Amid warnings of war and charges of diplomatic failure, a historic debate over the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran erupted in the Senate on Thursday, highlighting deep disagreements over the deal’s implications and the potential consequences of rejecting it.
The setting was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which for decades has been the venue for high-profile hearings on arms control agreements and war and peace controversies, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. As with many of those debates, the central question Thursday was how much risk the U.S. was being asked to assume and for what benefit.
Leading the charge for the White House, Secretary of State John F. Kerry repeated the administration’s assessment that the deal would “cut off all pathways” for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon for at least a decade and probably longer.
If Congress rejects the deal, he warned, international sanctions against Iran would rapidly unravel, the U.S. would be isolated and blamed for the failure, and Iran would refuse to engage in new negotiations.
“If you think the ayatollah is going to come back to negotiate again with an American” if the U.S. renounced the current deal, “that’s fantasy,” he said.
A vote to kill the deal would give a “great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment, proceed full speed ahead with a heavy-water reactor, install new and more efficient centrifuges, and do it all without the unprecedented inspection and transparency measures that we have secured,” he said.
Kerry also agreed with Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) that a collapse of the deal, which was sealed in Vienna this month after nearly two years of negotiations between Iran and a diplomatic bloc consisting of the U.S. and five other world powers, would strengthen Iranian hard-liners at the expense of the relative moderates.
All that would greatly increase the risks of a military confrontation, he said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said bluntly, “I don't think the American people want another war.... That's really the other option, which everyone tiptoes around.”
But critics, led by committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), argued that the Obama administration and its allies have exaggerated the risks of rejecting it.
If Congress says no, America’s allies will still want to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, the critics say. U.S. sanctions will continue to exert powerful financial pressure on the Iranian economy even if restrictions levied by the United Nations and the European Union go away, they contend.
Administration officials have tried to frame the debate as “it's this deal or war,” Corker said. “I think that's hyperbole.”
Corker said the administration has put Congress in the position of appearing to scuttle diplomacy if lawmakers ultimately reject the deal.
“I believe you've been fleeced” in the negotiations, Corker told Kerry. “You've turned Iran from being a pariah to now Congress being a pariah.”
The two sides also disputed the essential purpose of negotiating with Iran.
In a disagreement that echoed Cold War arguments over arms control talks with the Soviet Union, the administration sought to keep the focus on how the deal would affect Iran's nuclear efforts and its extensive provisions for verifying compliance.
Opponents emphasized Iran's hostility to the U.S. on a wide range of other issues, including terrorism and Israel.
Corker stressed the theme of Iranian villainy in the hearing’s opening moments, denouncing Tehran’s support for Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias, which repeatedly attacked U.S. troops during the American occupation there, and graphically describing repression carried out by Syria's Iranian-backed government.
“People’s genitals, right now, being amputated. People being electrocuted — right now, this is happening” in Syria's prisons, he said.
Those problems, Kerry said, are important but separate.
“This plan was designed to address the nuclear issue, the nuclear issue alone,” he said. Iran’s ability to destabilize the region and challenge the U.S. will be far more dangerous if it has a nuclear weapon, he said.
The structure of the congressional review process gives the administration the upper hand in protecting the deal.
Congress can pass a resolution disapproving the deal, but President Obama has said he would issue a veto. Overriding his veto would require a two-thirds vote in both houses. At this point, opponents don’t have the votes for an override. They may not even have 60 votes needed to get a disapproval resolution through the Senate.
But opponents, with the strong backing of Israel, whose ambassador met with congressional critics of the deal Wednesday, have mounted an energetic campaign.
Their goal is to sink the deal or at least badly weaken it before the Sept. 17 deadline for Congress to act. If the agreement emerges from this summer's debate badly tarnished, it would lay the groundwork for repudiation by the next president, they say.
“They'd like to see it on crutches” if not defeated entirely, said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist and chairman of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting firm.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, made that point explicitly.
“This is a deal whose survival is not guaranteed” beyond this president’s term, he told Kerry and the administration's two other witnesses, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz.
“Even if this deal narrowly avoids congressional defeat, this deal is your deal with Iran,” Rubio said. “The next president is under no legal or moral obligation to live up to it.”
As the three Cabinet secretaries testified in the Senate, Obama met for 90 minutes at the White House with about a dozen House Democrats he portrayed as “opinion leaders” in the chamber.
