(USA TODAY) Secretary of State John Kerry told skeptical members of Congress on Tuesday that the interim deal signed with Iran last month makes the USA and its allies safer than they were before the the deal was signed.
"The national security of the United States is stronger under this agreement than it was the day before" and so is Israel's and Saudi Arabia's, Kerry told the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry said he and President Obama are committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and the interim agreement "halts the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and rolls it back in certain areas," he said.
The goal, he said, is to see if it improves the chances of reaching a comprehensive agreement. In the meantime, Iran's nuclear program will not move forward, he said.
The deal Kerry signed last month obligates the United States not to impose new sanctions during the six-month period of the deal. The House of Representatives already passed tougher sanctions in July, and the Senate is considering a new sanctions bill that would go into effect after the six-month interim deal expires.
"We'll do sanctions tied to the end game where the relief will only come if they stop the enrichment program, dismantle the reactor and turn over the enriched uranium," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN Monday.
Javad Zarif, Iran's Foreign Minister, told Time magazine this week that "the entire deal is dead" if Congress passes new sanctions now.
"We do not like to negotiate under duress," Sharif said. "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."
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said he has "serious concerns" that the agreement with Iran "does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies."
"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," Royce said. "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."
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., in a statement handed to reporters, said the interim deal "will effectively freeze Iran's nuclear program" is better than the status quo, "which allows Iran to freely pursue its nuclear ambitions away from the prying eyes of the international weapons inspectors."
Rep. Eliot Engel of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, however, said that the interim deal allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium, which he said raises important questions.
"If Iran retains any enrichment capacity how can we be sure the final deal, will prevent them from having a breakout capacity?" Engel said.
Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates all oppose the deal, Engel said. "They're the ones closest to it, why is that the case?"
The comprehensive deal should prevent Iran from achieving a breakout capacity, Engel said. "Any deal that doesn't achieve that goal will be a devastating failure."
The interim deal requires Iran to stop producing nuclear fuel that is close to weapons grade, and to dilute or convert its stockpile of near-weapons-grade uranium to a form that would be harder to turn into fuel for a bomb. Iran also agreed not to install key components in its Arak nuclear reactor, which is under construction and would produce plutonium when operational, another fuel that can be used in bomb making. Iran also agreed to allow inspectors additional access to the Arak facility and other facilities to assure the international community that its nuclear program has peaceful aims as Iran claims.
World powers and the USA agreed to ease some sanctions on Iran by giving it access to some of its assets that have been frozen in foreign countries. The White House has said Iran gets about $7 billion worth of relief. But Iran is not required under the deal to dismantle any of the industrial scale infrastructure it has built over the years for producing nuclear fuel.
The USA and its allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, suspect Iran is developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of the Iranian program point at Iran's development of long-range missiles and ICBMs, and suspected covert weapons experiments that have not been explained. These fears helped galvanize an international sanctions regime to pressure Iran to clarify its nuclear intentions, which crippled its economy and helped bring it to the negotiating table.
Royce, in opening statements issued Tuesday morning, said "the key issue is whether a final agreement would allow Iran to manufacture nuclear fuel."
"Unfortunately, the interim agreement reads "yes," it will," Royce said. "My concern is that we have bargained away our fundamental position, which is enshrined in six U.N. Security Council Resolutions -- that Iran should not be enriching and reprocessing -- in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran's misuse of these key nuclear bomb-making technologies."
Royce listed signs that Iran intends to further refine its nuclear fuel making program, and that it remains a threat to the West. Iran announced plans just a few days ago to improve its centrifuge technology to enrich uranium. It has said since signing the interim agreement that it will continue construction at the Arak reactor. It continues to support terrorism and radical groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
And Iran continues to plan "Death to America" rallies, repress its own people, and threaten Israel, Royce said.
And despite its claims to the contrary, the Obama administration appears to have signed on to an interim agreement that gives Iran the right to produce nuclear fuel, in a process called uranium enrichment, that Iran has been seeking, Royce said.
"While I have heard the (Obama) administration say Iran has no right, it's a moot point if an agreement permits enrichment, giving Iran a de facto 'right,'" he said.
"We are facing an immoral and very dangerous regime in Iran, one nearing a nuclear weapon. I am hard pressed to understand why we'd be letting up sanctions pressure at the very time its economy is on the ropes without getting an agreement which stops its centrifuges from spinning," Royce said.
State Department spokeswoman Psaki said adding new sanctions now risks not only a reaction from the Iranians, but a collapse of the six-country coalition known as the P5+1 that's been dealing with Iran on the issue. The countries are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the USA, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China - all nuclear powers - and Germany.
"Our purpose is to maintain the unity of the P5+1," Psaki said.
"We always have the option of putting additional sanctions in place" if Iran doesn't live up to its obligations, she said. "The issue now is creating the best environment for moving this diplomatic process forward."
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