WASHINGTON – Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., bluntly told Secretary of State John Kerry, "I believe you've been fleeced," during the opening moments of a hearing on the nuclear deal with Iran.
In his opening statement Thursday, Corker exposed a glaring flaw in the Obama administration's logic in selling the deal to Congress.
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The senator observed how Kerry has recently claimed, over and over, that if Congress rejects this deal, the only option is war.
But just a few weeks ago Kerry had insisted that "no deal was better than a bad deal."
Corker wondered, would that have meant war, too?
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The chairman told Kerry he couldn't have it both ways.
Of tremendous significance, Kerry insisted he "never uttered the words anywhere, anytime" regarding inspections of Iran's facilities, and claimed it was never part of negotiations.
That's not what the Obama administration said in April, and it directly contradicted what Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes promised back then, when he said the International Atomic Energy Agency would have immediate access to any Iranian nuclear site.
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Rhodes has since flip-flopped and directly contradicted himself.
On April 6, he said, "Under this deal, you will have anywhere, anytime, 24/7 access as it relates to the nuclear facilities that Iran has."
On July 14, he said, "We never sought in this negotiation the capacity for so-called anytime, anywhere" inspections.
Secret side deal
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Kerry's fellow witness, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, made the astonishing claim that the U.S. hadn't really made an agreement with Iran on inspections, and essentially admitted the administration had no idea how they would be conducted.
That was the result of a series of exchanges that began with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asking Kerry if it was true that Iran would be providing the samples for international inspectors.
In reference to a recently revealed secret side deal kept hidden from Congress, Kerry said the issue of samples would be part of a confidential agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
Menendez replied, "If that is true, it would be the equivalent of the fox guarding the chicken coop.”
Kerry said the administration had confidence in the IAEA.
But Corker complained that Congress did not even have a copy of the agreement to ascertain whether the inspection process would be effective.
"We want to see it," chimed in top committee Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., asked, "Why is it secret?"
Kerry said that is the IAEA's normal process.
Johnson shot back, "Iran is not a normal nation."
He asked, "Why did you approve this side deal?"
"It wasn't my decision," was all Kerry could offer.
Moniz said, actually, there was no side deal because an agreement between the IAEA and Iran would be "the" deal.
He claimed the deal, and the entire point of the negotiations, was simply to get the IAEA to the table with Iran.
That implied the only thing the administration's deal had accomplished on the most crucial aspect of the agreement, compliance, was to let inspectors and Iranian negotiators figure out for themselves how Iran's nuclear program would be monitored.
"Ultimately we rely upon IAEA" to figure out inspections details, claimed Moniz.
Shockingly, that was not just a far cry from the administration's promise in April of "anywhere, anytime" inspections, it was an apparent admission the Obama team had no idea how inspections would be conducted.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., basically accused Kerry of deceiving Congress and the public on inspections.
He admonished the secretary of state for creating the perception among Democrats and Republicans that the administration was pursuing "anywhere, anytime" inspections, while now claiming that was never the case.
Because the administration appeared to have "repeatedly capitulated" to Iran, Rubio called the deal "fundamentally and irreparably flawed.
Kerry "acted like Pontius Pilate"
Appearing on MSNBC before the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is not on the committee, charged that Kerry had "acted like Pontius Pilate" by agreeing to the side deals, implying the secretary of state's actions were similar to those of the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice acknowledged the existence of secret side-agreements on Wednesday.
"We're satisfied with them, and we will share the contents of those briefings in full in a classified session with the Congress," she said. "So there's nothing in that regard that we know that they won't know."
But Cotton accused Kerry of "knowing that Congress would not get this information unless someone went out to find it."
"So unless Congress gets the contents of these agreements and knows, for example, how the IAEA plans to inspect the Parchin military site, I don't see how any member of Congress could vote for this deal, because it's based on verification and inspection," he added.
"And without that information, I don't see how we can trust the government of Iran."
"Huge safety cushion"
Kerry claimed the deal gives the world a "huge safety cushion" against Iran developing a nuclear weapon while the 10-year agreement is in effect, but many senators were skeptical that the details he described backed that up.
Under the deal, he maintained, the world would have one year's notice if Iran moved to build nuclear weapons.
Kerry said that was "lots of time."
He justified the entire deal as an improvement on the "two-to-three months" notice that intelligence services currently estimate they would get if Iran were to build a bomb.
In other words, Kerry justified the numerous and sweeping concessions the administration made to Iran because the world would have a few more months notice in case Iran "breaks out" to develop nuclear weapons.
That was also despite the fact the deal does nothing to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons after 10 years.
Deal not a treaty?
By putting the onus on Congress to pass a bad deal, Corker said, the Obama administration had ensured that Iran was no longer a pariah.
Furthermore, Corker observed, Congress would now be portrayed as the pariah, if it does not approve what he insisted was a bad deal.
However, Corker failed to note it was his own bill that now may make it tremendously difficult for Congress to stop the deal.
International treaties must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate.
But, President Obama simply refused to call the agreement a treaty, and, instead, called it a deal.
Thus, he claimed, perhaps the most significant arms-control deal in history was not a treaty, and therefore did not require congressional approval.
