Alaska Senators No Fans of Iran Deal

The Obama administration faced a tough crowd this morning as it defended its nuclear agreement with Iran in Congress. Both of Alaska’s senators are among the chorus of lawmakers who say the deal is bad for the U.S. and the region.

Download Audio

In the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican members were ready to pounce. Chairman John McCain of Arizona said the agreement would pave the way to a nuclear Iran and allow it to go on “shopping spree” for other weapons. Four Cabinet secretaries and the chairman of the joint chiefs defended the deal, saying it would restrict Iran and let the world know if it were cheating. If so, they said, the U.S. would snap economic sanctions back in place, and, through the U.N., trigger automatic international sanctions, too.

Three hours into the hearing, it was Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan’s turn to question the witnesses. Sullivan challenged Secretary of State John Kerry on a term “snap-back” sanctions.

D.S.: Is there a term called the snap-back provision in the agreement?

J.K.: I don’t think it’s specifically —

— No there isn’t. the word ‘snap back’ is not in the agreement …

–No but it’s created by —

— Let me make my point. I have a lot of questions and I don’t have a lot of time.

Sullivan says the term “snap back” is somewhat deceitful. He says he knows from his service in the George W. Bush Administration, isolating Iran economically wasn’t easy.

“That was a slog,” Sullivan said. “That wasn’t a snap. That took years to get countries to divest out of the Iranian economy. It’ll take years to do it again.”

Sullivan also suggested the deal leaves the U.S. impotent to punish Iran with sanctions for non-nuclear aggression it might commit.

“An act of terrorism happens. It’s big,” Sullivan said, setting up a hypotherical. “They kill more American troops. They blow up a consulate. It’s likely, I think it’s likely, that they’re going to do that in the next 10 years.  … We impose sanctions … . This is our power!”

But, Sullivan told Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the agreement says Iran will treat the reimposition of sanctions as grounds to stop holding up its end of the bargain.

–If we ever, ever impose so-called snap-back sanctions, isn’t the deal over? Where am I wrong on that question?

–Well, Senator, we would snap sanctions back once they violated the agreement …

Sullivan cut him off. He said he wasn’t talking about Iran violating the nuclear agreement, but other bad acts by Iran.

“Answer the question!” Sullivan insisted. “You didn’t answer it in the closed setting. You’re not answering it now!”

Secretary Lew’s take is that not all sanctions would end the agreement. Lew says the U.S. could still punish Iran for non-nuclear terrorism while leaving the deal in place.

Sullivan’s approach was in keeping with the tone of the hearing. It ended with pointed questions from two Republican candidates for president – Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz was especially testy in asking Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz about a certain type of nuclear assault.

“It could kill tens of millions of Americans. Do you agree with that?” Cruz asked.

“It would depend obviously on the specifics,” Moniz said.

Cruz tried to pin him down, then called him out for equivocating.

“You’re refusing to answer the question,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski doesn’t serve on committees that have taken up the Iran nuclear agreement. She’s been busy crafting a national energy bill, but she’s been briefed on the Iran deal and says she intends to read it for herself. So far, Murkowski is highly skeptical.

“What I am hearing, what I am reading is giving me no greater assurance about the soundness of this agreement,” she said.

Murkowski says an alternative might be expanded sanctions.

“The president is trying to suggest that it is this or war. I reject that,” she said.

Congress has until late September to review the deal. Opponents seem to have the votes to pass a resolution of disapproval, but it’s less likely they can override a presidential veto.