Republicans scoffed that the Obama administration was fleeced in the nuclear deal with Iran, as Secretary of State John Kerry retorted that critics were imagining a “unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation.”
The strong words on both sides reflected the high stakes as three members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. It was the first public testimony under Congress’s 60-day review of the agreement reached last week between Iran and world powers.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, the committee’s chairman, has promised to be an ‘‘honest broker’’ as lawmakers decide whether to vote against the accord. But he was sharp in his criticism on Thursday, saying the administration has “been fleeced” by Iran and now was falsely portraying the choice before Congress as “it’s this deal or war.”
Kerry responded emphatically, spurning the argument that the economic pressure of continued sanctions would bring Iran back to the bargaining table. If Congress blocked the accord, he said, Iran would rush forward with its nuclear program and international sanctions would collapse.
“The alternative to the deal that we have reached is not what I’ve seen some ads on TV suggesting disingenuously,” Kerry said. “It isn’t a, quote, better deal, 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.”
Israel has blasted the deal. One of its main supporters in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, formed a nonprofit group called Citizens for a Nuclear-Free Iran, which plans a multimillion-dollar national TV and digital campaign.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, told the Cabinet officials that after reviewing the agreement, he concluded it “produces a dramatically better position for about 15 years than the status quo before negotiations started.”
House Democrats were lobbied to support the accord on Thursday, as a dozen of them met with Obama at the White House and party members received a closed-door briefing at the Capitol from Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who helped Kerry negotiate the accord.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said it was the third Kerry briefing or hearing he’d heard in two days and that the message had been consistent. Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, said there was “a benefit to the cumulative effort.”
“Every time they have a definite and consistent answer” to questions, Welch said of Kerry and Moniz. “There’s an answer, and it’s detailed. And I’m seeing members feeling just a little bit more secure because of that.”
In the Senate committee, Kerry testified alongside Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, whose department oversees economic sanctions against Iran that would be eased in return for curbs on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
“If Iran violates the commitments once we suspended the sanctions, we will be able to promptly snap back both U.S. and UN sanctions,” Lew told the committee. He said “powerful sanctions,” including the primary U.S. trade embargo on Iran, will stay in place in any case.
Moniz vouched for the deal as “based in science and analysis.”
That held little sway with Republican opponents such as Senator James Risch of Idaho, who said the administration had been “bamboozled,” or Corker of Tennessee, who likened the inspection protocol for Iran to asking professional athletes to put “their own urine samples in the mail and asking us to believe it is them.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, said the “next president is under no legal or moral obligation to live up to” the deal, which he described as “terrible.”
“It could go away the day Obama leaves office,” Rubio said.
“I don’t think any president would do that,” Kerry responded.
Corker helped engineer the legislation giving Congress a 60-day review, followed by an opportunity to vote on the agreement. Republicans and Democrats critical of the accord probably have enough votes for a resolution to reject the deal, which Obama has said he would veto.
But overriding that action would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers, a threshold that’s possible to meet only if 13 Senate Democrats and 44 House Democrats join all Republicans in voting against the president.
Referring to that difficult math for critics of the deal, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said the congressional review was a “big charade.”
After the briefing for House Democrats, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said she felt “very confident that we’re going to have enough votes” to sustain a veto.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio told reporters on Thursday that a vote, which he expected to come in September, remains “the best shot” at blocking the Iran deal. He added, without elaboration, “There’s a lot of tools at our disposal.”
Kerry is scheduled to take his campaign to sell the Iran accord to New York on Friday, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations and meeting privately with leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Jewish Committee.
(A previous version of this story misstated Representative Schakowsky’s prediction on the Iran vote outcome.)