Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the House Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday to defend the recent nuclear deal with Iran and to oppose new sanctions. He fielded questions from members of both parties about the terms of the deal, about Iranian human rights abuses, and about President Barack Obama’s handshake earlier in the day with Cuban leader Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in South Africa.
Kerry, borrowing from President Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify” strategy towards arms reductions with the Soviet Union, called the nuclear deal “test and verify.” He faced skeptical questions from both Democrats and Republicans, who suggested that the Iranian regime was not trustworthy. Kerry insisted that the testing regime contemplated under the agreement would detect–and therefore forestall–Iranian weaponization.
At times, Kerry struggled to answer questions. He claimed that Iran was “destroying” its highly-enriched uranium program as part of the agreement reached in Geneva last month. However, that is not the case–the highly-enriched uranium is merely being oxidized, a reversible process. He also claimed that “we will now have access to that secret, underground facility”–but that access is to be limited by the Iranian regime.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) challenged Kerry to defend President Obama’s handshake with Castro, and asked him whether the administration excused the human rights abuses of the Cuban regime. Kerry said that while the administration still considered the Castro regime to be abusive, the president was at an international event and could not avoid greeting other leaders, casting Obama’s handshake with Castro as spontaneous.
Kerry was stumped by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who asked Kerry why the Obama administration insisted on referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the “Supreme Leader.” Kerry claimed that “Supreme Leader” was “just his title”–ignoring the fact that previous U.S. administrations have avoided using the term, or even referring to Iran as the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” something Obama made a point of doing in 2009.
Kerry was also asked about Iranian human rights abuses, and specifically about the detention of American pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran. He said that the nuclear deal could not have been risked for the sake of that issue, and said that he could only divulge further information about the pastor in a classified briefing, implying, albeit weakly, that the Obama administration was trying to ease the pastor’s plight.
The Secretary of State tried to assure the panel that Iran “will not get a nuclear weapon while this president is President of the United States.” The real question, however, is not whether Iran will become a nuclear power under Obama, but whether it will become a nuclear power at all. And the main objection to the nuclear deal is that it buys Iran more time to develop its nuclear program–three years, evidently, on Obama’s watch.