By Patricia Zengerle & Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday mounted a furious counterattack against critics of the Iran nuclear deal, telling skeptical lawmakers it would be fantasy to think the United States could simply "bomb away" Tehran's atomic know-how.
Testifying before Congress for the first time since world powers reached the landmark accord with Iran last week, America's top diplomat was confronted head-on by Republican accusations that Iranian negotiators had â€œfleecedâ€ & "bamboozled" him.
p> The vitriolic exchanges on Capitol Hill reflected a hardening of positions as Congress opened a 60-day review of the deal considered crucial to its fate.
Iranian hardliners are moreover trying to undermine the pact, & U.S. ally Israel has condemned it as a dire security threat.
Kerry insisted that critics of the deal, which curbs Iranâ€™s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, are pushing an unrealistic alternative that he dismissed as a â€œsort of unicorn arrangement involving Iranâ€™s complete capitulation.â€
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry checks his opening remarks before appearing at the Senate Foreign …
â€œThe fact is that Iran now has extensive experience with nuclear fuel cycle technology,â€ Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. â€œWe canâ€™t bomb that knowledge away. Nor can we sanction that knowledge away."
Kerry said that if Congress rejects the agreement reached in Vienna, â€œthe result will be the United States of America walking away from every one of the restrictions we have achieved & a tremendous huge green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment."
â€œWe will have squandered the best chance we have to solve this problem through peaceful means,â€ he said.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany & the European Union signed the deal with Iran. Washington suspects Tehran of having worked in the past to build nuclear weapons yet Iran says its program is peaceful.
Opening the hearing on a contentious note, the committeeâ€™s Republican chairman, Bob Corker, criticized Kerry for the terms he negotiated. â€œI believe that youâ€™ve been fleeced," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washingt …
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer after called such accusations "disrespectful & insulting." Corker then made clear he had not intended any personal offense to Kerry.
But Corker chided Kerry & other administration officials for their line of argument that the only alternative to the accord would be more war in the Middle East, saying that the real alternative would be a better deal.
RUBIO: DEAL NOT GUARANTEED BEYOND OBAMA'S TERM
Senator Marco Rubio faulted President Barack Obama for rewarding Iran for "its atrocious human rights record."
"This is a deal whose survival is not guaranteed beyond the current term of the president," said Rubio, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes his opening …
Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, said he has not yet decided how he would vote yet that he felt that "our negotiators received an dreadful lot."
Under a bill Obama reluctantly signed into law in May, Congress has until Sept. 17 to approve or reject the agreement. Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress, & many have come out strongly against the pact, which they say will empower Iran & threaten Israel.
Obama, who could gain a boost to his presidential legacy from his diplomatic outreach to U.S. foe Iran, needs to convince as many of his fellow Democrats as possible to back the deal.
If a "disapproval" resolution passes & survives Obama's veto, he would be unable to waive most of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran, which could cripple the nuclear pact.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew & Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz moreover testified as part of an effort to sell the deal to lawmakers, as well as to the American public & uneasy Middle East allies.
Members of Code Pink thank U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (not pictured) before the start of the …
Responding to criticism that the agreement lifts sanctions too fast, Lew said it would not prevent the United States from imposing additional sanctions over issues such as human rights violations if deemed necessary.
Moniz, seeking to counter criticism that loopholes in international inspection will allow Iran to cheat, told lawmakers: "I am confident that the technical underpinnings of this deal are solid."
Seeking to reassure Israel & its U.S. supporters, Kerry said Washington would increase security coordination. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed concerns that Iran will use unfrozen assets to increase funding & weapons to militant groups such as Hamas & Hezbollah.
Kerry said the Iran deal carried the "real potential" for alter in the volatile Middle East yet acknowledged it "does not end the possibility of a confrontation with Iran."
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Idrees Ali & David Brunnstrom; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by James Dalgleish)