U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned U.S. lawmakers that rejecting the Iran nuclear deal would give "a great big green light" to Tehran to accelerate its ability to obtain an atomic weapon.
Kerry told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 23 that if Congress "unilaterally" rejects the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, Washington will be "walking away from every one of the restrictions" on Tehran's nuclear program brokered by negotiators earlier this month in Vienna.
"The choice we face is between an agreement that will ensure Iran's nuclear program is limited, rigorously scrutinized, and wholly peaceful, or no deal at all," Kerry said. "That's the choice."
Kerry's testimony before the committee comes amid deep concern on Capitol Hill that Iran will try to evade nuclear inspectors and use billions from sanctions relief to further destabilize the Middle East.
In opening the hearing, committee chairman U.S. Senator Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) delivered sharp criticism of the terms of the deal between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany.
"Not unlike a hotel guest that leaves only with a hotel bathrobe on his back, I believe that you've been fleeced," Corker said.
Corker later offered a clarification softening his remark, saying he intended to convey that "we have been fleeced," not individual officials.
He said the deal represented an unprecedented step in American foreign policy, noting Iran's continued inclusion on the U.S. government's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"I believe that you have crossed a new threshold in U.S. foreign policy, where now it is a policy of the United States to enable a state sponsor of terror to obtain [a] sophisticated industrial nuclear development program," Corker said.
The White House is mounting a campaign to avert an attempt by Republicans in Congress to block the deal and shoring up support among skeptical Democrats.
Under the deal agreed on July 14, sanctions against Iran will be gradually lifted in return for Tehran accepting long-term curbs on its nuclear program.
U.S. President Barack Obama says the deal will "prevent" Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though critics in Congress warn that it will only slow Iran's nuclear development and embolden Tehran to support terrorism and sow trouble in the Middle East.
Obama bowed to pressure by lawmakers in May by giving Congress the right to review the Iran deal and possibly derail an agreement by passing a disapproval resolution that would remove the U.S. president's right to waive sanctions passed by Congress.
But he vowed on July 14 to veto any legislation that would prevent the deal's implementation.
A simple majority in the Republican-led Congress would be insufficient to override Obama's veto. This would require the support of a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate -- a formidable hurdle for opponents of the deal.
Even if congressional Republicans were to vote unanimously for a disapproval resolution, at least 43 Democrats in the House and 13 in the Senate would have to join them to trump Obama's veto power.
One prominent Democratic skeptic of the deal, Senator Bob Menendez, engaged in testy exchanges with Kerry during the hearing, which included testimony from two other top U.S. officials -- Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
At one point Menendez accused Kerry of interrupting him during his allotted time for questioning.
"I have limited time. You've been with the Iranians two years. I have seven minutes," said Menendez, the Democratic sponsor of the bill to bring the Iranian deal to Congress for a 60-day review.
Menendez said he is "concerned that the deal enshrines for Iran, and, in fact, commits the international community, over time, to assisting Iran in developing an industrial scale nuclear-power program complete with industrial-scale enrichment."
Kerry told the hearing that "sanctions did not stop Iran's nuclear program from growing steadily to the point it had accumulated enough fissile material to produce" 10 to 12 nuclear weapons.
"The alternative to the deal we have reached is not -- what I've seen some ads on TV suggesting disingenuously -- it isn't a 'better deal,' some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran's complete capitulation. That is a fantasy, plain and simple."
He defended the verification mechanisms in the deal aimed at ensuring that Iran is keeping its end of the bargain.
"If Iran fails to comply, we will know it. And we will know it quickly, and we will be able to respond accordingly by reinstituting sanctions all the way up to the most draconian options that we have today," he said. "None of them are off the table at any point in time."
He added that Iran has already "developed the ability to produce the fissile material for a bomb" and that the United States cannot "bomb" or "sanction the knowledge away."
"Remember: Sanctions did not stop Iran's nuclear program from growing steadily to the point that it had accumulated enough fissile material to produce those 10 nuclear weapons," Kerry said.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the committee's top Democrat, said he has yet to decide on how he would vote but voiced support for the concessions from Iran that U.S. negotiators had secured.
"Our negotiators got an awful lot, particularly on the nuclear front," Cardin told the hearing.
Should Congress pass a disapproval resolution and secure enough votes to override a veto by Obama, the White House would be unable to exercise its ability to wave most of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran, which could cripple the implementation of the deal.
In his testimony to the committee, Lew said the United States reserves the right to impose additional sanctions against Iran for "malign activities" if it deems that necessary.
Lew also said that Washington's international partners in the P5+1 who had negotiated the deal with Iran would "balk" if the United States asked them to continue to impose economic sanctions without implementing the diplomatic solution reached with Tehran on July 14.
Moniz told the Senate committee that the nuclear deal is "pretty hard-nosed" and "is not what Iran wanted."
He said "the deal is not built on trust" but on verification through "science and analysis. I'm confident that this is a good deal for America."
The United Nations Security Council has already backed the deal.
A small group of antinuclear activists greeted Kerry at the committee chamber wearing pink T-shirts that read: "Peace with Iran."
"Awesome job!" one of the activists shouted.