US secretary of state John Kerry has challenged critics of the nuclear deal with Iran, calling it “fantasy” to think the United States failed to hold out for a better deal at the bargaining table.
“It isn’t a better deal, some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation,” Mr Kerry told the Senate foreign relations committee.
He and other Obama administration officials were trying to make the case for approval of the accord that the US and five other world powers negotiated to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for concessions to limit the Islamic state’s nuclear programme.
The hearing marked a new phase of a bruising struggle that will lead to what will arguably be the biggest Senate foreign policy vote in more than a decade.
The deal will take effect unless Congress blocks it, and Republicans in control of the House and Senate have made clear they intend to try to do so in September.
President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any such bill. That would lead to a vote to override his veto, and the administration is searching for 34 votes in the Senate or 146 in the House, enough to assure the veto sticks.
Mr Kerry spoke as Senator Bob Corker and other Republicans spoke scornfully of the administration’s claim that the only alternative to the deal that was reached was a war with Iran.
“You’ve been fleeced,” Mr Corker, the committee chairman, said as Mr Kerry sat nearby at the witness table – although he later sought to soften his criticism by saying “we’ve been fleeced.”
Mr Kerry was joined by energy secretary Ernest Moniz, who sat across the table from Iranian negotiators in the talks, and treasury secretary Jack Lew, whose agency enforces many of the sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy in recent years as part of a strategy to force Tehran to the bargaining table.
The committee hearing turned contentious at times, particularly when Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, asked Mr Kerry a tough question – and Mr Corker interjected an answer. “You want to answer, senator?” Mr Kerry said tartly to the chairman, who had said that Iran would be allowed to develop ballistic missiles.
Mr Moniz also sought to parry Republican charges, including the claim that Mr Kerry had failed to achieve a goal of assuring inspections “anywhere, anytime” to see if Iran is cheating on the deal.
“Like Secretary Kerry, I did say the words ’anytime, anywhere,’ and I am very pleased that yesterday a member of your caucus acknowledged, however, that the full sentence was ”anytime, anywhere in the sense of a well-defined process with a well-defined end time.“
In his evidence, Mr Kerry read aloud from statements by past Israeli intelligence officials who praised the agreement, and said he expects Saudi Arabia will ultimately back the deal.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the agreement, saying it would set Iran, which denies his country’s right to exist, on a path towards obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Mr Kerry said that when the negotiations began, experts calculated that it would take Iran only two to three months to produce enough material for a bomb, the so-called breakout time.
“If the deal is rejected, we return immediately to this reality, except that the diplomatic support we have been steadily accumulating in recent years would disappear overnight,” he said.
The United Nations Security Council has already voted to lift the international sanctions in place, effectively accepting the deal that the US and other powers have struck with Iran. As a result, administration officials say the US would be left trying to enforce more limited sanctions, without the support of other nations that backed the earlier steps.