Pentagon brass gets GOP grilling on Iran

Pentagon brass gets GOP grilling on Iran
© Greg Nash

Pentagon leaders sought Wednesday to defend a provision in the Iran nuclear deal that would lift an arms embargo on the nation — a step they had previously advocated against.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of the Obama administration's sales push on the deal to members of Congress.

ADVERTISEMENT

In a sign of the administration’s focus on the issue, Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal GOP senators press State Department for Hunter Biden, Burisma records MORE, Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizAl Franken to host SiriusXM radio show Two years after Harvey's devastation, the wake-up call has not been heeded Biden under pressure from environmentalists on climate plan MORE and Treasury Secretary Jack LewJacob (Jack) Joseph LewHogan urges Mnuchin to reconsider delay of Harriet Tubman bill Mnuchin says new Harriet Tubman bill delayed until 2028 Overnight Finance: US reaches deal with ZTE | Lawmakers look to block it | Trump blasts Macron, Trudeau ahead of G-7 | Mexico files WTO complaint MORE also appeared at the hearing, which was to focus on the nuclear deal's implications on the U.S. military posture in the Middle East. 

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Defending their honor as we hear their testimony MORE (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, said they appeared at Carter's invite, not his. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Carter thought it would be beneficial to have them there to answer any questions about the Iran deal, because they were directly involved in the negotiations. 

Despite the presence of so many Cabinet officials, skeptical lawmakers grilled Carter and Dempsey on whether the Pentagon supported the deal, which is a top policy goal of the president's. 

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month, both Pentagon leaders had expressed reservations about lifting an arms embargo on Iran, as well as lifting restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program. The deal now on the table does both.  

"We want them to continue to be isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kind of equipment and material they're able to [have]," Carter had said at that hearing on July 7, in response to a question about whether he supported lifting the arms embargo.

Dempsey had gone even further, saying, "Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking."

The deal would lift a conventional arms embargo on Iran after five years and restrictions on ballistic missile technology after eight years.

Carter insisted that he supported the deal, and that it would address the U.S.'s top security concern with Iran: the country obtaining nuclear weapons.

Dempsey said he had only advocated for pressure on Iran "for as long as possible."

During a House hearing on Tuesday, Kerry had argued that U.S. negotiators did not give in on lifting the embargoes, even though administration officials had said previously that they would not be addressed in the deal. 

"We didn't concede on that," he said. "In fact, we won a victory."

"Three of the seven [countries involved in talks] thought the sanctions ought to be lifted immediately, Iran, Russia and China," he said. "So the compromise was the five and eight [years], but we don't feel like we lost anything whatsoever in that," he added.

Under questioning from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Dempsey also admitted that, as the president's top military adviser, he has never told him that the only two options to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon were either getting the deal or going to war — a central administration argument. 

"No, at no time did that come up in our conversation nor did I make that comment," Dempsey said, adding, "I can tell you that we have a range of options. ... There are things between here and there."  

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is not on the committee, later seized on those remarks.

"President Obama has been trying to scare the American people into believing that we must accept his terribly negotiated deal with Iran or resign ourselves to war with Iran," Rubio, a 2016 presidential candidate, said in a statement.

"Under questioning by Senator Joni Ernst today, General Martin Dempsey unequivocally dismissed that argument, and with it President Obama’s entire justification for this terrible compromise of America’s national security," he said.

At one point during the hearing, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) called Dempsey's "nine-sentence" opening statement and endorsement of the deal tantamount to "damning disagreement with fainted praise."

Dempsey pushed back against that characterization.

"Senator, I would ask you not to characterize my statement as tepid, nor enthusiastic, but rather pragmatic," he said.

"And I've said from the start that relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior to trying to do that militarily."

But McCain indicated after the hearing that he didn't fully buy Dempsey's support.

"I don't know if he was tepid, but he certainly had a number of caveats," he said.