which is almost certainly facing a vote from Congress to abandon the deal.
Thursday’s testimony was the first of two public sessions that the Cabinet officials will attend on Capitol Hill in the coming days, and came in addition to a series of classified briefings and direct outreach from the White House. On Wednesday, Kerry, Moniz and Lew gave classified briefings to the full House and Senate.
Later on Thursday, Kerry and Moniz are scheduled to brief House Democrats, whose support is seen as particularly crucial for the president. All three secretaries will appear in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Legislation negotiated by Corker earlier this year is now forcing a congressional review of the nuclear pact, with lawmakers in the House and Senate preparing to vote — likely in September — on whether to disapprove of the deal and block President Obama from lifting sanctions.
Kerry argued that walking away from the deal would be equal to walking out on global partners also involved in the negotiations.
The alternative to the deal, Kerry insisted, is not “some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation.”
“The choice we face is between an agreement that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is limited, rigorously scrutinized and peaceful, or no deal at all,” he said.
Corker — who had urged Obama to walk away from the nuclear talks if a "bad deal" were on the table — said Kerry, Moniz and Lew "batted" away serious questions about the pact during a classified hearing on the nuclear deal on Wednesday, arguing it was "either this deal or war."
"You have turned Iran from being a pariah, to now Congress being a pariah," he said.
The Obama administration has been particularly targeting Democrats in its extensive outreach in recent days, since Republicans have appeared largely skeptical of the White House’s approach.
Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the Foreign Relations panel’s top Democrat, maintained that he was undecided on Thursday, yet called the final plan a stronger agreement than an earlier draft document.
“It took you two years to negotiate this agreement. It took you two months in Vienna to get to the final details,” Cardin told the Cabinet secretaries. “We’re on day four of our review of 60 days. I have not reached a conclusion.”
Most other Democrats refrained from direct attacks on the administration, and instead rebuked their GOP colleagues’ rhetoric.
“If you were bamboozled, the world had been bamboozled,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Kerry. “That’s ridiculous. It’s unfair and it’s wrong.”
However, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — the committee’s former ranking member — at one point got into a testy exchange with Kerry.
"With all due respect, don't eat up my time," Menendez scolded him.
Menendez has emerged as one of the most likely Democratic opponents of the deal, and he strongly criticized it on Thursday.
"It fails to appreciate Iran's history of deception," he said, adding he worried the that deal would "enshrine" Iran's ability to develop an "industrial-scale" nuclear program.
The Obama administration’s sales job has been complicated by action at the United Nations that was opposed by members of Congress in both parties, as well as bilateral “side” agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the details of which were not fully disclosed to U.S. negotiators.
Corker took aim at those side agreements, which he said Americans might never be able to read.
"According to the agreement, it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the sanctions will be removed or not," he said.
Bilateral IAEA agreements such as the ones struck with Iran would normally remain classified, but ought to be revealed to the U.S. side because of the extraordinary circumstances, lawmakers in both parties said.
“It is part of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] in regards to possible military dimensions,” Cardin said. “From what we can tell, if we can get eyes on that document it may answer some of our questions.”
“I can see IAEA having those confidential agreements with normal powers,” added Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “Iran is not a normal nation.”
Republicans said that one of the side agreements would allow Iran to provide its own samples from the Parchin military base, which they said was akin to allowing professional athletes to produce their own urine samples for drug testing.
“There are qualities to this program that would not be unlike causing athletes to just mail in their own urine specimens in the mail, and us believing that it came from them,” Corker said.
Critics of the agreement have chided the lack of “anytime, anywhere” inspections of Iranian facilities. Instead, inspectors will have to request access to some sites, potentially allowing Iran to develop a bomb in secret, critics say.
“I never uttered the words ‘anywhere, anytime,’” retorted Kerry about the inspections.
Moniz added that, "unlike Secretary Kerry, I did say the words 'anytime, anywhere.'
"The full sentence was 'anytime, anywhere in the sense of a well-defined process with a well-defined end time,'" Moniz clarified.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a 2016 presidential candidate, said the deal did "nothing" for Americans detained in Iran, noting that the brother of detained Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was present at the hearing.
The next president would have "no legal or moral obligation" to abide by the deal, Rubio said.
Kerry earlier in the hearing said that if the talks had broadened to issues other than the nuclear program — such as the Americans detained in Iran — it would have derailed the process.
The goal in the talks was purely to limit Iran’s ability to develop a bomb, Kerry said — not to dismantle its entire nuclear program.
“Everybody at this dais knows what the actions are for actually stopping that,” Kerry said. “It’s called military action.”
— Last updated at 1:39 p.m.