WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers have opened a new avenue of attack on the Iran nuclear accord by criticizing what they call “secret side deals” governing the inspection process that will be withheld from Congress.
Confidential agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities, emerged as a key point of contention with Republicans at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Administration officials said such agreements are standard procedure for international inspections, while critics said the pacts add a layer of secrecy to a deal that’s raised national security concerns.
“The merits of this agreement hinge on its verifiability,” said Sen. John McCain, the committee chairman. “And yet, we cannot even read key documents pertaining to those verification measures, and our own government is not even a party to those agreements. I find that deeply troubling.”
While the documents are confidential, all members of Congress will be briefed on them in closed-door sessions, Secretary of State John Kerry told the committee. But that did little to satisfy Republican critics of the deal.
“I had to travel to Vienna last weekend to discover the existence of these side deals,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said. “The administration has now confirmed their existence. There’s still some lack of clarity about their content.”
Scoffing at Cotton’s travels as an “international man of mystery,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday: “there are no secret deals. We are aware of what’s in it and are entirely comfortable with it.”
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano disclosed the existence of the agreement between his agency and Iran, without providing details, in a statement issued on July 14.
“The IAEA and Iran did reach an understanding,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters on July 22. “As is always the case, that is an understanding between the country in question and the IAEA. These documents are not public. But, nonetheless, we have been briefed on those documents. We know their contents. We’re satisfied with them. And we will share the contents of those briefings in full in classified session with the Congress.”
There’s nothing surprising about the need for confidential pacts governing international inspections, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said in an interview after the hearing.
“It’s not unusual,” Kimball said. “I don’t think it’s something to be deeply concerned about, because this is standard practice. It’s been IAEA practice for nearly 50 years to do it this way.”
The law that Obama signed giving Congress the right to review the Iran accord says lawmakers must be given the agreement “including annexes, appendices, codicils, side agreements, implementing materials, documents, and guidance, technical or other understandings, and any related agreements.”
Cotton, an Iran deal critic and Iraq war veteran, said that requirement extends to the confidential IAEA agreements.
David Albright, a former Iraq weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said the demands for greater transparency aren’t unreasonable.
“One can argue this agreement between Iran and the IAEA should be more public,” he said in a voice-mail message from Paris. “Iran is a big screamer for more confidentiality. Nonetheless, if the IAEA wanted to make it more open, it could.”
Kimball said the procedural agreements used by the IAEA with countries it investigates must be kept private or else “the individual governments are not going to be cooperative” on inspections.
The Vienna-based IAEA, an independent agency, concluded two agreements with Iran: one governing nuclear inspections and another governing a process to answer questions about possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear work, Kimball said.
While Congress will be briefed on the contents of those agreements, “we respect the process of the IAEA and we don’t have the authorization to reveal what is a confidential agreement between them and another country,” Kerry told the committee.
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