Lawmakers come out swinging at first hearing on Iran deal

Updated

WASHINGTON—Republicans and Democrats in the House Tuesday voiced skepticism about the Obama administration’s proposed deal with Iran, offering more signals that the historic agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program will face criticism in Congress.

“The essence of this agreement is permanent concessions in exchange for temporary benefits,” Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during opening remarks at a hearing Tuesday morning.

The hearing, which was previously scheduled but fell on the day that President Obama announced that a deal had been struck overnight, featured sour remarks from committee members on both sides of the aisle.

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Much of the criticism targeted elements of the agreement’s timetable. Under the terms of the deal, Iran would dramatically limit its enrichment capacity during the next ten years, giving up most of its centrifuges. But lawmakers questioned what would come after ten years. 

“We might feel better if the United States was able to permanently constrain Iran’s worrying nuclear program,” Rep. Royce said, before turning to the ten-year provision. “Most Americans will take three times longer to pay off their mortgage,” he said.

Under law, Congress now has 60 days to review the deal before taking a vote. Congress could pass a joint resolution of disapproval, starting another 12-day clock which would give President Obama the chance to veto the resolution.

Speaking at the White House this morning, Obama said he would block efforts by congress to derail the deal.

“I am confident that this deal will meet the national security interest of the United States and our allies,” Obama said. “So I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal.”

Defending the deal against his critics, Obama said the US does “not have to accept an inevitable spiral into conflict.”

But blocking the deal remains the hope of some in Congress and other influential voices outside of it.

Former Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman, a witness at Tuesday’s hearing, sought to convince members of the committee that voting against the deal would not force the United States to resort to military force, a line of reasoning that he called a “false argument” meant, he said, to “demonize” opponents of the deal. 

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“Rejecting this bad deal will not result in war or the collapse of diplomacy,” Lieberman said. “It will give the administration a new opportunity to pursue a better deal.”

Lieberman called the agreement hammered out in Vienna by the United States and five world powers “not the good deal with Iran that we all wanted.”

But former Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a top State Department official in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told the committee that rejecting the deal would fray the coalition of world powers that put the deal together during marathon sessions in Austria.

The so-called P5+1 — the coalition of negotiating powers – includes the United States, the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany.

“I fear congressional disapproval would put us out on our own. Iran would profit from a break-up of this coalition,” Burns told the committee.

Burns called the deal “painful,” and acknowledged there were “trade-offs,” a remark that prompted the hearing’s only outburst.  

“No, no, I don’t want trade-offs. I just want answers,” California Republican Darrell Issa said, as he pressed the question of the ten-year restriction on enrichment of uranium.

“My answer is their nuclear program is going to be frozen for ten years,” Burns said.

Aside from Lieberman and Burns, the committee heard testimony from General Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, and Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Democrats called for lawmakers to resist making snap judgments on the deal, though many also indicated they have questions. 

“Much has been said about the nuclear centrifuges,” said Brian Higgins, a Democrat of New York. “This deal cuts them by two thirds.” Later, however, Higgins turned to the specter of a more emboldened Iran, and indicated he hoped the deal would encourage moderate voices.

Lois Frankel, a Democrat of Florida, said she did not want to simplify the details of the agreement, but called the sanctions relief built into the program an “anxiety point.”

“We’re going to give Iran billions of dollars to continue their terrorism,” Frankel said.

Grace Meng, a Democratic from New York, said she is “deeply disturbed and disappointed” by what appear to be the terms of the deal.

However, the sharpest language came from Republicans. 

Lee Zeldin, Republican of New York, told the committee he thinks the United States “got played.”

“I don’t need to wait 30 days or 60 days to decide that this is a bad deal,” Zeldin said. 

Congress, Iran, Nuclear and Nuclear Policy

Lawmakers come out swinging at first hearing on Iran deal

Updated