To attempt to counter that, Corker sponsored a bill that requires the administration to get congressional approval for the deal.
However, if Congress rejects the deal, Obama could simply overrule that objection by vetoing the bill.
That means, the burden of proving the merit of the deal had shifted from the president to Congress.
Instead of the deal requiring two-thirds of the Senate to approve the deal, it will now take two-thirds of Congress to stop the deal, in the form of overriding a presidential veto.
Congress has 60 days to review the agreement.
Sen. Johnson bluntly told Kerry the administration had "undermined Congress" by calling it a deal and not a treaty.
Kerry simply replied, "This is a deal."
"It's much more than that," shot back Johnson.
New line crossed
Corker left no doubt that he thinks it is a bad deal that must be stopped.
During his opening statement, Corker made the grave charge the administration had "crossed a new line" by allowing a state sponsor of terror to develop a nuclear program.
He called it inexplicable that the deal also removes:
- a missile embargo on Iran in eight years
- a conventional arms ban in five years
- a ban on missile testing immediately
Menendez said he was seriously concerned about the eventual lifting of the arms embargo because the text of the deal no longer used the mandatory language that Iran "shall not" be allowed to deal in conventional weapons, but merely stated the country "is called upon" to not do so.
Kerry simply denied there was any difference in the language.
In his opening statement, a noticeably combative and defensive Kerry shot back against critics of the accord, saying a "better deal" existed only as "some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran's complete capitulation."
"That is a fantasy, plain and simple, and our intelligence community will tell you that," claimed the secretary.
Kerry insisted it was too late to get a better deal because, "The fact is that Iran now has extensive experience with nuclear fuel cycle technology."
"We can’t bomb that knowledge away. Nor can we sanction that knowledge away."
However, a complete halt of Iran's nuclear program was the administration's own stated goal when negotiations began.
Kerry adamantly claimed the administration of President George W. Bush had proposed the same exact deal as the one Obama struck, in recognizing Iran had a right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and in providing technical and financial assistance to the Islamic Republic in return for improved relations.
As the secretary of state launched into a list of ways he claimed Bush sought to normalize relations with Iran, Corker cut him off, saying, "You're filibustering."
Corker then corrected Kerry, saying his claims were not true, because the crucial difference was that the Bush administration never considered agreeing to let Iran continue to enrich uranium, which is what the Obama deal does.
Kerry acknowledged that was true.
Menendez said the deal would give Iran an "industrial level program with (uranium) enrichment" capabilities and that the administration had failed to appreciate Iran's history of deception.
As a result of the deal, he said, it was up to the world to prove that Iran was not employing dual-use technology to build weapons, and taking the burden of proof off of Iran.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said Kerry had been "bamboozled."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., assured Kerry that if he had been "bamboozled, the world was bamboozled."
But Risch warned, "Anyone who believes this is a good deal joins the ranks of the most naïve people on earth."
Kerry repeatedly defended the deal on the grounds that sanctions could be snapped-back into place if Iran were found in violation.
Rubio retorted that the Iranians were already "bragging" that snap-back would be impossible.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., perhaps the least confrontational Republican to question Kerry, lamented, "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."
Furthermore, stated Rubio, all of Iran's promises to not develop a nuclear weapon were clearly lies, because there could be no other purpose for Iran to be simultaneously developing long-range missiles capable of "reaching this very room."
The senator scolded the administration for not including in the deal the return of four American hostages held in Iran, saying the only people the accord helps are the Iranians "who want to destroy Israel."
Kerry warned the United States would be isolated if the deal is not approved.
"If the U.S., after laboriously negotiating this multilateral agreement with five other partners, were to walk away from those partners, we’re on our own," he warned.
However, Rubio, who is running for president, asserted the world should be put on alert that this was Obama's deal, not America's.
"Even if this deal narrowly avoids congressional defeat, the Iranian regime and world should know this deal is your deal with Iran, meaning yours – this administration – and the next president is under no legal or moral obligation to live up to it," said the senator. "The deal can go away the day president Obama leaves office."
Kerry responded, "I am confident that the next president of the United States will have enough common sense that if this is being applied properly, if it’s being implemented fully, they’re not just going to arbitrarily end it."
He then attempted to belittle critics by declaring, "If you think the ayatollah’s going to come back and negotiate again with an American, that’s fantasy."
Kerry even suggested it was American, not Iranian, credibility on the line because if the deal were to be discarded, "[W]e will have proven we’re not trustworthy.
Sen. Johnson asked the energy secretary if he was aware of the 2008 congressional commission report that concluded an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attack would kill up to 90 percent of the U.S. population within a year, by knocking out the U.S electric grid with the explosion of just a single nuclear bomb over the American heartland.
To the senator's amazement, Moniz replied he had not.
Johnson asked if Moniz was aware that Iran had practiced EMP attacks with simple scud missiles.
He was not.
Johnson said that alarmed him, especially in light of the details of the Iran deal, because in the seven years since the congressional report, "we have done nothing to protect ourselves" against the EMP threat.
"We better start now," the senator concluded.
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth