Secretaries Kerry and Moniz testify. Photo courtesy of AP.

With only seven weeks left until the September 17th deadline for Congress to vote to approve or reject the Iran deal, it is increasingly looking like a deal will rest on the support of a handful of key Democrats. Last week, in a contentious hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that stretched into a fifth hour, senior Obama administration officials mounted a spirited defense of the Iran deal in the face of near-unanimous Republican opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew all testified in their first public appearance before Congress since the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) set the tone for Republican attacks by accusing Sec. Kerry of being “fleeced” by the Iranians. He was later followed by his colleague Sen. James Risch (R-ID) who declared “you guys have been bamboozled.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Republican Presidential candidate, charged that the agreement was “fundamentally flawed” and left the hearing shortly thereafter. Other Republican members of the committee were equally, if not more combative, with the exception of Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA).

While Sen. Isakson was not as aggressive as his Republican colleagues, only inquiring as to why American nationals are not allowed to be part of the IAEA inspection teams, his previous statements have caused some to put him in the “No” camp.

Sen. Flake, on the other hand, is one of the lone Republicans in the Senate that is neither outright opposed nor leaning in opposition to the Iran deal. He reiterated his support for the negotiations and indicated he wasn’t looking to ask any “gotcha” questions. “I understand the problem of having 535 secretaries of state,” Flake said of the Congressional push to have a say on the Iran deal, but in order to have a lasting deal he added “it is best to have Congress involved.”

With Republicans largely united in opposition, the administration is forced to pin its hopes on convincing Congressional Democrats to block a possible vote of disapproval during the 60 day review period.

Outside of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a longtime opponent of the administration’s negotiations with Iran, the rest of the Democrats on the committee asked largely helpful questions about specific parts of the deal. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) chastised her Republican colleagues for personal attacks on Sec. Kerry and the other witnesses, calling it “ridiculous and unfair and wrong” to say that they had been “bamboozled” or “fleeced.” The United Nations Security Council had earlier in the week unanimously passed a resolution approving the Iran Deal. Sen. Boxer alluded to this when she remarked “so my colleagues think you [Sec. Kerry] were fleeced and bamboozled, and that means everybody was fleeced and bamboozled, everybody, almost everybody in the world.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member of the committee and one of the key swing votes in the Senate, claimed “our negotiators got an awful lot, particularly on the nuclear front,” adding that many areas “have been strengthened since the April framework,” though he was noncommittal on how he would ultimately vote.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) did indicate that he was worried about what happens as the most intrusive elements of the agreement expire but he struck a supportive note when he said “this is a deal that produces a dramatically better position for 15 years than the status quo.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) was another supportive voice on the committee, adding that he trusted the expertise of the nuclear scientists at the national labs in New Mexico who helped craft the inspection and verification regime. On the question of ensuring timely access to suspicious non-nuclear sites under the deal, which has emerged as a key point of debate, Udall asked, “do you believe we have the technical capabilities to determine if enrichment is being done outside the JCPOA?” Sec. Moniz answered affirmatively, pointing to the example of an Iranian site in 2003 where traces of uranium were detected after six months, “despite major efforts to disguise it.”

In the coming weeks, the Obama administration will continue to defend the Iran deal during the Congressional review period while shoring up support among Democrats and any fence-sitting Republicans to stave off Congressional rejection. Sec. Kerry and Sec. Moniz will head to the House Foreign Relations Committee today in what is expected to be a similarly contentious hearing.

Posted By Ala Hasemi-Haeri

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