With a day of testimony on both sides of the Capitol Thursday to sell the Iran deal, Secretary of State John Kerry forcefully defended it amid sharp attacks and questioning mostly from Republicans.
Two presidential hopefuls, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, looked to capitalize on their chances to directly question Kerry before the television cameras. Rubio was particularly aggressive, as was Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., compared to Paul, who was far more subdued.
What You Missed: Senate Hearing on Iran Nuclear Deal
Rubio launched his line of questioning by reiterating his belief the administration was "capitulating" and saying the next president — presumably himself — could reimpose sanctions against Iran.
The Florida Republican grilled the panel about a provision that said the nations that negotiated the deal with Iran would help train Iran how to protect against against nuclear security threats, including sabotage.
Rubio asked if Israel or any other nation committed an airstrike or cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear program, would the U.S. be forced to help Iran defend itself.
“No,” Kerry said. "I don’t see any way possible that we’ll be in conflict with Israel."
Rubio focused on economics as well, forcing Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, another panelist, to confirm that any business that invests in Iran would likely be affected by sanctions if they were reimposed.
"It’s important for anyone in the world to know, that whatever investment they make in Iran, they are risking,” Rubio said, sounding much like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. "They are betting on the hope that Iran never violates the deal. And they are also hoping that the next president of the United States does not reimpose … sanctions by which they become a sanctioned entity."
Corker, meanwhile, decried Iran's support of Syria and terrorist groups.
"People's genitals right now are being amputated," Corker said. "People are being electrocuted in a prison in Syria that Iran is supporting."
Corker also took aim at the administration's narrative that it's "this deal or war" and said Western negotiators were "fleeced" in the deal.
Kerry said the only alternatives critics have posed to the deal are to get Iran to completely capitulate — what he called a "unicorn," or war, which would be less effective than a long-term inspections agreement.
"We're guaranteeing they won't have one," Kerry said on Iran getting a nuclear weapon.
Paul questioned the "simultaneous release” of the sanctions, stating that his preference would have been a phased reduction over a multi-year period. But Kerry noted the sanctions had served their purpose, in that they were designed to bring Iran "to the table to negotiate."
Paul also questioned recent comments from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Americans had not stopped Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
But Kerry was ready for that as well, responding that since Khamenei had issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons and was taking credit. Kerry added that Iranian negotiators "happily" added the provision that "Iran will never go after a nuclear weapon."
Kerry told Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., the deal would keep Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state if Iran complies with the deal.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., praised the diplomatic efforts, going so far as to say that the negotiations alone have stalled the Iran nuclear program.
"We had sanctions that were punishing their economy, but they were racing ahead on their nuclear program,” Kaine said. “Had you not started diplomacy, they were going to get a nuclear weapon, and you have forestalled that."
In recent weeks, Senate Republicans and some Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have repeatedly expressed concerns over lifting the conventional weapons and ballistic missile embargoes.
Menendez and fellow committee member, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., questioned Kerry about timing and necessity of the embargo lift, but Kerry said discussions over lifting the convention weapons embargo began almost immediately and that it was “slid in" at the “last minute” to the original U.N. resolution.
“In fact, the Iranians bitterly objected to it and felt it was being rammed at them in the context of a nuclear agreement and that it had no business being part of a nuclear agreement,” Kerry said.
Kerry also said the international coalition wasn't united on the point; three of the seven negotiating countries favored ending the arms embargo on day one, he said, suggesting that the five more years of the arms embargo and eight years for the ballistic missile embargo was a compromise.