US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies Dec. 10 before the House Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. (Jim Watson / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry might have thought his biggest challenge would be extracting a deal with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to end that country’s nuclear weapons program. But it looks like he might be wrong: Congress is now looking to step into the middle of the negotiations, a move that Kerry says could have a catastrophic effect on his ability to come to a final deal.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday, Kerry faced bipartisan criticism for the initial deal to begin restricting Iran’s nuclear program struck last month, as well as bipartisan support for legislating further sanctions on the country.
But Kerry repeatedly warned that any such move could jeopardize international support for negotiations, as well as Iran’s willingness to deal, in the face of committee members pointing to the use of sanctions in the past as an indicator that further sanctions will help.
“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs, and that includes asking you, while we negotiate, that you hold off imposing new sanctions,” Kerry said.
“We put them [past sanctions] in place for a purpose. The purpose was to get to this negotiation.”
Throughout a number of lively exchanges, Kerry’s message remained that he didn’t know if negotiations would succeed, if Iran was serious in its interest in real compromise; regardless, he wanted a chance to make negotiations work.
While Kerry may have spent the day verbally jousting with those in the House, it’s the Senate he needs to be worried about. Some in the upper chamber are considering taking up a previously passed House bill that would create new sanctions on Iran, although its unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would allow a vote.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, foreign affairs committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., outlined a plan to pass a bill in the Senate that would not make the sanctions take effect until after the six month negotiations window created in the initial agreement with Iran.
“We’re not talking about putting new sanctions in place now, we’re talking about having something of reference that will be a bill in advance to make certain that Iran begins to comply with the very agreement that it just signed,” Royce said.
Democrats and Republicans alike described passing new sanctions designed to take effect at the end of the negotiating window as a means to give Kerry further leverage in final negotiations.
“I think it could potentially strengthen your hand with a good cop-bad cop scenario,” Rep. Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., said in response to Kerry’s concern about new sanctions.
Kerry didn’t seem to want the help, repeatedly saying that further sanctions — even if not set to take effect for some time — would hurt negotiations because the administration had promised not to add sanctions during the six-month period. Breaking that promise would bother US negotiating partners, the so-called P5+1 that includes the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, as well as undermine the basis for compromise with Iran, he said.
“I don’t want to give them an excuse or any other rationale for upping the ante,” Kerry said. “We have an obligation to give these negotiations an opportunity to succeed. And we can’t ask the rest of the P-5-plus-1 and our partners around the world to hold up their ends of the bargain if the United States isn’t going to uphold its end of the bargain. If we appear to be going off on our own tangent and do whatever we want, we will potentially lose their support for the sanctions themselves. Because we don’t just enforce them by ourselves. We need their help.”
Kerry emphasized that if the talks fail, the administration would be behind subsequent new sanctions, and that no military option would be off the table.
“We will be the first ones to come to you if this fails to ask you for additional sanctions,” he said.
While much of the debate centered on the possibility of new sanctions, there was a healthy dose of criticism as well focused on the fact that the administration is permitting some residual uranium enrichment provided the enrichment does not yield purities that could be used for weapons. Some seemed upset that congress hasn’t been part of the process.
“You’re asking us to be asleep and do nothing while 9,000 centrifuges turn and a new uranium stockpile is created,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said.
Kerry said that given enrichment itself isn’t banned by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), expecting a total elimination of enrichment activity was unrealistic.
“Sanctions are not gonna produce capitulation, and I think that’s part of the calculation here,” he said. “In any negotiation, and you all know this because you negotiate around here every day, you can have a wish list and you approach it from a UN Security Council resolution point of view and say, well, this is where we’d like to be, but then there’s the question of where you can really be.”
Prior UN Security Council resolutions that condemned enriching were mentioned several times, with representatives saying nothing should be agreed to unless Iran abided by that standard.
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has criticized the initial agreement, including citing the failure to comply with the resolutions. That dissent — or what Kerry called a “difference in tactics” — has been very influential on some Democrats in Congress, likely responsible for a part of the willingness to break with President Barack Obama on the administration’s negotiating stance.
Kerry questioned whether sticking to the old standard was a good idea.
“What did they get you? What did those decades of resolutions get you?,” he asked.
Other members expressed their concern about whether the US can trust Iran in negotiations, but Kerry said that trust wasn’t part of his thinking.
“Nowhere, nowhere, not once today, nothing that I said intimated in any way whatsoever a benefit of any doubt,” he said. “I sat here and said we’re skeptical. I sat here and said they have to prove it. I sat here and said we’re going to test them. I said we’re not going to mention the word trust. This is based on testing and verification.”
But despite the skepticism, Kerry emphasized just how important an opportunity he thought was at hand.
“Let me be very clear, this is a very delicate diplomatic moment and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today, with gigantic implications of the potential of conflict.”