WASHINGTON D.C. – The Obama administration put on a full-court press Sunday to defend the deal the U.S. and key allies struck to try to halt Iranâ€™s burgeoning nuclear program â€” but the White House faces a tough sell with members of Congress who criticized the terms and said theyâ€™ll still press for even tighter sanctions on the Islamic republic.
President Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the agreement a â€œhistoric mistake.â€ The American leader assured Mr. Netanyahu that the deal is just a first step, and that the U.S. remains firmly committed to Israelâ€™s interests.
But in Washington, many Republicans and Democrats shared Mr. Netanyahuâ€™s view, saying Iran gets far more than itâ€™s giving and that the deal only suspends, rather than ends, Iranâ€™s nuclear ambitions.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry defended the agreement, reached early Sunday morning in Geneva after months of secret negotiations, saying it gives Iran a six-month window to prove it is serious about freezing its weapons program. He also assured Capitol Hill that if the Islamic republic backslides, the world can reimpose stiff sanctions â€” and could resort to military action.
â€œYou canâ€™t get everything in the first step. You have to go down the process here,â€ Mr. Kerry said on CBSâ€˜ â€œFace the Nation.â€ â€œThe fact is that what weâ€™ve done is lock components of their program in place and actually roll some of them backwards.â€
Capitol Hill was less than convinced, with both Republicans and Democrats saying they feared the deal was laden with carrots and lacking in sticks.
â€œYou have now given them a permission slip to continue enrichment,â€ Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNNâ€™s â€œState of the Unionâ€ program.
And Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Obamaâ€™s track record doesnâ€™t give him confidence that this administration will be able to see through the agreement.
â€œThis administration is long on announcements but very short on follow-through,â€ the Tennessee Republican said on â€œFox News Sunday.â€
Congress is away from Washington for a two-week Thanksgiving vacation, but when it returns, the Senate has the critical defense policy bill pending.
There will be a major push by Republicans and some Democrats to add stricter sanctions on Iran to that legislation as a way of showing displeasure with the deal and trying to stiffen Mr. Obamaâ€™s spine in the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the two sides in the agreement will go back to the table to work out the next deal. The White House said Sunday afternoon that there is no set timetable for the next round of talks, though a spokesman said the administration is â€œeagerâ€ to get to work.
Sundayâ€™s deal was struck between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, which combined refer to themselves as the P5 plus 1.
Talks had apparently been going on for months, but kicked into a higher gear after Hassan Rouhani won Iranâ€™s presidential elections and took office in August after campaigning on a platform of a willingness to engage with the West.
The White House pointed out that Mr. Obama had campaigned in 2008 on engaging in direct negotiations with adversary nations including Iran, and said this deal was struck in that vein.
Late Saturday night at the White House, Mr. Obama said the tentative pact will â€œcut off Iranâ€™s most likely paths to a bombâ€ and that the United States and its partners will not proceed with new sanctions that would scuttle the deal.
Mr. Kerry said that the choice for the U.S. was between taking this deal, or waiting and potentially letting Iran progress further. He said the latter was the option the Bush administration took, and in the 10 years since, Iran went from fewer than 200 centrifuges to 19,000, putting the nation much closer to a weapon.
The six-month interim deal offers Iran relief from sanctions that will be worth billions of dollars to the regime, in exchange for granting access to Iranian nuclear sites and a promise by that nation to reduce its enrichment of uranium.
Israel and other critics of the deal had wanted any agreement to undo Iranâ€™s nuclear program.
Instead, the package rolls back but doesnâ€™t eliminate Iranâ€™s stockpile of enriched material by suspending all enrichment of uranium over 5 percent, and forcing the country to degrade its supply of 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran also agreed not to add any centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, to its supply, but it can replace those that become inoperable.
The nation also agreed not to begin operating the Arak reactor, which was considered to be a shortcut to the plutonium needed for a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Kerry said degrading Iranâ€™s capability means if the countryâ€™s leaders decided to break the deal and try to create a bomb, it would take longer to do it.
â€œThat means that whereas Iran today has about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium, they could readily be enriched towards a nuclear weapon. In six months, Iran will have zero â€” zero,â€ he said.
In return, the countries that imposed sanctions will allow Iran to sell oil and collect $4.2 billion on the sale, and will lower sanctions that restricted the import of gold and materials for some industries, such as automobile manufacturing.
Mr. Kerry said even with the sanctions that will remain in place, Iran will still lose $25 billion in oil revenue during the six-month period of the deal.
Opponents, though, said the deal walks back key U.S. demands â€” particularly in allowing Iran to enrich uranium.
They said the amount of time added to an Iranian â€œbreakout,â€ or production of a full bomb, has only been increased by several months. And they fretted that beginning to dismantle sanctions will make it harder to reimpose them â€” or to enhance them later â€” should Iran backslide.
â€œIran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions,â€ said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. â€œIt was strong sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought Iran to the table, and any reduction relieves the psychological pressure of future sanctions and gives them hope that they will be able to gain nuclear weapon capability while further sanctions are reduced.â€
Mr. Schumer said the terms of the deal are so bad that it actually makes it more likely than ever that Congress will pass legislation stiffening the sanctions on Iran.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest played down that possibility, saying that he believed Congress would hold off on stricter sanctions and give Mr. Obama room to operate.
He also said if the U.S. imposes deeper unilateral sanctions, if could fracture the front that Mr. Obama has worked to maintain, particularly with Russia and China.
â€œThe concern is that rather than capitalizing on the diplomatic window thatâ€™s opened up, doubling down on sanctions at this point would actually undermine the international coalition that weâ€™ve built,â€ Mr. Earnest said. â€œThat is why we have urged Congress to act strategically, as they have thus far, to bring pressure on the Iranian regime, to reach a diplomatic solution, but do that in a way that it doesnâ€™t actually undermine the broad international pressure thatâ€™s been brought to bear.â€