Testifying Before Senate, Kerry Vows That Iran 'Will Not Get a Weapon'

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, confers with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew while they appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gary Cameron/REUTERS

In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, John Kerry and administration officials defended the Iran nuclear agreement for the second straight day.

"They will not get a weapon," he said, as Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, directly asked the witnesses whether the deal would decrease the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran.

"We are better off with the agreement than without the agreement—forever," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Moniz said that without the deal in place, Iran would be in a position to acquire enough enriched uranium for a weapon within the next few months. Weaponizing the enriched material, he said, would take longer, but he did not specify a time frame.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the deal "does not eliminate all risk" of Iranian aggression but leaves the U.S. in a better position than it would be by walking away.

Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey were present in order to address the strategic dimensions of the deal, but Dempsey was reticent to elaborate on most of the questions, saying that his priority as a commander is to ensure that elected officials "have options," including military intervention.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, right, along with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gary Cameron/REUTERS

President Obama has stated that the alternative to the deal would be military action, which outraged Republicans. When Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa suggested that airstrikes might be preferable to a deal, Dempsey had to clarify that an airstrike, short of a full-out invasion, would still amount to an act of war.

"The reason the president talks about the possibility of war," Kerry said, "is that Iran has made it clear that if this is rejected, they consider themselves free to go back to enrich [uranium]," leaving them to pursue their nuclear ambitions as they have done before.

Do You Trust the IAEA?

For the first half of the hearing, Senators struggled to accept the idea that provisions for nuclear inspection would be dependent on a confidential document forged between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Iranian government. Because the IAEA is an independent agency, it has not made the full document available to the U.S. government.

"I find that astonishing," said committee chair John McCain, when Moniz admitted that he had not read the document.

Kerry, who says that his colleagues have been "briefed" on the contents of the IAEA's agreement, pointed out that the negotiations were conducted from an international standpoint. "The IAEA is an independent entity under the United Nations," Kerry said, adding that American legal precedent for acquiring information from the international community is unclear.

That didn't sit well with members of the committee, including several outraged Republicans. Senator Tom Cotton, arguably the most incendiary critic of the deal, compared it to "an NFL player taking his own urine sample to Roger Goodell [the NFL commissioner] for a drug test."

During the hearing, Kerry and the other officials were essentially trying to sell a bushel of apples to a committee looking to buy a basket of oranges. While a handful of questions from the Senators addressed the scientific and political details of the deal, most of the critics were questioning whether it is appropriate to negotiate with Iran at all, and advocated unilateral action.

Cotton took the stance of a trial lawyer, requesting that the committee display images of a Humvee on a projector. He prodded Kerry to answer for Iran's use of "fireballs traveling 6,000 feet per second," by which he meant bombs used by the IRGC—Iran's revolutionary guard—to attack armored vehicles. In previous statements critical of the deal, Cotton had compared Kerry to Pontius Pilate for supposedly bowing to the authority of the IAEA. During the hearing, he and Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate, tried to force Kerry to apologize for the deaths of servicemen at the hands of General Qasem Soleimani, a leader of the IRGC.


Substantive debate at the hearing revolved around sanctions against Iran. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said that only "nuclear sanctions" would be lifted in the agreement from Vienna, meaning that the United States would reserve the right to impose sanctions for supporting acts of terrorism. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, remained furious over the perception that the deal would green light aggression by extremists inside Iran. If Iran were to blow up a facility, attack an American embassy, or commit other violations that Sullivan says he expects "within the next 10 years," it would likely spell an end to any diplomatic agreement. According to Lew and Carter, these acts would constitute a "breach of the deal."

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter defended the deal's ability to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Gary Cameron/REUTERS

Most of the Republican Senators advocated increasing unilateral sanctions against Iran, which exasperated Kerry.

"To what end?" he said. "To negotiate?" Yesterday, Kerry told the House that this deal likely represented the U.S.'s last chance to strike a bargain with the current ayatollah.

Carter maintained that the deal might present the only opportunity to enforce America's will on a sovereign nation without bombings or invasion. Lindsey Graham, who exploded at Carter toward the end of the hearing, seemed to favor the latter.

"Who wins the war between the United States and Iran? Who wins?" he yelled. Carter was reduced to laughter during Graham's line of questioning, left without any room to maneuver.

"We win," said Graham, answering his own question.

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