DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran’s pragmatist government tried on Wednesday to sell its nuclear agreement with world powers to hardliners at home, just as a U.S. congressional leader promised to do “everything possible” to sink the deal.
With both Tehran and Washington facing stiff opposition to the accord, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter travelled to Saudi Arabia in the hope of reassuring leaders there who fear their arch-rival Iran will make major mischief in the region.
Last week’s agreement was a big success for both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. But both have to promote it to influential hardliners in countries that have been enemies for decades. Under the deal between the United States, the European Union and five major powers, Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear programme in return for an easing of sanctions that have crippled its economy.
In Washington, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, was deeply sceptical. Boehner said that “because a bad deal threatens the security of the American people, we’re going to do everything possible to stop it.”
Obama, a Democrat, and other top officials began a full-bore effort to persuade sceptical lawmakers not to fight the deal, but meetings with all 435 members of the House of Representatives seemed to make little headway.
As he walked into a closed-door meeting with members of the Republican-controlled House, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was looking forward to answering House members’ questions.
“This is a day we’ve been looking forward to because we get to really talk substance, we get to get out of the politics and into the facts,” Kerry told reporters.
After the meeting, a few Republican House members said Kerry had seemed arrogant.
“There were a number of comments that he came across as condescending,” said Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows. He described the agreement as “troubling”.
Republican U.S. Representative Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would wait until he had more information before reaching a conclusion.
“There’s a lot more work for Congress to do,” Thornberry told reporters. “We’ll be holding hearings and other events to examine the military implications, including whether other countries will be encouraged to develop their own nuclear capability in order to keep up with what Iran is allowed to do under this agreement. And whether there is an increased threat to U.S. servicemembers.”
Democratic U.S. Representative Jim Himes said he had not made up his mind, but “Secretary Kerry gave a very, very strong defense of the deal.”
He also said, however, that “from my standpoint the burden of proof, given what I’ve read so far, is on the opponents to explain why this is really a bad deal relative to where we were and why this is a bad deal relative to where we will be if the United States unilaterally walks away from it.”
House and Senate debates and votes to approve or reject the nuclear agreement are expected in September.
A warm glow following the Vienna agreement is fading.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest authority in Iran, told supporters on Saturday that U.S. policies in the region were “180 degrees” opposed to Tehran’s, in a speech punctuated by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.
The government that negotiated the deal also talked tough on Wednesday in an apparent attempt to blunt attacks from opponents, including in the powerful Republican Guards.
Abbas Araqchi, a deputy foreign minister, said Iran would do “anything” to help allies in the Middle East, underlining Tehran’s message that the deal will not change its anti-Western foreign policy.
Araqchi, Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator, also told a news conference that any attempt to re-impose sanctions after they expired in 10 years would breach the deal.
He was referring to a resolution endorsing the deal passed by the United Nations Security Council on Monday. This allows all U.N. sanctions to be re-imposed if Iran violates the agreement in the next 10 years.
If Iran adheres to the terms of the agreement - signed with the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union - all the provisions and measures of the U.N. resolution would end in 10 years.
The world powers told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month, however, that after 10 years they planned to seek a five-year extension of the mechanism allowing sanctions to be re-imposed.
Tehran’s support for regional allies, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, has alarmed Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the Middle East.
But defence secretary Carter said before his trip to meet Saudi King Salman that he aimed to discuss American strategy on countering “Iranian aggression” in the region, as well as the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group.
So far Riyadh’s response to the nuclear deal has been lukewarm public praise, coupled with private condemnation. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former head of the kingdom’s intelligence services, cautioned last week that it would allow Iran to “wreak havoc in the region”.
Carter is expected to present Obama’s argument that the deal will make the United States and its allies safer by removing the threat of a nuclear Iran.
This is the same message he gave during a trip this week to Israel, which also opposes the agreement. Israel on Wednesday pressed U.S. lawmakers to block the deal, with Ambassador Ron Dermer meeting privately with a group of about 40 House conservatives.
Kerry said he would seek to reassure Gulf Arab officials at a meeting in Qatar in the next two weeks.
“We have negotiated a nuclear deal for the simple reason that we believe if you are going to push back against Iran, it’s better to push back against an Iran without a nuclear weapon than with one,” the pan-Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted Kerry as saying.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, William Maclean, Noah Browning, Idrees Ali and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Giles Elgood and Grant McCool