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July 31, 2014

Administration Hears Skepticism, But Also Support, for Iran Negotiations on Capitol Hill

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman
Undersecretary of Treasury David Cohen and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman

Washington, DC – “In the past six months, significant and steady progress has been made,” said Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and lead negotiator in Iran nuclear talks, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “We agreed to an extension because we see significant progress in negotiations and see a comprehensive plan forward.”

Sherman, who was invited to discuss the status of the P5+1 talks, also testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee later that day. She was joined by the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, to discuss the implementation of the extended Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).

While the negotiations were met with some of the skepticism, and in some cases outright opposition, that has often characterized the views on Capitol Hill, many committee members acknowledged that the process was moving forward and that gains had been achieved. Even some of the diplomatic track’s most outspoken skeptics, including Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) in the Senate and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) in the House, expressed cautious support for the extension of talks while demanding that no further extensions be granted beyond November 24. “It is difficult to say what will happen,” Sherman responded, “but our intent is to end this by November 24 in one direction or another.”

Questioned about the potential “breakout window” Iran may have under a final deal, Sherman emphasized that the key to a deal would be monitoring mechanisms to ensure that any attempt by Iran to cheat or breakout would be detectable. “This is about verification,” she said. “This is about monitoring. …This is about inspections.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) utilized his time to slam the negotiations as a “dangerous national security failure,” warning that the U.S. has given up its leverage by easing some sanctions and not doubling down on the military threat. But Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) took issue with Rubio’s criticism. “Some of the language I just heard from Senator Rubio brings back the rhetoric of days past – we do not want the smoking gun to be a nuclear cloud,” she said. “This is a historic chance; we can either let it pass us by or all work together.” Boxer noted that she would support sanctions only if the talks failed, in which case she emphasized “all options” would be considered, but she warned her colleagues, “we have to strongly support these diplomatic efforts so that old rhetoric does not come true.”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) – who were the only Republicans to oppose recent sanctions – expressed support for the talks, highlighting the achievements of the interim deal so far. “The diplomacy avenue must be explored as much as we can…this is an opportunity and we should test [it],” said Flake. “I applaud the administration for doing so.” 

In the House, the negotiations faced more intense scrutiny–with several lawmakers condemning the interim deal and rejecting any solution in which Iran retains any enrichment capacity.  But others, like Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA), strongly defended the negotiations. Connolly warned his colleagues against “making perfect the enemy of the good.” He was joined by Gregory Meeks (D-NY) who said, “Many critics have said that these negotiations are risky…I believe strongly that it is even more risky for us if we did not negotiate, we would be worse off without the concessions gained in the interim agreement.”

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