U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal Courtesy of CSPAN

Washington – Sen. Richard Blumenthal questioned top Obama administration officials about the possible consequences of a nuclear weapons deal Wednesday, pressing a top general on the military impact of the deal.

Blumenthal said, “I have made no decision for myself” on the pact during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the latest of a flurry of Capitol Hill hearings that have served as high-profile forums for opponents to attack the deal and for the White House to try to sell the it.

Blumenthal asked Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Is it fair to say that the breakout time for Iran to make enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon will return to what it is now – about two to three months,” when the 10-year agreement expires.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to say that,” Dempsey replied.

The nation’s top military leader said there could be factors that “inhibit them (from producing a nuclear weapon) for an additional period of time.”

Blumenthal then asked, “Will the United States be in a stronger position militarily” to take on a hostile Iran when the agreement expires.

“It would make our military option more difficult, but it would not make it more impossible,” Dempsey said. “I think the answer to your question is it depends on how we use our time between then and now.”

Dempsey said if the United States used its time “wisely” and had the resources and backing of allies who also were strengthened militarily, “we should not assume we would be in a weakened position.”

President Obama and five other industrialized nations negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran, which would be required to curb its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Obama and the other negotiating nations say it is the best mechanism to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Congressional Republicans have strongly criticized the agreement. Congress has begun a 60-day review of the pact, with a vote expected in September.

If Congress passes a resolution of disapproval for the deal, Obama has said he will veto it. But the president will need the votes of Democrats like Blumenthal to prevent the House and Senate from overriding his veto. A two-thirds vote in each chamber is needed to override a presidential veto.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has said he is “generally supportive” of the pact, but needs to make sure the verification procedures it spells out are strong enough.

On Wednesday, Blumenthal indicated he had broader concerns.

He asked Dempsey “what changes in military force structure does the United States need to take?” to steel itself for the expiration of the pact’s nuclear ban on Iran.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army

Dempsey said adequate Pentagon funding would be needed.

“And we should not at this point and time, consider reducing our force structure in the Middle East,” the general added.

Blumenthal also asked Treasury Secretary Jack Lew whether the United States could maintain strong economic sanctions on its own if the United States rejected the agreement.

Lew replied the United States “has significant tools” it could use to impose unilateral sanctions, but that working with other nations has resulted in a “crushing” economic embargo. Lew also told Blumenthal that the pact’s “snap-back” provision, which would re-establish multilateral sanctions, “puts us in the strongest position.”

Responding to GOP criticisms of the pact, Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran would have no incentive for further diplomatic talks with the United States if the pact were rejected.

“You think the Ayatollah (Ali Khamenei) is going to come back to negotiate?” an incredulous Kerry asked.

While the tone of the hearing was more decorous than last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iran pact, there was strong pushback from several GOP senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.

“Our allies and partners in the Middle East have increasingly come to believe that America is withdrawing from the region, and doing so at a time when Iran is aggressively seeking to advance its hegemonic ambitions,” McCain said in his opening statement. “Now we have reached an agreement that will not only legitimize the Islamic Republic as a threshold nuclear state with an industrial enrichment capability, but will also unshackle this regime in its long-held pursuit of conventional military power, and may actually consolidate the Islamic Republic’s control in Iran for years to come.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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