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US Lawmakers Ask: Is White House Catering to Iran?

FILE - House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Royce says the Obama administration has “hardly responded” to recent Iranian missile tests.

Nearly a year after world powers announced the historic Iran nuclear deal, and four months after the agreement was implemented, U.S. lawmakers remain deeply skeptical of the deal and its broader implications.

Concerns about Iran’s long-term commitment to the deal, and the U.S. response to Iranian activities outside the scope of the agreement, were among the issues raised Wednesday as a House panel questioned State and Treasury department officials.

“What is astonishing is the length that the Obama administration has gone to accommodate Iran,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican. He said the administration has “hardly responded” to recent Iranian missile tests and has gone “beyond” the nuclear agreement to purchase nuclear-related material from Tehran.

Earlier this month, Iran said it test-fired another ballistic missile, the latest in a string of tests since the nuclear agreement was implemented in January.

Tests not barred

The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, does not prohibit such tests. However, a U.N. Security Council resolution urges Iran not to engage in such action, which is considered provocative by the U.S. and some of its Middle East allies.

“How can we possibly trust such a regime that makes such a defiance in the aftermath of this dangerous deal?” asked Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican.

“I don’t trust them further than I could spit,” replied Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation.

Royce also raised concerns about a U.S. decision to purchase from Iran heavy water, a key component in developing atomic weapons.

A State Department official called the April purchase a “commercial transaction” that is allowable.

'Active' concerns remain

Responding to issues raised by lawmakers, Stephen Mull, the State Department's lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, acknowledged that the nuclear pact, by itself, could not address all of Tehran’s unsatisfactory behavior.

“We have always recognized that the JCPOA would not resolve all of our concerns with Iran and, in fact, those concerns are still very much active,” he said.

FILE - A money changer counts out U.S. dollars for a customer in Tehran's business district, Iran, Jan. 20, 2016.
FILE - A money changer counts out U.S. dollars for a customer in Tehran's business district, Iran, Jan. 20, 2016.

While the agreement removes nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, other U.S. penalties on Iran remain in place. However, in recent weeks, U.S. officials have offered guidance to foreign entities interested in conducting business with Iran without running afoul of U.S. law.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry offered assurances to top European bank executives in London. “We want to make it clear that legitimate business, which is clear under the definition of the agreement, is available to banks,” he said.

But lawmakers said they were concerned about Iran’s potential ability to access U.S. dollars through transactions with foreign entities.

'Not under our jurisdiction'

It is an issue over which the U.S. has little control, said Adam Szubin, a Treasury Department acting undersecretary.

“Every foreign bank in the world has U.S. dollars in their possession,” Szubin told lawmakers. “Foreign actors are not under our jurisdiction if they choose to give those to any actor, including an Iranian actor.”

The head of a Washington-based foreign policy institute said U.S. dollars might even be desirable to Iran.

“Iran wants direct, or at minimum indirect, access to the U.S. dollar, because the dollar is the preferred currency for global trade,” Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in testimony before a Senate banking panel.

Lawmakers are seeking to allay some of their concerns about Tehran by extending the Iran Sanctions Act, a measure that targets international investment in Iran. The act will expire at the end of this year unless Congress extends it.

But Szubin said the Obama administration was likely to oppose any legislation that undermined provisions of the Iran nuclear agreement.