Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey listed Wednesday a range of Iran's "malign activities" that he said would continue to threaten the U.S., Israel and the region even if Congress approves the proposed nuclear deal.
"These run the gamut from ballistic missile technology to weapons trafficking, to the use of surrogates and proxies to naval mines and undersea activity -- and last but not least to malicious activity in cyberspace," Dempsey said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).
Dempsey also appeared to have reservations about the deal itself worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry and backed by China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
"Ultimately, time and Iranian behavior will determine if the nuclear agreement is effective and sustainable," Dempsey said, adding that the U.S. would retain the military option if Iran cheated on the agreement.
Dempsey's lukewarm endorsement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran contrasted with the testimony of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who said "it is a good deal."
"It prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in a comprehensive and verifiable way. Once implemented, it will therefore remove a critical element of risk and uncertainty from the region," Carter said.
Although the agreement would cut off Iran's "pathways to the fissile material for a nuclear bomb," Carter said the U.S. would need to boost military support for Israel and the Gulf states and possibly alter the "force posture" of the U.S. military in region to counter conventional Iranian threats.
"If Iran were to commit aggression, our robust force posture ensures we can rapidly surge an overwhelming array of forces into the region, leveraging our most advanced capabilities, married with sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach," Carter said.
If Iran were to cheat on the deal, "we are under instructions from the president to Preserve, and indeed we are improving -- and I can't get into that here -- the military option," Carter said. "Temporary as it is, it needs to be there because that's our fall back."
In his questioning, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Dempsey in his remarks appeared to be "damning this agreement with faint praise." Wicker noted Dempsey's "very brief and I think tepid endorsement of this agreement."
Dempsey said his remarks were not tepid "but rather pragmatic." When asked if he was kept in the loop on the negotiations, Dempsey said "I was asked my advice episodically."
Carter and Dempsey were joined at the witness table by Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. Sen. John McCain, the SASC chairman, noted that only Carter and Dempsey were scheduled to testify, and the others were there at their own request.
Earlier, at a breakfast with reporters, Lew said that Congress might vote down the deal with Iran but he was confident that the administration had enough support to sustain a veto by President Obama. Lew said the support was "enough for this to be sustained."
At the often contentious hearing, Kerry sought to allay the concerns of McCain and other Republicans who repeatedly charged that they were being denied access to side agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency on verification measures in the proposed deal.
"That is absolutely astounding," McCain said, adding that "the details of how these monitoring activities will occur in certain important instances are contained in a separate agreement between the IAEA and Iran, which the U.S. government and the Congress have not seen."
While the U.S. has not seen the exact language of the IAEA side agreements, "We are aware of what the basics of it are," Kerry said. "It is standard procedure" for the IAEA to limit disclosure of its agreements, Kerry said.
"We don't get that. It is not shared with the world, but we do get briefed on it," Kerry said.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said it was pointless to negotiate with Iran. "These people are evil people. They're dangerous," he said. Dempsey responded that "It's really the regime – not the Iranian people."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com