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Sec. Kerry Fiercely Defends Iran Nuclear Deal to Congress

by Halimah Abdullah /  / Updated 

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Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew fiercely defended the Iran nuclear deal as they faced tough questions from skeptical lawmakers Thursday.

In his first testimony before Congress since Iran and six world powers reached a historic accord curbing Tehran's nuclear program, Kerry denied criticism from Republicans that the U.S. was "fleeced" and "bamboozled" in crafting the deal. His appearance was part of the Obama administration's continued lobbying to build congressional support for the deal.

Kerry characterized the deal as the best way to help stymie Iran's nuclear program. Ahead of the hearing, Kerry and Muniz wrote an editorial for the Washington Post further underscoring the need for a nuclear deal with Iran.

Related: Imperfect Balance: Experts Say Iran Nuclear Deal a Step Forward

“The fact is that Iran now has extensive experience with nuclear fuel cycle technology,” Kerry told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We can’t bomb that knowledge away. Nor can we sanction that knowledge away."

He also warned that there is no "unicorn" or "fantasy" deal that is a better alternative.

"Pushing back against an Iran with a nuclear weapon is very different from pushing back against an Iran without one," Kerry said.

The deal still faces a vote in Congress, although it is unclear whether Republicans and some Democrats who object to the deal will actually be able to override the decision — and Obama has threatened to veto any attempt to reject the accord. Congress will have 60 days to review the agreement.

Related: Iran Nuclear Deal: What Happens Next?

A number of lawmakers — especially the panel's Republicans — seemed dubious of the Obama administration's assertion that the alternative to the Iran nuclear deal is war.

“Not unlike a hotel guest that leaves only with a hotel bathrobe on his back, I believe that you’ve been fleeced," said the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.

In one exchange and without mentioning his own name Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida repeatedly warned Kerry that the Iran nuclear deal "could go away when President Obama leaves office."

Kerry suggested such a president would lack “common sense.”

"I am confident that the next president of the United States will have enough common sense that if this is being applied properly, if this is being implemented fully, they're not just going to arbitrarily end it," Kerry said.

Some Democrats on the panel expressed similar skepticism.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat pressed Kerry with tough questions about whether the president is willing to "make a clear an unequivocal statement" that under no circumstance will Iran be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.

"The president has said very clearly under no circumstances will they be allowed to get nuclear weapon," Kerry said.

Then, as Menendez began to interject, Kerry said "senator if you want an answer."

"No, no, please I'm sorry I have limited time, you have been with the Iranians two years, I have seven minutes," Menendez said.

"I know, but it's worthy," Kerry responded.

The two had another tense exchange over the implications of the so-called "snapback" provision that will restore sanctions in 65 days if Iran violates the deal.

"If you're going to snapback, you have to snapback to something," Menendez asserted testily.

"But senator," Kerry interjected, "Senator, snapback is what gives you permission to come back..."

"Let me finish, Mr. Secretary please, don't eat up my time," Menendez insisted adding "It's next year! So I don't understand how we ultimately have a credible belief that snapback means something if in fact you are not going to have the ability to have those sanctions in place!"

Republican presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, was notably one of the least combative of the Republicans and several Democrats who questioned Secretaries Kerry, Lew and Moniz. Paul simply expressed skepticism regarding Iran's trustworthiness.

“I want to believe that we can have an agreement, but it troubles us that immediately the Iranians say the opposite of what we're being told,” Paul said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer indicated that while she does still have questions she did not appreciate the "disrespectful and insulting" tone of several of her Republican colleagues during their questioning.

Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin lauded the administration's efforts.

"Our negotiators got an awful lot," he said.

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