US secretary of state John Kerry has warned sceptical politicians not to sabotage the contentious nuclear deal with Iran, insisting that it included strict inspections and other safeguards to deter cheating by Tehran.
Mr Kerry spoke for the second time in a week – part of the Obama administration’s all-out campaign to sell the accord – and picked up critical support for the deal from congressman Sander Levin, a strong supporter of Israel who referred to his Jewish background in announcing his decision.
“If Congress does not support the deal, we would see this deal die – with no other options,” Mr Kerry told the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a statement circulated by house minority leader Nancy Pelosi, leading the effort to round up Democratic support for the deal, Mr Levin said: “I believe the agreement offers the best option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Congress has begun a 60-day review of the international agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from sanctions stifling its economy.
All members must consider the deal, but it is especially a tough decision for those who have a large number of Jewish constituencies because Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “historic mistake”.
“Iran has cheated on every agreement they’ve signed,” said Ed Royce, the committee’s chairman. With Mr Kerry, energy secretary Ernest Moniz and treasury secretary Jack Lew waiting to speak, he asked if Tehran “has earned the right to be trusted” given its history.
Few, if any, new details emerged from the more than three-hour hearing. Some committee members asked the three officials questions, while others used their time to read lengthy statements in opposition. That left Mr Kerry visibly frustrated and several times he accused the members of misconstruing or misunderstanding the details of the agreement.
“Nothing in this deal is built on trust. Nothing,” he said.
Mr Kerry was asked what would prevent Iran from adhering to the agreement for a short time, and then, in effect, take the money and run towards building an atomic bomb.
He said that was not a likely scenario because the Iranian government was under pressure to improve the economy in a country where half the population is under 30 and wanted jobs.
And he defended the inspection protocol under the agreement, arguing that if Iran tried to develop a nuclear weapon covertly, the international community would know.
“They can’t do that. Because the red flags that would go off – the bells and whistles that would start chiming – as a result of any movement away from what they have to do” to meet their obligations under the agreement, Mr Kerry said.
Faced with Republican majorities in both houses, the administration’s objective was to line up enough support for US president Barack Obama among Democrats in what is all but certain to become a veto fight this autumn.
Congress is expected to vote in September to prevent Mr Obama from lifting sanctions imposed previously by politicians, a step that would probably cause Iran to walk away from the agreement.
Mr Obama has said he will veto any bill along those lines and Republicans will need a two-thirds majority in both houses to override his objections.
Apart from Mr Royce, the panel’s senior Democrat Eliot Engel expressed reservations about the plan, saying he had “serious questions and concerns about this deal”.
Mr Engel is a strong supporter of Israel, which vociferously opposes the agreement. Iran has said it wants to wipe out Israel.
The hearing unfolded as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, dispatched hundreds of its members to prod politicians against the deal.
On the other side of the issue, seven former US diplomats and State Department officials sent a letter on Monday to leaders in Congress urging them to support the pact.