My thoughts on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Today, after a period of rigorous examination, Representative Jeffries has decided to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

In the next few weeks, Congress will take action to express its approval or disapproval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and Germany (P5+1), signed on July 14, 2015.

The upcoming vote on a Resolution of Disapproval will be a seminal one and has appropriately resulted in intense community interest. Accordingly, I have used the congressional review period to carefully analyze the text of the agreement, attend classified and unclassified briefings, as well as consult with stakeholders from all viewpoints, including the Administration and Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. In addition, I have taken the past few weeks to directly engage with constituents during town hall meetings, listening sessions and Congress On Your Corner events.

There are parts of the JCPOA that are groundbreaking in nature. Other portions of the agreement reasonably concern both supporters and opponents alike, including the expiration of many restrictions after 15 years and the monetary boost of at least $56 billion that the Iranian regime will receive. A rejection of the deal, however, will likely damage the credibility of American leadership in the world. Conversely, moving forward with the agreement will provide the United States with the moral high ground in the ¬ event future military action is needed, having given diplomacy ¬every opportunity to succeed. This deal is not perfect. Nevertheless, after rigorous examination, I have concluded that upholding the agreement and affirming the diplomatic path that has been charted represents the best course of action to prevent Iran from weaponizing its uranium and plutonium stockpiles.

I. The Nuclear Bomb

A nuclear armed Iran represents a direct threat to the United States and our allies in the region, particularly the State of Israel, and is unacceptable. In 2006, Iran announced that it would reactivate its dormant nuclear program, which it had paused in apparent response to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. When the program became fully operational in 2007, there were roughly 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges installed at Natanz, a sizable increase from the few hundred centrifuges they were last estimated to possess in 2002. However, at this point their nuclear efforts, and centrifuges in particular, continued to be plagued with malfunctions and other technical missteps. Over the next several years, continued Iranian advances brought the number of centrifuges within the nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz to over 16,000. In 2009, it was publicly revealed that Iran had secretly constructed a new uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. This site, where Iran ultimately housed about 2,700 centrifuges, is a hardened facility buried deep within a mountain. Accordingly, significant concern arose that it was protected from a military airstrike. Taken together, these advances led Iran, through its roughly 19,000 installed centrifuges, possessing a credible ability to enrich uranium to nearly 20 percent, to a point at which they were a technical step away from reaching weapons-grade purity. By 2013, Iran had brought itself to the cusp of having a nuclear bomb.

At this dangerous juncture, initial negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran yielded an Interim Agreement, which required Iran to eliminate its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. This, among the other provisions of the interim agreement, extended the Iranian “breakout” time by a month or two. Yet, unless and until the JCPOA is implemented, their nuclear program remains on the brink of possessing enough fissile material to produce a bomb.

In order to successfully preclude this unacceptable possibility, the JCPOA needed to close off both the plutonium and uranium pathways during the duration of the agreement. This goal was achieved. Iran must redesign and rebuild their only heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak such that it will no longer be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Through this rebuild, the JCPOA blocks all roads to a plutonium weapon. Significantly, the agreement also eliminates the uranium pathway through requiring that roughly 98 percent of their low-enriched uranium stockpile be shipped out of the country — a reduction from 12,000kg to 300kg — as well as restricting any future uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent purity. Iran will not be permitted to accumulate beyond the 300kg stockpile that they will be left with after implementation of the deal. It is also important to note that approximately 14,000 out of Iran’s total 19,000 centrifuges will be disconnected and stored — in a separate facility from those still active and under constant monitoring — to be used exclusively for spare parts. Collectively, these steps result in the “breakout” period extending to at least one year and must be taken by Iran prior to the receipt of any sanctions relief. Increasing the length of this period is essential in order to provide ample time to respond to a JCPOA violation, including a potential military strike.

