Secretary of State John Kerry to defend Iran deal to Congress

Secretary of State John Kerry, seen here speaking at the Saban Forum Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, is set to testify before Congress Tuesday to defend a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration takes to Capitol Hill this week to defend a recent deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Though President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have hailed the agreement as an important step toward the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran, they have been largely met by skepticism on Capitol Hill and the threat of fresh sanctions that could throw negotiations into a lurch. 

 Kerry will be the first top official to appear publicly before Congress with testimony to the House Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. He has been defending the deal since the day it was announced, arguing that the U.S. is in a better position if it is able to go into Iran’s nuclear facilities to see what is happening. The six-month agreement is meant to allow the U.S. and its negotiating partners in the P5+1 – Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – time to craft a long-term agreement.

But lawmakers say even the temporary deal won’t pass muster because it still allows Iran to enrich uranium, a material necessary for a nuclear weapon.

“I continue to have serious concerns that the agreement the Obama administration negotiated does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  "The deal does not roll back Iran’s nuclear program, but instead allows Tehran to keep in place the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability.” 

“This hearing will be an opportunity for Committee Members of both parties to press Secretary Kerry to explain why the Obama administration believes this sanctions-easing agreement is the right course.“

And Kerry won’t necessarily have allies in the committee’s Democrats, who are similarly wary of the deal.

"It would have been better if Iran during the course of the negotiations would stop enriching. I don't think that would have been too much to ask," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week after under secretary of state Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s lead negotiator on the deal, gave House members a classified briefing. 

"It makes me question the sincerity of the Iranians,” Engel said.

Sherman and Treasury official David Cohen are the other half of the White House’s defense of the deal, set to testify before the Senate Banking Committee Thursday.

Adding to pressure on the administration is the fact that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has indicated that his country would view new sanctions as a sign that “the entire deal is dead.”

“We do not like to negotiate under duress. And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif said in an interview with Time. “I know the domestic complications and various issues inside the United States, but for me that is no justification. I have a parliament. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney argued last week that new sanctions are unnecessary because the core of the program is still in place. Furthermore, he said that congressional action could undermine the deal by sending the message that the U.S. negotiated in bad faith. Mr. Obama has also been trying to reassure wary Israelis that the deal has not weakened their security.

“It is in America’s national security interests – not just Israel’s national security interests or the region’s national security interests – to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” the president said this weekend during a conversation at the Saban Forum with Haim Saban, an Israeli-American billionaire and prominent figure in the American Jewish community.

A Pew poll released Monday shows that congressional skepticism of the agreement with Iran extends to the American public as well. Forty-three percent of adults disapproved of the deal, while just 32 percent approved. Those doubts are rooted in a fundamental mistrust of Iran’s leaders. By a two-to-one margin, respondents who had at least some knowledge of the deal said the country’s leaders were not serious about curbing their nuclear program in response to international concerns.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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