Senators told Obama administration officials that they want a say in the outcome of negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
The talks with Iran, which have been extended until November, have been questioned by lawmakers of both parties. They say the U.S. and allies may settle for limited concessions that would let the Islamic Republic continue on a path toward developing a nuclear bomb.
“This entire thing is a disaster,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, which held a hearing on the Iran talks today. “This is a dangerous national-security failure in my opinion.”
Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, defended the talks and the interim agreement extending them, while promising to keep Congress informed of any final decisions.
“Although serious obstacles do remain, we are moving in the right direction,” Sherman, who has been a leading negotiator at the talks among Iran, the U.S. and five other nations, told the committee.
Under the interim agreement, Iran has agreed to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent -- a step toward the level needed for nuclear weapons -- and to accelerate elimination of its stockpile of such material, she said.
In return, Iran has won an easing of some sanctions, though most remain in place. The four-month extension of talks will give Tehran as much as $4 billion in sanctions relief, representing a fraction of its $360 billion gross domestic product, said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department.
“It appears to me what you’re saying is you’re going to do whatever it is you wish to do,” Corker said. “In essence, Congress is playing no role other than raising questions. I think that’s a major lapse in our responsibilities.”
Lawmakers also expressed frustration with talks that they said have dragged on without signs of a final deal, while giving Iran economic relief.
“I do not support another extension of negotiations,” said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s chairman. “At that point, Iran will have exhausted its opportunities to put real concessions on the table and I will be prepared to move forward with additional sanctions.”
While senators pushed Sherman to commit to ending the talks by Nov. 24, as currently planned, she stopped short of such a promise.
“It is very difficult to say what will happen in any given period of time,” Sherman said. “Our intent is absolutely to end this on Nov. 24 in one direction or another.”
Corker and other Republicans last week introduced a bill, S. 2650, requiring congressional review of any final accord with Iran, with the power to block a deal by reimposing any sanctions that had been lifted.
Corker also asked Sherman whether the administration would waive sanctions for Iran without seeking congressional approval. While sanctions can’t be eliminated without such approval, the president can issue a waiver by executive action.
When Sherman said Congress would be consulted about any waivers, Corker replied, “That is a zero commitment.”
‘A North Korea’
Rubio, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, said the Iran talks have been dangerous because the U.S. implicitly has recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium by allowing it to continue.
“Some day soon we will wake up to the reality that they have done a North Korea on us,” Rubio said of the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran says its program is solely for civilian use.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said the administration should be given a chance to see if diplomacy with Iran can work before considering other options.
“It’s worth a chance,” Boxer said. “We see how easy it is to go to war. We’ve seen that all over the globe. We need to resolve these issues and war is a last resort, not a first resort.”
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