The Inspection Protocol

The elements of the agreement that preclude development of a nuclear bomb through both the uranium and plutonium pathways are central to the JCPOA. However, standing alone, they are not sufficient to support the agreement given the inherent untrustworthiness of the Iranian regime. There are legitimate concerns with the inspection procedures established under the JCPOA, particularly with respect to undeclared sites. Nevertheless, the agreement provides for constant monitoring of the entire nuclear supply chain, extending from mining operations through the final processing of any fissile material. This is an unprecedented step in the context of an international nonproliferation agreement. Additionally, the JCPOA includes a dedicated procurement channel to ensure direct oversight of any transfers made to or from Iran that are connected to any aspect of its nuclear program. These provisions, which provide for the monitoring of all stages of the enrichment process, will make it difficult for Iran to violate the agreement at a declared site or develop a covert enrichment process.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have full and constant access to the declared locations at Arak, Fordow and Natanz, among others. In this regard, it will utilize human, photographic and electronic surveillance to closely monitor Iranian activity. With respect to undeclared sites, the IAEA can request access with 1-day advance notification. Of course, in certain circumstances the Iranians can delay such an inspection for up to twenty-four days. The absence of “anytime-anywhere” access in the context of undeclared sites is understandably troubling. However, in my view, it is not a basis to reject the agreement for two reasons. First, it is likely that the sophisticated intelligence apparatus of the United States — and that of our allies in Israel and Western Europe — will be able to determine well in advance of a successful reconstruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that covert activity in violation of the agreement has occurred. Second, trace elements of radioactivity are a detectable byproduct of the enrichment process and would expose the existence of covert Iranian activity to IAEA inspectors well beyond the 24-day period.

The “Snapback” of Sanctions

The “snapback” provisions negotiated in the agreement are strong, a fact acknowledged by detractors but used as evidence against their likelihood of deployment. Under the JCPOA, if the United States determines that Iran is in violation, we have the ability to re-impose through unilateral action the entire United Nations (U.N.) sanctions regime. The agreement provides that after a member of the P5+1 or the IAEA reports illicit activity, sanctions are put back into effect unless the Security Council votes to maintain the current level of sanctions relief. Through this provision, we denied the Iranian goal of being able to count on friendly nations — Russia — or those that desire access to Iranian oil — China — to veto any U.N. resolution to re-impose sanctions. This process places the burden on Iran to demonstrate it is not violating the JCPOA, with the United States essentially acting as the sole arbiter. That is an important negotiating victory.

Still, legitimate concerns have also been raised with respect to our willingness to “snapback” sanctions, given the severity of this step in the face of modest Iranian violations. While both the JCPOA and the Security Council resolution provide a mechanism whereby serious consequences could be imposed on Iran, no limitations whatsoever are placed on the P5+1’s freedom to choose another option. Moreover, established international law expressly gives states the right to reciprocal proportionate responses to violations of agreements and treaties. This can be exercised individually, through separate countries choosing to reinstitute their sanctions regime entirely, or in partnership with others. Alternatively, using the prospect of full re-imposition of U.N. sanctions as a negotiating tool, the United States, or any other signatory nation, would be able to negotiate from a position of strength. In this regard, it would be possible to secure agreement by the Security Council to a partial “snapback” of sanctions, pending the Iranian regime’s return to full compliance. If at that point violations continue or are not corrected, the ability to re-impose the entire U.N. sanctions regime with or without the support of any other nation will remain available.

Expiration Period

International law and the JCPOA recognize that Iran does have the capacity to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program and is permitted, after the expiration of certain provisions, to make advances toward that end. Opponents of the agreement credibly argue that as we approach the end of the 15-year lifespan of the deal’s restrictions, which prevent advances in Iran’s nuclear capacity, the regime could sprint toward weaponizing the uranium stockpile without sufficient time to respond. It is true that after fifteen years Iran will be allowed to have a larger nuclear energy program. However, the JCPOA provides for continuous surveillance of centrifuge production and Iran’s uranium ore for twenty and twenty-five years, respectively. In addition to the unprecedented depth of knowledge we will acquire through the first fifteen years of the agreement, this will help ensure our continued ability to determine whether nuclear material and other supplies are being siphoned off for any covert activity. Moreover, Iran remains a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which provides an indefinite prohibition on nuclear militarization. The Iranian regime has further committed to compliance with the Additional Protocol, negotiated with the IAEA as part of the deal on an indefinite basis. Through these ongoing methods of monitoring and inspection, a robust American intelligence capacity, and a deeper level of understanding of the Iranian nuclear program that will be gained under the JCPOA — the United States can continue to maintain vigilant watch for any illicit nuclear activity beyond the 15-year window.

The Military Option

The third provision of the JCPOA expressly states that, “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” This commitment does not lapse. Rather, it is an indefinite obligation. Additionally, the agreement specifies that Iran is subject to the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in perpetuity. It places no limitations on what actions the United States can take militarily during the duration of the JCPOA and beyond, in the event of an Iranian breach of the deal.

