Congress Holds Hearings on Status of Iran Nuclear Negotiations

July 31, 2014, Washington, D.C. – On Tuesday, July 29th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee of Foreign Affairs held respective hearings on the status of the P5+1 negotiations related to Iran’s nuclear program. Witnesses at both hearings included Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and chief U.S. negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and the Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen.

The nuclear negotiations with Iran have been extended to November. Under the terms of the extension, Iran has agreed to further contain its nuclear enrichment in return for limited and targeted sanctions relief.

In her testimony, Sherman noted that the P5+1 talks with Iran have been productive and while significant obstacles remain, a comprehensive agreement is within reach. “A good deal will be one that cuts off the various pathways Iran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” said Sherman in her prepared statement.  “It will therefore need to include tight constraints and strict curbs on Iran’s program, and enhanced monitoring and transparency measures to ensure that any attempt to break out will detected as quickly as possible.” 

Cohen focused his statement on efforts to maintain pressure on Iran’s economy in order to obtain a successful outcome to the negotiations. “While this four month extension will provide additional time and space for the negotiations to proceed, it will not change the basic facts and numbers on the ground,” explained Cohen. “The Iranian economy is in deep distress and an additional four months of limited sanctions relief will not change that.”

Throughout the hearings, lawmakers expressed their desires to have a voice in the final outcome of the negotiations. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking member of Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the administration for a lack of commitment to seek congressional consultation. 

“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.”

Last week, Corker along with other Republicans introduced legislation that would require congressional review of a final agreement along with the ability to block a deal and re-impose sanctions that had been lifted.   

Sherman pledged that the administration will continue to consult Congress on the negotiations but asserted that the executive branch has the ability to make a deal without obtaining Congress’ approval. 

An agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would not be considered a formal treaty and hence will not require Senate ratification. However, if a comprehensive deal is reached, it may require congressional action on the lifting of certain sanctions in the long term. 

Both Sherman and Cohen affirmed during the hearings that the administration has the authority to waive or suspend sanctions but that Congress would be informed before any executive action is taken. 

When asked about the administration’s position on passing sanctions legislation, Sherman expressed concern that taking action now could provide an excuse for Iran to walk away from the negotiations and weaken international cooperation. “The administration believes quite strongly that at this moment in [the] negotiations, additional legislative action would potentially derail negotiations,” Sherman explained. “We want it to be crystal clear to the world that we tried diplomacy as far as we could take it and Iran could not do what it needed to do because, if we do that, then the entire world will stay together in the enforcement, not only of the existing sanctions, but in sanctions to come.”

Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee and sponsor of Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (S.1881), stressed his distrust of the Iranian regime’s intentions and his scepticism that the four month extension would produce a final deal.  “I will not support another extension of negotiations,” said Senator Menendez. “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.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle also took the opportunity during the hearings to express concerns about the human rights situation in Iran, including the detentions of Iranian Americans Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, and Pastor Saeed Abedini.

Click here to watch the hearing in the House Committee of Foreign Affairs. The discussion on Iran begins at 00:27:00.

Click here to watch the hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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