Kerry plays charades at Iran deal Senate hearing

Kerry plays charades at Iran deal Senate hearing
6 min read
24 Jul, 2015
Comment: Billed as a serious grilling over one of the most historic geopolitical agreements of recent years, the US secretary of state's appearance was more like a parlour game.
Kerry has come under fire, despite sealing an historic deal with an old 'enemy' [Getty]

With his arms slung over his crutches and flanked by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, the very tall US Secretary of State John Kerry walked out of the imposing Dirksen Senate Office Building - where he had to endure four and a half hours of gruelling, sometime absurd questioning by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Iran deal.

These hearings are of course nothing new for the indomitable Kerry.

He has been here many times before, fielding questions on the Iran nuclear negotiations, largely from contentious Republican members of the committee, who more often than not, parroted out talking points largely crafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

But as he walked out of the hearing on Thursday, Kerry appeared to keep his fellow Democrats largely in line to defend the deal against the Republican opposition, and a smattering of Democratic AIPAC diehards.

The hearing itself bordered at times on the ridiculous.

For example, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson (a former plastics business executive) took it upon himself to lecture Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (a nuclear physicist by trade) about the dangers of something called an Electromagnetic Pulse bomb - a staple of science fiction, and an age-old worry within certain right-wing groups who thrive on conspiracy theories.

     Until recently, Iran has never been accused of wishing to acquire fictitious weaponry.

Until recently, Iran has never been accused of wishing to acquire fictitious weaponry.

It behooves us to note that Moniz is the former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Physics Department and in all likelihood would know voluminously more about EMP probabilities than Johnson could ever muster.

The July 23 hearings discussed the deal put together by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Russia, UK, France and China - plus Germany (making the P5+1 group) and signed with Iran in Vienna on July 14.

The deal would end Iran's aspiration to become a weapons-grade nuclear power, in exchange for lifting the international economic sanctions imposed in 2006.

"The choice we face is between an agreement that will ensure Iran's nuclear programme is limited, rigorously scrutinised and wholly peaceful or no deal at all," Kerry told senators.

He told them that there was no "unicorn" or "fantasy" alternative if the US were to reject the deal, which he insisted time and again, will keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

"If the US, after laboriously negotiating this multilateral agreement with five other partners, were to walk away from those partners, we're on our own," he said.

A rejection would effectively be "a great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment, proceed full-speed ahead with a heavy water reactor, install new and more efficient centrifuges, and do it all without the unprecedented inspection and transparency measures that we have secured".

However, almost all Republicans - and a number of Democrats - believe that the "Vienna Iran deal" still provides Iran with "a path to a bomb".

Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Republican, from the State of Tennessee), said that the US had been "fleeced", and accused Kerry of having "turned Iran from being a pariah, to now Congress being a pariah" in the course of reaching this agreement.

Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is also seeking his party's 2016 presidential nomination, petulantly threatened that the next president could decide to overturn the deal - because it was not a binding treaty.

Rubio reiterated the points made in the famous letter he signed, along with 46 other Republican Senators, last March - addressed to "The Islamic Republic of Iran" and disavowing any obligation of the next US president to adhere to any deal reached by the Obama administration.

Of course, this rather assumes that a Republican would be elected to the presidency.

Read more: "Gulf Arabs should welcome the nuclear agreement with Iran," writes Miriam Lowi

The junior Republican senator from Idaho, Jim Risch, was even more crude.

"You guys have been bamboozled," he incredulously lamented. 

He scolded Kerry, the United States' most senior diplomat: "Anyone who believes this is a good deal joins the ranks of the most naïve people in the world."

Some Democrats competed to be even more hostile than their fellow Republicans.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee - and who is currently facing corruption charges that may send him to prison - complained that neither Congress nor Israel were closely consulted during the negotiations.

The non-consulting charge is partly true, because the Obama administration discovered that Israel was both directly spying on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, as well as getting information from its allies in the US Congress, resulting in the curtailment of information shared by the administration with both Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

     Anyone who believes this is a good deal joins the ranks of the most naïve people in the world.
- Jim Risch, junior Republican senator

Menendez, who is one of AIPAC's most loyal supporters is virulently opposed to the deal, laid out point-by-point AIPAC's reservations.

When Kerry tried to respond, the Senator replied testily: "I have limited time. You've been with the Iranians two years. I have seven minutes."

To be fair, some Republicans and a few Democrats asked legitimate somewhat serious and critical questions about how certain aspects of this deal might play out. How, in practicality, for example, would the P5+1 nations go about re-imposing sanctions if Iran cheats a few years down the road?

Or on the issue of possible surreptitious conduct of nuclear activities in sites not declared as nuclear sites by Iran - when it might take 24 days before IAEA inspectors could go in to inspect, and so on.

But by-and-large, it was all for show - and many of the questions posed by Republicans were not only disingenuous, but alarmingly ill-informed, and indicative of simply not comprehending details of the deal.

The whole exercise seemed a total charade.

Congress could vote against the deal at the end of the 60-day review, which Obama conceded to last April.

However, Obama has promised to veto such a vote. To do so, he'd need to round up a significant number of Democrats in order to sustain the veto. According to the constitution, Congress needs a two-third majority in both houses to override a presidential veto. That would require 291 in the House and 67 in the Senate.

So at the end of Obama's latest battle with Congress, it appears like that both houses of Congress will (most probably) vote the deal down; the Republicans almost unanimously.

This will guarantee Obama gets the veto stamp out of the drawer.

It remains unlikely that there are enough Democrats willing to break ranks with President Obama to over-ride his veto. And both parties know this as they gear to face-off in the looming presidential elections.

Said Arikat is the Washington bureau chief of the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.