Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, prepare to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 29, 2015.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, prepare to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Andrew Harnik/AP

Three Cabinet Secretaries Crashed John McCain's Iran Hearing

The Armed Services Chairman makes it known he didn’t ask Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to testify on the Iran deal — the Pentagon did.

Congressional critics of President Obama’s national security strategy have long sought to put distance between the Pentagon and the rest of the Obama administration, but on the Iran deal, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made sure they were at the same table, literally.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he invited only Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to testify Wednesday on the military implications of the Iran agreement — but they were joined anyway by Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. The trio has been the main sales team in the Obama administration’s effort to sell the deal on the Hill.

“Since the time is here and our two witnesses that we requested to appear are here, I’ll go ahead and begin,” McCain said, opening the hearing even though Kerry, Moniz, and Lew had not yet arrived. After they entered, he continued, “For the record, I did not request the presence of Secretary Kerry or Moniz, or Secretary Lew — I am glad they’re here, at their desire to do so, since the focus of today’s hearing, as befits the role of this committee, is on the strategic and military implications of the Iran agreement.”

It was Carter who wanted the other administration officials to attend, in order to answer technical questions about the deal, McCain said after the hearing. “We invited them [Carter and Dempsey] and they wanted to bring the others for issues that affected them,” the senator said. “It was their choice, not mine, that’s all.”

Dustin Walker, committee spokesman, said McCain was merely pointing out that he wanted to focus on the deal’s military implications, over which the Armed Services committee has jurisdiction. The Foreign Relations Committee has primary jurisdiction over the deal and its review. “I wouldn’t make it out to be any more,” Walker said.

Ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., pointed out that Carter has a doctorate in theoretical physics, and likely needed no technical backup.

The testimony of top national-security officials may sway senators of both parties still on the fence ahead of a likely vote on the deal when the Senate’s review concludes in September. But the public spat over the witness list reflects a larger and longer-running narrative between the Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: the argument over whether the president’s closest advisors have micromanaged the Pentagon and muted national-security advice from the military’s leaders.

In this case, at least, the five Obama administration witnesses — who rarely appear together — all expressed support for the deal and attested that, on the whole, it strengthens the U.S. military position in the Middle East.

“It’s a good deal because it prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in a comprehensive and verifiable way,” Carter said. “It places no limitations on what the Department of Defense can and will do to pursue our defense strategy in the region.”

Carter, Dempsey and the other witnesses reminded the senators that military options remain on the table, were Iran to violate the agreement and race toward a nuclear weapon.

Carter said that one military option — an unnamed weapon the U.S. developed and has employed — could put the brakes on the Iranian nuclear program. “It doesn’t stop it forever, but it substantially sets it back,” he said. “Iran would surely respond to such an attack so in the hypothetical situation in which that occurred, which this deal is intended to make unnecessary.”

Dempsey said, “One of my jobs, senator, is never let the nation run out of options, so we would not run out of options, but they would become increasingly costly to be sure.”

When a senator tried to characterize Dempsey’s support as “tepid,” the general corrected him; his support is “pragmatic,” he said.

Dempsey said the deal has five military implications, starting with this: “It does reduce the risk of near-term conflict with Iran over its nuclear program.” But it also requires preserving military options; following the money Iran may use for “malign purposes” under sanctions relief; strengthening the U.S. security relationship and collaboration with regional allies; and maintaining forward operating presence in the region.

Another senator asked about the Obama administration’s argument that the deal’s critics have presented no alternative and that walking away would make military action more likely. “Who is advising the president, then, that we must go to war if this deal is not signed?” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, asked Dempsey, the president’s top military advisor.

“At no time did that come up in our conversation nor did I make that comment,” Dempsey said. “I can’t answer that. I can tell you that we have a range of options and I always present them … Military strikes on a sovereign nation is an act of war, but there are things between here and there.”

Even as senators worried that the agreement could spark an arms race between Iran and its anxious neighbors, the Pentagon announced Saudi Arabia wants to buy 600 new Patriot missile interceptors.

But Carter said the deal heads off the most dangerous arms race. “I think logic would suggest if the agreement is implemented, meaning Iran would not have a nuclear weapon, it is less likely that others states in the region get a nuclear weapon,” he said.

McCain said the assessment of the nation’s top military leaders doesn’t give him confidence in the deal. “I have great respect for the opinion of many others who are adamantly opposed to it.... My own reading of the agreement is it’s very, very weak,” he said. “I think we just have a difference of opinion.”