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Kerry tries to allay congressional fears over nuclear deal with Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday sought to reassure nervous members of Congress about the interim agreement with Iran that’s designed to stop its progress toward building nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s nuclear programs will not move forward,” Kerry said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

Once implemented, “this agreement halts the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolls its back in certain places,” he told the committee. Kerry argued that the national security of both the United States and Israel will be stronger under the deal than it was before.

And he pointed to the Arak reactor in Iran which is designed to use plutonium, which in turn could be used to construct a bomb. Under the interim accord with Iran, that reactor is “frozen stone cold, where it is,” Kerry said, and “we’re actually going to have the plans for the site delivered to us.”

He said the $7 billion in sanctions relief for Iran under the interim deal “pales in comparison with the amount of pressure we’re leaving in place.”

The pressure of previously enacted economic sanctions is what brought Iran to the negotiating table, he said.

But “we now have the best chance we’ve ever had” to get a permanent accord with Iran and he urged Congress to hold off imposing new sanctions. “I’m just saying ‘not right now,’” he said, adding that “this is a very delicate diplomatic moment.” He said he did want to threaten the unity of UN Security Council members or give the Iranians an excuse to violate the interim agreement.

But in his opening statement, committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said “we may have bargained away our fundamental position, which is enshrined in six U.N. Security Council Resolution…that Iran should not be enriching and reprocessing (uranium). We may bargain that away in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bomb-making technologies.”

He also wondered “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 (used to enrich uranium) from spinning.”

The committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, voiced similar fears saying “I have serious reservations about the agreement.” Engel said the deal should have in effect said to Iran “while we’re talking, you stop enriching” uranium that might be used to build nuclear weapons.

Members of the committee in both parties seemed to be unconvinced by Kerry’s assurances about the interim accord. Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R-Fla., told Kerry the concessions to Iran will be “the death knell of sanctions.” Kerry replied, “In six months, the world will know whether I’m right or you’re right.”

Kerry also told a skeptical Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., that “the president is committed – if this fails – he is going to want to ratchet up” sanctions. “We are committed to asking you for additional sanctions” if Iran reneges on the interim deal.  

And Kerry said if the Iranian regime were to say “the hell with you” and expands its uranium enrichment, “we have the absolute capacity deployed now to deal with that” militarily and the United States could “terminate those (Iranian) facilities” and “set back their program for some time.” But he warned that military option “comes with whole different set of costs.”  

Kerry spoke to the panel the day before he heads to Jerusalem to confer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a harsh critic of the deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.

It’s not yet clear whether Kerry and President Barack Obama can persuade members of Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions legislation.

The House last July passed the Royce-Engel bill to impose more stringent sanctions on Iran by a vote of 400 to 20.

Earlier Tuesday Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D- N.J. said that “At some point soon there probably would be bipartisan (sanctions) legislation that would be offered and then we have to think about what the way forward is.” He said sanctions legislation would be introduced before the Senate adjourned for the Christmas-New Year’s holiday.

Menendez rejected the Obama administration’s argument that passing more sanctions against Iran now would risk unraveling the accord with the Tehran regime. “I respectfully disagree with the administration,” he said, adding that he and other sanctions supporters have in the past “been told that sanctions was not an appropriate vehicle or time and we found that it was, and we believe that it is again.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quoted in Time Magazine saying that if Congress were to pass new sanctions, "The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress.”

Menendez has proposed “prospective” sanctions that would be set to begin six months from the date of congressional enactment, but would give Obama some waiver powers. He has said such sanctions would “send a message to Iran, as it has throughout this process, that there is a consequence if you don`t strike a successful deal….”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that “putting new sanctions in place during the course of negotiations, even those that are delayed, would be counterproductive.” She argued that it could “put the negotiations that we have all worked so hard on that we believe is the best chance we've had in a decade to achieve a peaceful outcome at risk.”

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that in the two weeks remaining before adjournment, the Senate must complete work on a defense authorization bill and “address the issue of additional sanctions against Iran…..” But he did not say there would be a vote on a sanctions bill.