WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry defended an international deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program to skeptical lawmakers Tuesday, arguing that more sanctions and less dialogue would backfire and make Tehran only more likely to pursue weapons capabilities.
Mr. Kerry, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said voting for more sanctions now was "gratuitous" because Iran already stands to lose more than $30 billion in the next six months as a result of sanctions, compared with the $7 billion in sanctions relief it would get under the deal.
He added that his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, had boasted to him that Iran had managed to operate 19,000 centrifuges despite existing sanctions and international rebukes. "What do you get by not talking? You get closer to a bomb," Mr. Kerry warned the lawmakers.
Mr. Kerry's tone in the nearly two-hour hearing was alternately defiant and pleading as he lobbied Congress to scrap plans for more penalties on Iran during the first six-month phase of the agreement, which was brokered last month in Geneva by the United States and fellow U.N. Security Council permanent members China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom, plus Germany. Imposing deeper sanctions now, the secretary said, would send a signal to those partners that the United States wouldn't uphold its end of the deal.
Mr. Kerry also said such action would embolden Iranian hard-liners who oppose relatively moderate President Hasan Rouhani's overtures to the West, and only make the regime more intent on flouting international inspectors and going after a bomb. On the other hand, Mr. Kerry suggested, if all went well, there was an "outside chance" that a final, comprehensive nuclear deal could be reached even before the six-month mark.
"Let me be very clear: This is a very delicate diplomatic moment, and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today," he said.
It is uncertain whether Mr. Kerry was able to sway the lawmakers, but the administration's lobbying appeared to have resulted in at least one breakthrough Tuesday, with the Senate Banking Committee pledging to hold off on passing a new Iran sanctions bill, according to a statement by its chairman, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
"The president and Secretary Kerry have made a strong case for a pause in congressional action on new Iran sanctions, so I am inclined to support their request and hold off on committee action for now. I'll have more to say on this at Thursday's Banking Committee hearing," Mr. Johnson said in the statement reported by Politico.
Mr. Johnson's shift doesn't mean a green light for the Obama administration, however. A bipartisan bloc has drafted sanctions legislation to attach to the annual defense authorization bill, which could be put to a vote before Congress breaks for the holidays.
At the hearing, both Republicans and Democrats voiced a litany of similar concerns: that the deal jeopardizes Iran's archenemy, Israel; that there was no basis for trusting a pariah state that is deemed a sponsor of terrorism; and that the deal allows Iran to keep enriching uranium.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., went further than most of her fellow committee members, declaring the Geneva agreement a "bad deal."
Mr. Kerry said he had repeatedly assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the deal, that it was intended to be "fail-safe" and would reduce international fears because it calls for inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities that previously were top-secret and impenetrable. Iran maintains that its program is for peaceful purposes, such as electricity production and medical research.
In response to lawmakers' charges that the Obama administration was naive in trusting Iran, Mr. Kerry said the goal was to "test, but verify," a play on Ronald Reagan's mantra of "trust, but verify" during talks with the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Kerry added that the $7 billion in sanctions relief would come in installments, with the full measure available only after verification that Iran had kept its word to neutralize its higher-enriched uranium stockpiles, stop adding centrifuges and halt work at Arak, a heavy-water reactor that might be used to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon.