US negotiator: Iran nuclear deal 'first step'
An initial agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program was "not perfect" but bought time to try to secure a comprehensive deal, US officials said in response to sharp criticism from Congress.
Major world powers struck an interim deal with Iran on Nov. 24 giving Tehran an estimated $7 billion in sanctions relief in return for steps to restrain Iranian nuclear activities. The deal called for negotiation of a full agreement within a year.
Easing of sanctions began in late January.
Members of Congress have argued that it was unwise to ease sanctions before Iran took aggressive action to rein in its nuclear program, which the United States, Israel and others suspect may be aimed at building bombs. Iran has denied this.
"I was stunned when I saw what the agreement was. I've been disgusted as we've gone forward," Idaho Senator James Risch, a senior Republican committee member, said during a contentious hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the lead US negotiator with Iran, reassured lawmakers that negotiators would take a hard line on Iran's nuclear program as talks progressed.
"We see this as a first step so we don't consider the gaps that exist loopholes because this is not a final agreement," Sherman testified.
"This is not perfect, but this does freeze and roll back their program in significant ways and give us time on the clock to in fact negotiate that comprehensive agreement," she said.
US lawmakers have some influence over Iran policy because of their ability to pass legislation imposing fresh sanctions on Iran, something President Barack Obama has opposed during the current negotiations and threatened to veto.
The dispute over the sanctions bill has caused friction between Obama and members of Congress, including some fellow Democrats like New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the leading sponsor of the legislation and chairman of the foreign relations panel.