Obama “feels very comfortable with the merits of the agreement and, obviously, how important this decision is for the country and for his place in posterity,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said after the session. “He’s determined to do whatever is necessary, and that he can, to persuade Congress of its merits.”
For many lawmakers, the crucial argument is the absence of a clear alternative to the negotiated deal.
“All of us are trying to make our best guess about what happens if the agreement is not agreed to, but no one can say for sure,” Schiff said. “I do think we have to think pragmatically about what the alternative looks like. The alternative is not necessarily a bomb, but it may be a lot closer to that than we’ve ever seen.”
His remarks echoed one made by another of the few publicly undecided lawmakers, Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, after a classified briefing Wednesday evening.
“The question is not, ‘Is this a perfect agreement?’ but, ‘How does this agreement stack up against the alternatives?’” King said. “That was rather sobering to people in the room.”
The agreement would lift U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions against Iran once the Iranians come into compliance with a series of requirements to reduce its nuclear stockpile and mothball many of the centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium.
That would probably happen in about six months, although Kerry suggested during the hearing that the process might take as long as a year.
The hearing fleshed out the debate on several controversial parts of the deal.
One major dispute involves what happens after year 10 of the agreement. Several critics concede that the pact might prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon over the next decade, but say it would allow Tehran to greatly expand its enrichment of nuclear fuel in the subsequent five years.
Administration officials acknowledge that Iran's “breakout” period — the amount of time needed to obtain enough fuel for a bomb — would gradually get shorter over time because Tehran could start using more advanced centrifuges. But other parts of the agreement would continue to hinder Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, they said.
The deal “puts us in a far stronger position” in those later years, Moniz said. “The risks on their part would be enormous” if Iran sought a nuclear weapon 12 or 15 years from now, he said, in part because of the “tremendous knowledge” of Iran's nuclear program and facilities that the U.S. would have acquired in the interim.
Critics also say the deal's procedures to verify Iran's compliance are too weak. In particular, they have focused on the fact that Iran could delay up to 24 days before letting international inspectors visit sites where they believe cheating may have taken place.
Some experts, including Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, contend that in that period, Iran could conceal evidence of important nuclear research, though it couldn't conceal traces of major projects such as construction of uranium enrichment plants.
Obama has defended that provision, saying that the facilities Iran would need to create a clandestine nuclear program would have to be extensive and hard to move.
“This is not something you hide in a closet. This is not something you put on a dolly and kind of wheel off somewhere,” he said in a news conference last week.
At the hearing, administration officials conceded that Iran might be able to hide some small-scale programs. But Moniz said the U.S. has developed sensitive technologies for detecting even small traces of uranium or other radioactive materials. Inspectors would be able to use those advanced technologies to discover evidence even after weeks of diligent cleanup, he said.
Another question: If Iran breaks its commitments, is the deal's mechanism to reimpose sanctions too cumbersome?
Skeptics contend that the world powers involved in the deal — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, in addition to the U.S. — will be reluctant to reimpose sanctions because doing so would threaten their carefully assembled deal and disrupt their countries' growing trade with Iran.
Kerry, however, emphasized that under the deal's terms, the U.S. by itself could force a reimposition of all the current sanctions if Iran violates the deal. The agreement also gives the U.S. the flexibility to reimpose a portion of the sanctions if Iran makes a minor violation that would not justify a full snapback, he said.
A fourth big issue involves Iran's conventional weapons. Critics say Iran will be greatly strengthened by the deal because it lifts U.N. restrictions on Iran's purchase of conventional arms after five years and ballistic missiles after seven, and frees $100 billion to $150 billion frozen in overseas accounts.
That will allow Iran to boost support to proxies, including Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia in Lebanon, further inflaming violence in the Mideast.
But the administration and its allies say the U.N. arms embargoes were in force only because Iran had broken the nuclear rules and were always likely to end when it reached an agreement on nuclear issues.
During the negotiations, “we had three countries out of seven which were ready to lift [the embargoes] after Day One,” Kerry said, referring to China and Russia, in addition to Iran.
The five- and seven-year extensions of the embargoes “we see as a bonus,” said Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Assn., which supports the deal.
Administration officials say Iran will get less money than critics estimate — more like $50 billion, Lew said at the hearing — and they contend that Iran will spend most of it to bolster the country’s teetering economy.
“There's at least $500 billion of domestic demand” in Iran for unmet needs, Lew said. Though Iran will use some of the unfrozen funds “for malign purposes,” he said, the effect “will be on the margin.”
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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