'If We Walk Away, We Walk Away Alone,' Kerry Warns Lawmakers on Iran Deal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement. Carlos Barria/REUTERS

Secretary of State John Kerry and other members of the Obama administration defended the Iran nuclear agreement in a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. "If we walk away, we walk away alone," said Kerry, warning that if the deal collapsed it would hurt U.S. interest and allies.

Obama administration officials deflected a barrage of critiques. Some questions focused on the details of the agreement, but several lengthier ones argued against negotiating with Iran at all, and even turned toward accusations about the administration's commitment to protecting national security. Republican lawmakers expressed fear that the proposal yielded too much ground to a regime that has destabilized the Middle East. "You can't do a good deal with a bad guy," said David Trott, a Republican representative from Michigan.

Committee Chairman Edward Royce challenged Kerry on the details of the agreement from Vienna, citing fears of noncompliance, the longevity of the deal's provisions and perceptions of America inside Iran. Democratic lawmakers chimed in, but Republicans did most of the questioning. Representatives tried to corner Kerry by bringing up U.S.-Cuba relations, North Korea, and—in the words of one Texas Republican—Iran's overall "policy to destroy us."

Kerry was visibly frustrated throughout the proceedings. "There are conclusions that have been drawn that don't in fact match the reality of what this deal sets forth," he said.

Committee members accused Kerry and the administration of being too soft, citing the country's record of support for terrorism and suggesting that the deal would favor the IRGC, the right-wing military branch of Iran's revolutionary regime. Kerry denied that America would ever lift sanctions on the group and said that the IRGC was against the deal.

Several members of the committee cited "death to America chants" from Iranian leaders and citizens that followed news of the deal as evidence that Iran will continue to pursue a nuclear weapons program in secret. Others brought up the "existential threat" that Iran represents to Israel, pointing out that the new deal may not inspire Israelis to feel safe. Kerry countered by emphasizing that he did not expect Iran to change its rhetoric toward the U.S. because of the deal. "It's not about what they [Iran] say, it's about what they do," he said.

The hearing comes in the wake of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's comments on the deal's impact on Israel, which referenced the Holocaust.

News of the release of Jonathan Pollard, which broke during the hearing, has led some to speculate that the Israeli spy was paroled as a measure to improve U.S. relations with Israel. When asked about Pollard near the end of the hearing, Kerry said, "I haven't even had a conversation about it."

The Obama administration has vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The deal, according to the administration, would achieve that aim, even though it does not have the scope to curtail every destabilizing action taken by the Iranian regime, such as funding terrorist groups. If the agreement is rejected, Kerry argued, the ayatollah of Iran will not come back to the negotiating table. Congress would be naive, he said, to reject the deal and expect "some kind of unicorn fantasy that contemplates Iran's complete capitulation." He challenged lawmakers to propose a better solution, which ignited tempers. At times, the hearing became so contentious that Kerry actually laughed in the direction of his colleagues. "Congressmen love asking questions without having answers," he said.

As Royce handed the microphone over to other members of the committee, the questions increased in length and number, and interruptions erupted.

"If we got a minute or two to respond, it might actually be helpful for people who want to understand the agreement," said Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.

The agreement "codifies a permanent ban on nuclear weapons in Iran," according to Lew, but several congressmen chafed at the notion of allowing a nuclear energy program. According to Lew, effective sanctions would require international cooperation, and backing out of the current deal would undermine America's ability to drum up U.N. support for sanctions.

Critics of the deal argued that Iran would fail to follow through with its end of the bargain, both in the short term and in the future. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said that the provisions in the agreement would not allow Iran to secretly enrich uranium. Because of unprecedented surveillance mechanisms outlined in the deal, Kerry added, it wouldn't be possible for Iran to "stiff us."

Several vocal members of the committee were also incensed over the perceived possibility that Iran, under the deal, could with impunity take steps to develop a program to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles in the future.

"Fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief. I find a lot of fiction involved in some of the criticism of this agreement," said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia.

Republican House leader John Boehner has vowed to shut down the deal by whatever means necessary. A congressional override could effectively erase the progress made in Vienna, Kerry said, and could set back the administration's efforts against Iran for years.

While he said that the U.S. would still be prepared to use military action to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb, Kerry said the new deal will accomplish that peacefully, without having to rely on "trusting" Iran.

"We're presuming Iran is going to change its behavior," Royce said of the agreement.

"No, we're not," replied Kerry.

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