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WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry pitched the administration's controversial nuclear deal with Iran to a skeptical House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, pushing back against the allegation it would ease crippling sanctions forever in exchange for temporary concessions on weapons development.
"Iran has cheated on every agreement they've signed," said Rep. Ed Royce, the panel's chairman. With Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew waiting to testify, he asked if Tehran "has earned the right to be trusted" given its history.
Kerry said that under the deal, Iran is "permanently banned" from developing a nuclear weapon, and many of the restrictions imposed would be in place "not just for 15 or 20 years, but for the lifetime" of its nuclear program.
As a result, he said, the United States will be able to "verifiably ensure" the nuclear program remains peaceful.
The congressional hearing was the second in as many weeks for Kerry and his Cabinet colleagues. With Republicans in the majority in both houses, their objective was to line up enough support for Obama among Democrats in what is all but certain to become a veto fight this fall.
Congress is expected to vote in September to prevent Obama from lifting sanctions imposed previously by lawmakers, a step that would likely cause Iran to walk away from the agreement. Obama has said he will veto any bill along those lines, and Republicans will need a two-thirds majority in both houses to override his objections.
Apart from Royce, the panel's senior Democrat expressed reservations about the plan. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said he has "serious questions and concerns about this deal."
Engel is a strong supporter of Israel, which vociferously opposes the deal. Iran has said it wants to wipe out Israel.
The hearing also unfolded as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, dispatched hundreds of its members to prod lawmakers to disapprove of the deal.
On the other side of the issue, seven former U.S. diplomats and State Department officials sent a letter Monday to leaders in Congress urging them to support the pact.
"We believe that without this agreement, however, the risks will be much higher for the United States and Israel," the letter said.
Former ambassadors to Israel — James Cunningham, William Harrop, Daniel Kurtzer, Thomas Pickering and Edward Walker Jr. — signed the letter as did Frank Wisner, former undersecretary of state for international security affairs and undersecretary of defense for policy, and Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO.
While lawmakers debated the implications of the deal, officials from member nations of the International Atomic Energy Agency told The Associated Press that Iran may be allowed to take soil samples at the Parchin military complex that is suspected as a site of nuclear weapon research, but only under monitoring by outside experts.
The officials said stringent oversight of the soil-sampling could include video monitoring. The samples would be analyzed by the agency for traces left by any nuclear experiments.
The disclosures come from IAEA member nations and are tasked with following Iran's nuclear program. They demanded anonymity because their information is confidential. The IAEA had no immediate comment.
The ability of international officials to gain access to Parchin has emerged as one prominent issue in the congressional debate
Tehran insists Parchin is a conventional military area with no link to nuclear tests. In recent years, it has carried out major construction and paving at the site where the alleged experiments took place, while refusing dozens of IAEA requests for a visit.
Associated Press writer George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.