Secretary of State John Kerry signed a landmark nuclear pact with Iran late last month. On Tuesday, he'll try to sell the deal to a skeptical Congress. It won't be easy.
President Obama and his top aides have spent weeks making the public case for the agreement in speeches, TV interviews and addresses to influential think tanks. Kerry's appearance before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will mark the first time a senior administration official faces lawmakers who have been harshly critical of the pact since it was announced in Geneva on November 24th -- and who are now looking for ways of rewriting it.
The White House says that the pact freezes or rolls back the key elements of Iran’s nuclear effort in exchange for roughly $7 billion in temporary relief from the punishing Western sanctions on Iran. Congressional critics, including the leadership of the House committee that will question Kerry Tuesday, argue that the deal gives Iran a significant economic boost without requiring Tehran to halt uranium enrichment or dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.
California Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is one of the most prominent opponents of the deal, which means that Kerry could be in for a tough ride Tuesday when he testifies before the panel.
"Under the agreement, the international community relieves the sanctions pressure on Iran while its centrifuges continue to enrich uranium," Royce said in a written statement. "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."
GOP aides expect Republican members of the panel to ask Kerry to detail precisely what nuclear-related activities will be halted or slowed under the deal. In particular, they are likely to point to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's recent comments that Iran would freeze nuclear-related work at its Arak plutonium reactor but continue construction there. Excavation and other modest construction work at the site isn't expressly prohibited by the new nuclear pact, but Royce and other critics have seized on the remarks as proof that Tehran is already trying to walk back a key concession.
Other lawmakers are likely to press Kerry about reports that Iran's oil minister has begun courting holding conversations with European energy firms about investing in the country's oil fields and launching other joint projects if the current restrictions are lifted. Last week, Italian oil company Eni and other European oil companies met with Iranian officials on the sidelines of an OPEC meeting in Vienna to discuss future prospects in the country. American companies haven't yet followed suit, but the enthusiasm of European companies could help critics argue that the deal is already eroding the bite of the sanctions and strengthening Tehran's position.
Iran-related hearings are always politically contentious, but Kerry's diplomatic outreach on Capitol Hill will have significant real-world impact as well. The White House is desperately trying to keep Congress from imposing new sanctions on Iran during while talks towards a broader nuclear pact continue over the next six months.
In a strange bedfellows alliance, both the administration and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani argue that any new punitive measures would scuttle the current deal and end the negotiations towards a final pact before they even really got underway.
Obama, speaking to the Brookings Institution Saturday, said that key U.S. allies might begin to lift the current sanctions on their own if there was a perception that Washington wasn't willing to engage in serious talks with the Iranians.
"One of the things we were always concerned about was that if we did not show good faith in trying to resolve this issue diplomatically, then the sanctions regime would begin to fray," Obama said.
Kerry will amplify that argument during his time on Capitol Hill this week, but it's not clear if his efforts will get much traction. Influential lawmakers in the House and Senate are crafting measures that would impose hard-hitting new sanctions on Iran in six months if the current talks don't result in a deal. Despite White House objections, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other powerful Democrats have expressed support for the bill. The House version has drawn the support of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
Kerry has been winning plaudits for his ability to sit down with a longstanding American adversary like Iran and finalize a deal that had eluded negotiators from both countries for more than decade. Defending the pact on Capitol Hill this week will put those diplomatic skills to the test once again.
Jamila Trindle contributed to this report.
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