Updated Nov. 24, 2013 1:01 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—Secretary of State John Kerry tried Sunday to rally support for a six-month deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program in the face of lukewarm reaction from congressional allies and hostility from critics.
The pact, announced hours earlier, calls for Iran to stop its production of near-weapons grade nuclear fuel—which is uranium enriched to 20% purity—and for the removal of the fissile material, which is estimated to be nearly enough to produce one nuclear bomb. Iran would gain relief from some Western economic sanctions that U.S. officials believe will provide between $ 6 billion and $ 7 billion in badly needed foreign exchange for Tehran.
“We make sure that these sanctions don’t get lifted in a way that reduces the pressure on Iran,” Mr. Kerry said on CNN’s “State of the Nation.” “The Iranian nuclear program is actually set backward and is actually locked into place in critical places.”
Secretary of State John Kerry details the main points of an agreement with Iran that eases economic sanctions in return for halting progress on its nuclear program. Photo: AP
Calling the agreement the U.S. and five other countries struck with Iran an “historic mistake,” Israeli leaders speak out against the deal and continue a call for dismantling Iran’s nuclear program. Photo: AP
The first test will be whether Congress presses ahead with a new round of broader sanctions, despite the administration’s entreaties. The U.S. House of Representatives has already voted for such an effort. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) last week said that he was prepared to hold a Senate vote when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess, citing skepticism about the trustworthiness of Iran. A spokesman didn’t reply to questions about whether the new diplomatic deal would change those plans.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) suggested that the Senate could still move ahead with a vote on tightening sanctions, saying any legislation would probably give the Obama administration six months to reach a final deal before imposing new sanctions on Iran. He said the new sanctions would become available immediately if talks falter or Iran breaches the interim agreement.
“In my view, this agreement did not proportionately reduce Iran’s nuclear program for the relief it is receiving,” Mr. Menendez said in a written statement. “Until Iran has verifiably terminated its illicit nuclear program, we should vigorously enforce existing sanctions. I do not believe we should further reduce our sanctions, nor abstain from preparations to impose new sanctions on Iran should the talks fail.”
Lawmakers took to the airwaves Sunday morning to question whether the deal would work, with some suggesting that the Obama administration had made a strategic miscalculation.
“Instead of easing them, now is the time to tighten those sanctions,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) on ABC’s “Face the Nation.” He predicted that “you’re going to see a strong movement in the U.S. Senate to move ahead to tighten sanctions,” even if the new deal meant that legislation would have to be worded in a way that accounted for the six-month deal. He said that the Obama administration can move ahead with the deal without the approval of Congress.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” expressed skepticism about the deal on “Fox News Sunday,” saying “I think we all greet it with skepticism.” He said that the arrangement suggested that Iranian officials “view this administration as weak,” and “see this as their window of opportunity to negotiate with an administration that has shown that it really doesn’t have a lot of the intestinal fortitude that other administrations have had.”
“I have serious concerns that this newly announced deal will not stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) in a written statement. “The current sanctions regime that Congress insisted on is what got the Iranians to the table. We need to keep the pressure on to force the Iranians to agree to a deal that ensures our security and that of our allies—one that verifiably dismantles their nuclear-weapons program.”
In a sign of the tension with Congress, the Obama administration’s Democratic allies offered only tepid support for the deal. Many Democrats left open the possibility that Congress should still tighten sanctions. In general, Congress believes that the current sanctions are what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, and lawmakers recall how the Obama administration fought off the last round of sanctions in 2011, even those now seen as bolstering its negotiation position.
“I think this is a marginal improvement,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), the House minority whip, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Mr. Hoyer said that he believed the Senate should still move ahead with a vote on tougher sanctions on Iran that mirrored legislation already passed in the House, but that the U.S. should hold off implementing them for six months so that they could serve as a warning to Iran and an incentive to reach a final deal.
“The agreement, by its terms, indicates that progress must be made during the next six months to have a more permanent elimination of Iran’s capacity to produce a nuclear weapon,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If not, the sanctions are reimposed. And I think Congress will be watching this very closely. So no, we will not stand by and just let this be the final deal,” he said.
Mr. Kerry and other Obama administration officials have repeatedly asked Congress to delay tightening sanctions, hoping to give negotiations a chance to work. After the deal, President Barack Obama, announcing the pact late Saturday, urged Congress to continue to wait. “Now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions—because doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place,” he said. On Sunday, Mr. Kerry built on those efforts, saying that the deal was a pragmatic solution to a thorny dilemma and was a step toward a broader goal of dismantling an Iranian nuclear weapons capability that Iran has denied it is trying to achieve.
“This negotiation is not the art of fantasy or the art of the ideal,” Mr. Kerry said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s the art of the possible.”
Itemizing the elements of the deal, Mr. Kerry said it would ban the installation of new centrifuges and require daily inspections of facilities, and remove fissile material. He said that waiting for a perfect deal would simply cost the West time, without producing any benefit. Lawmakers complained that the deal left too much wiggle room, including taking no steps to destroy or remove Iran’s estimated 19,000 centrifuges.
“Do you want to sit there and argue that you have to dismantle your program before you’ve stopped it? And while you’re arguing about dismantling it, they progress?” Mr. Kerry said on “This Week.” “You cannot sit there and pretend that you’re just going to get the thing you want while they continue to move towards a program that they’ve been chasing.”
Mr. Kerry said “we’ve actually succeeded through sanctions that Congress put in place to be able to get to a point where we’re locking in knowledgeably what their current level is and forcing them to go backward and while we go through these next six months, we will be negotiating the dismantling. We will be negotiating the limitations. But you can’t always start where you want to wind up.”