Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday questioned Pentagon officials whether the Iran deal is prompting other Middle Eastern countries to consider developing nuclear weapons.
In a particularly sharp line of questioning, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, repeatedly asked Frank Klotz, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and a retired Air Force general, whether he knew if the United Arab Emirates planned to enrich uranium in violation of an agreement with the U.S.
"Congressman, I have not had any discussions or any special briefings on any UAE [nuclear] agreement," Klotz replied during a hearing of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
He and other witnesses balked at lawmakers' attempts to determine whether the UAE, which has a civilian nuclear program, or Saudi Arabia planned to enrich uranium and develop a nuclear weapon in the wake of the landmark deal with Iran.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Shepro, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, and Christopher Almont, senior defense intelligence expert with the Defense Intelligence Agency, deferred discussion on the claims until a follow-on closed-door session.
The only nuclear power in the Middle East is Israel, which experts believe has anywhere from 200 to 400 warheads. The White House, following a longstanding policy, never discusses the Israeli nuclear arsenal.
The hearing came a day after multiple news outlets reported that Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggested Israel will not exist in another quarter century. "God willing, there will be no Zionist regime in 25 years," the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Khamenei as saying Wednesday at the Imam Khomeini Mosque.
The hearing also came the same day Democrats in the Senate voted to uphold the hard-fought nuclear accord with Iran, the Associated Press reported. A disapproval resolution for the agreement fell two votes short of the 60 needed to move forward as most Democratic and independent senators banded together against it, the AP reported.
The administration claims that the Iran agreement -- reached in conjunction with Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany -- will prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon by imposing restrictions and inspection requirements on the country's facilities.
Many restrictions expire at 15 years, but others extending beyond then will guard against Iran secretly moving toward a bomb, according to the administration. And if Iran violates the terms at any point, sanctions immediately return, the White House says.
Under the terms of the agreement, Iran is to reduce the number of centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow facilities from 19,000 to 6,104 for the next 10 years, with no enrichment allowed at the Fordow location. Iran has also agreed to use only its oldest model centrifuges.
Iran currently has enough uranium to build up to 10 nuclear bombs, according to the White House. The agreement requires it to reduce the stockpile by 98 percent and keep the level of uranium enrichment at less than 4 percent -- well below the level need for a bomb.
Administration witnesses told Congress on Thursday that nothing in the agreement puts any limitations on what the U.S. may do in the event Iran violates the terms or threatens U.S. interests or allies in the region.
But critics argue the deal only postpones Iran developing a bomb, and in the short-term provides it with greater trade opportunities and financial resources it will use to fund terrorist activities across the region.
Lawmakers also were put off when they asked about a provision that would allow a lifting of a ban on ballistic missile technology to Iran earlier than the eight years previously stated.
Almont, responding to a question by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, said that an early lifting of the ban would happen only if the International Atomic Energy Agency determined Iran had met all of its obligations under the agreement.
Klotz said he would be able to go into more discussion on the topic only in closed session.
Coffman also asked the witnesses to talk about Iran's ability to make chemical and biological weapons, but was again told that it needed to wait for closed session.
"That's amazing," Coffman laughed, "Mr. Chairman, I yield back. I think everything's pretty much in closed session and I really question the security classifications that are being used ... that might in fact be politically embarrassing, and anything politically embarrassing seems to be classified."
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, several times raised concerns over how much money the administration was budgeting for Israel's national security. In particular, he noted that the House and Senate both included appropriations that neared Israel's stated request for $475 million in 2016 for missile defense.
The White House included in its budget only $155 million, Lamborn said.
"This seems like a 3 to 1 funding to me," he said, and suggested that the administration's stated support for Israel does not show up in its budget.
Robert Scher, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities at the Pentagon, said the U.S. works closely with Israel "to figure out what the best funding approach is for our support to their programs and the ones we do co-production for."
He acknowledged that Obama did include just $155 million for the program in 2016, but said "we've had over $3 billion of cooperation up to this point [and] we have approximately overall about a half billion [dollars] in the next fiscal year development plan for cooperation with Israel."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.