Kerry: critics of Iran deal spinning 'fantasy,' urges approval

John Kerry Fiercely Defends Iran Nuclear Deal Before Senate

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday mounted a furious counterattack against critics of the Iran nuclear deal, telling skeptical lawmakers it would be fantasy to think the United States could simply "bomb away" Tehran's atomic know-how.

Testifying publicly before Congress for the first time since world powers reached the landmark accord with Iran last week, America's top diplomat was confronted head-on by Republican accusations that Iranian negotiators had "fleeced" and "bamboozled" him.

The vitriolic exchanges at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry once chaired, reflected a hardening of positions as Congress opened a 60-day review of the deal considered crucial to its fate.

Images from the Iran nuclear deal talks:

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Kerry: critics of Iran deal spinning 'fantasy,' urges approval
US Secretary of State John Kerry organizes his papers during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill July 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and US Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew appeared before the committee to defend the Obama administrations proposed deal with Iran over the county's nuclear program. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits next to British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as they attend a plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal on Tuesday, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East, and which Israel called an 'historic surrender'. AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA (Photo credit should read CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in his office in Jerusalem on July 14, 2015, after world powers reached a historic nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu said after the deal was reached that Israel was not bound by it and signalled he remained ready to order military action . AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
(From L to R) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz pose for a group picture at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal, capping more than a decade of on-off negotiations with an agreement that could potentially transform the Middle East, and which Israel called an 'historic surrender'. AFP PHOTO / POOL / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) ,French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (3rd L), China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (5th L), Federica Mogherini (C), High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, US Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd R), British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. Foreign ministers from major powers began crunch talks in Vienna on Monday seeking to seal a historic nuclear deal to end a 13-year standoff, one day before a final deadline, officials said. AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (3rd L) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. Foreign ministers from major powers began crunch talks in Vienna on Monday seeking to seal a historic nuclear deal to end a 13-year standoff, one day before a final deadline, officials said. AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA (Photo credit should read CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry walks delivers a statement on Cuba outside the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria, July 1, 2015. Talks between Iran and major powers towards a historic nuclear deal are facing tough issues but are making progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a break from talks in Vienna. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTIAN BRUNA (Photo credit should read CHRISTIAN BRUNA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gestures while making a statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 2, 2015 after a deal was reached on Iran's nuclear program. Iran and world powers agreed on the framework of a potentially historic deal aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear drive after marathon talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 14: Sen. Bob Corker, Senate Foreign Relations chairman, arrives for a briefing on Iran nuclear negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama's chief of staff Jack Lew in the Capitol on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (R) listens on as US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference on March 7, 2015 at the Foreign Affairs Minister in Paris. Kerry had flown into Paris just a couple of hours earlier in a bid to shore up European support for the proposed deal with Iran ahead of a March 31 deadline. AFP PHOTO /ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
EU political director Helga Schmid (CL) seats next to Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi (R) at the opening of nuclear talks between Iran and Members of the P5+1 group on March 5, 2015 in Montreux. The so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany is trying to strike an accord that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L) talks to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) (L) as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (R) looks on during a photo-op prior to a meeting at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. At the risk of further straining the relationship between Israel and the Obama Administration, Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress warning congressional members against what he considers an ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) is greeted by French Foreign Minister Fabius Laurent, on March 7, 2015, at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris. Flying in from London on the last stop of a week-long trip, Kerry will meet with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Britain to brief them on the status of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 28: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrives at Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland where he came for the nuclear talks with Iran on March 28, 2015. (Photo by Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 28: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrives at Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland where he came for the nuclear talks with Iran on March 28, 2015. (Photo by Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) face French Director-General for Political and Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nicolas de Riviere (2nd R), and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) at the opening of a bilateral meetinh at Iran nuclear talks on March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
The director-general for political and security affairs at the French Foreign Ministry, Nicolas de Riviere (2nd R), and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) wait look on March 28, 2015 before a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Fabius met while in Switzerland for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (C) takes a walk before meetings at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel March 28, 2015 in Lausanne. Iranian officials are in Switzerland to continue negotiations on their nuclear program with other world powers. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Iranian hardliners are also trying to undermine the pact, which U.S. ally Israel calls a dire security threat.

Kerry insisted critics of the agreement, which curbs Iran's nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, are pushing an alternative he dismissed as a "sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran's complete capitulation."

"The fact is that Iran now has extensive experience with nuclear fuel cycle technology," the former senator said. "We can't bomb that knowledge away. Nor can we sanction that knowledge away."

On crutches from a cycling accident, Kerry entered the hearing room to cheers from the anti-war group Code Pink.

Kerry said that if Congress rejects the accord, "the result will be the United States of America walking away from every one of the restrictions we have achieved, and a great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment."

"We will have squandered the best chance we have to solve this problem through peaceful means," he said.

The 4-1/2-hour-long hearing was part of an intense Obama administration push to convince Democrats in particular to back the deal. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also testified.

The three cabinet secretaries briefed the full House of Representatives and Senate behind closed doors on Wednesday and met privately with House Democrats after Thursday's hearing.

Other senior administration officials, including President Barack Obama, have also been talking to undecided lawmakers. About a dozen met with him at the White House on Thursday.

Opening the hearing on a contentious note, the committee's Republican chairman, Bob Corker, criticized Kerry for the terms he negotiated. "I believe that you've been fleeced," he said.

Another Republican, Jim Risch, said he had been "bamboozled."

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer called such accusations "disrespectful and insulting."

Corker chided Kerry and other administration officials for contending that the only alternative to the accord would be more war in the Middle East, saying the real alternative would be a better deal.

Kerry strongly disagreed.

RUBIO: DEAL NOT GUARANTEED BEYOND OBAMA'S TERM

Senator Marco Rubio faulted Obama for rewarding Iran for "its atrocious human rights record."

"This is a deal whose survival is not guaranteed beyond the current term of the president," said Rubio, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, said he has not yet decided how he would vote but that he felt "our negotiators got an awful lot."

Under a bill Obama reluctantly signed into law in May, Congress has until Sept. 17 to approve or reject the agreement. Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress, and many have come out strongly against the pact, which they say will empower Iran and threaten Israel.

Obama, who could boost his presidential legacy from his diplomatic outreach to Iran, needs his fellow Democrats.

If a "disapproval" resolution passes and survives Obama's veto, he would be unable to waive most of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran, which could cripple the nuclear pact.

Responding to criticism that sanctions would be lifted too quickly, Lew said it would not prevent the United States from imposing additional sanctions over issues such as human rights violations if deemed necessary.

Moniz, seeking to counter criticism of "loopholes" in the nuclear inspections regime, said: "I am confident that the technical underpinnings of this deal are solid."

Seeking to reassure Israel and its U.S. supporters, Kerry said Washington would increase security coordination. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed concerns thatIran will use unfrozen assets to increase funding and weapons to militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Kerry said the Iran deal carried the "real potential" for change in the Middle East but acknowledged it "does not end the possibility of a confrontation with Iran."

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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