Tough test for Obama's Iran deal

Meltdown: President Obama's announcement of a nuclear deal with Iran has been met with outrage from some quarters in the US. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Meltdown: President Obama's announcement of a nuclear deal with Iran has been met with outrage from some quarters in the US. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Barack Obama’s administration has taken its Iran sales pitch to Capitol Hill. Here, secretary of state John Kerry, energy secretary Ernest Moniz and treasury secretary Jack Lew sought to persuade sceptical US lawmakers that a nuclear accord agreed to by Tehran and six world powers was the best possible outcome after nearly two years of negotiations.

But there was little indication on Wednesday that the classified briefings had led to any immediate breakthroughs, with most Republicans remaining steadfast in their opposition to the deal and Democrats yet to make up their minds.

Lawmakers who attended the meetings continued to express concerns over the implementation of the agreement – chief among them whether or not Iran would be compliant with its terms – even as they described a projection of absolute confidence on the part of the Obama administration during the discussions.

“Obviously the administration folks are very adamant about what a great deal it is. They’re putting on a heavy sales job as one would expect,” Texas representative Mac Thornberry, the Republican who chairs the House armed services committee, told reporters on leaving one of the briefings.

“I think it’s fair to say there is bipartisan scepticism about whether Iran will meet its commitments under this deal, about whether the administration will hold them to it and about what happens with all of Iran’s other activities that concern us so much.”

Kerry, Moniz and Lew first briefed the House of Representatives and held a similar meeting with members of the Senate.
Both sessions took place behind closed doors. The three Cabinet members were also scheduled to testify at a hearing before the Senate foreign relations committee on Thursday, as the White House seeks to make its case for the US Congress to approve the deal.

‘Helpful to make the right decision’
Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said Wednesday’s briefings were “extremely helpful” for lawmakers to gain more understanding of what was agreed to in Vienna last week. He also cautioned against making sweeping assumptions about the fate of the deal in Congress this early in the process.

“Today is day three of a 60-day review period,” Cardin said. “Each day we’re learning more and we’ll use the time we need in order to make the right decision.”

Under an agreement reached in May, Congress has 60 days to review the 159-page agreement. After that point both the House and Senate will vote on a resolution that records either their approval or disapproval of the deal – although a two-thirds majority is needed in both chambers to override a presidential veto.

Obama has already pledged to veto any efforts to scuttle the deal and warned of grave consequences if the US does not hold up its end of the bargain. Support from Democrats will be critical for the president to maintain his veto power, with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and almost uniformly against the deal from the outset.

Representative Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut and member of the House permanent select committee on intelligence, said the three secretaries “gave a very, very strong defence of the deal” and asked critics to look beyond simply analysing the deal within and of itself.

“In other words, you can always dream of a better deal. But look at where we were when Iran was a nuclear threshold state before this negotiation began and consider where the deal puts you in contrast to where we were,” Himes said after the House meeting.

Although Himes said he was still in the process of weighing the deal, he appeared to side with the administration’s rationale and put the onus on sceptics to justify their opposition.

“From my standpoint, the burden of proof, given what I’ve learned so far, is on the opponents to explain why this is really a bad deal relative to where we were and why this is a bad deal relative to where we will be if the United States unilaterally walks away from it,” he said.

Wide-ranging questions
During the briefings, lawmakers asked wide-ranging questions of the cabinet officials, according to those in attendance. Among the issues raised were the lifting of an arms embargo, Iran’s funding of terrorism and detainment of US hostages and whether it could be adequately verified that Iran is meeting its obligations.

Under the parameters of the deal, Iranians must eliminate 98% of their uranium stockpile and remove two-thirds of their uranium enriching centrifuges. That process, including verification of Iran’s compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is expected to take six to nine months.

Kerry has repeatedly emphasised that the nuclear agreement is based on a robust verification process. “Nothing in this agreement, nothing at all, is based on trust,” Kerry said on Sunday during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. “The entire agreement is based on verification, accountability and steps we can take to respond to any violation by Iran.”

A number of Democrats on Wednesday pointed to those assurances as key to winning their support. “My lingering questions are really just about making sure that the inspections are as rigorous as the administration purports them to be,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told reporters. “If the reality matches up with the administration’s claims, then I’ll be a supporter of the deal.”

Murphy, who also sits on the foreign relations committee, added that he expects to reach a decision in the coming weeks. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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