Until recently, there were significant concerns regarding whether the U.S. had the capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities through airstrikes alone, particularly the hardened one at Fordow.

President Obama, however, directed the Pentagon to ensure that the United States had a viable military option capable of dealing a crippling blow to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Accordingly, the Pentagon requested improvements to its latest “bunker-buster” bomb shortly after the Air Force took the first delivery in September 2011 — having determined the initial version was not powerful enough to destroy certain hardened Iranian nuclear facilities. These improvements resulted in the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP). Weighing in at 30,000 pounds, it is the largest non-nuclear bomb ever produced. Tests of the redesigned bomb in early 2015 demonstrated that the MOP is capable of penetrating Iran’s fortified nuclear facilities. Development and successful testing of the MOP brings to life the President’s repeated promise that “when it comes to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, all options are and will remain on the table.” In so doing, availability of the MOP increased my comfort level in supporting the agreement.

II. Iranian Aggression in the Middle East

Iran is a rogue nation and the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror through, among other things, its subsidization of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The regime also supports a tyrannical dictator in Syria who butchers his own people. Worse yet, Iran continues to threaten our closest ally in the region, Israel, with destruction and annihilation. These facts, through the lens of history, are the cause of understandable alarm. As a result of the sanctions relief provided by the JCPOA, at minimum, Iran will receive an additional $56 billion in unallocated currency reserves. A substantial amount of this non-committed money may, as a result of domestic policy imperatives, be spent to improve their hemorrhaging financial situation (the Iranian economy has contracted by more than 20 percent as a result of the multilateral sanctions). However, it is undeniable and deeply troubling that a significant portion of this money will likely be used for illicit purposes.

The funds in question were largely deposited before restrictions on the movement of these assets were imposed through the multilateral sanctions regime (and also include oil sales proceeds earned since that restriction went into effect). American rejection of the agreement, therefore, would not completely halt the transfer of funds to Iran, and by extension the Revolutionary Guard. According to the Treasury Department, Iran’s foreign exchange reserves are held by many banks around the world, and particularly in those of the regime’s five main oil customers: China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey. Given international support for the agreement, and the vested interest those nations have in resuming business ties with Iran, it is unlikely that a rejection of the agreement by the United States Congress can thwart the transfer of $56 billion to the Iranian Central Bank.

My analysis, however, does not end there. Irrespective of exactly how much money Iran is ultimately able to direct toward its malignant activity in the region, this enhanced capacity, which may eventually include Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, is clearly troublesome. In response, the United States must quantifiably enhance assistance to Israel and our other allies in the region. A core component of our elevated engagement must be continued commitment to preserving Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) — the technological, tactical and intelligence advantages that allow our closest ally to decisively defeat any credible conventional military threat from numerically superior adversaries. It is important that Israel continue to possess the most advanced weapons systems possible. In 2016, Israel will become our first and only ally in the region to fly the brand new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which represents the next generation in air combat. That commitment must remain ironclad.

Our partnership on traditional and ballistic missile defense has already produced the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow system. Moving forward, we must work together to increase the range and reliability of these systems, bolstering highly effective defensive layers to Israel’s military arsenal. Most significantly, it is important to diligently negotiate a replacement to the current 10-year defense pact, which provides Israel about $3 billion in military aid each year and expires in 2018. A new 10-year aid package should include a substantial increase in funding and receive swift congressional approval upon presentation. Taken together, the Congress in a clear-eyed, unwavering and bipartisan fashion should legislatively, programmatically and through the appropriations process support Israel in the tough neighborhood within which it resides.

III. Pathway to a Better Deal?

A military strike at this point would only temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and could result in a prolonged and bloody conflict that entangles the United States, Israel and our other allies in the Middle East. That is not an acceptable option. Unquestionably, diplomacy is the preferred course of action in stopping the Iranian march to a nuclear bomb. In concluding my analysis, I endeavored to thoroughly probe whether an alternative path exists to a stronger agreement with Iran.

Multilateral Sanctions Regime

It is widely accepted that the totality of global sanctions crippled the Iranian economy and helped bring the regime to the negotiating table. As a result of our partnership with traditional adversaries such as Russia and China, and the willingness of India, South Korea and Japan to refrain from the purchase of Iranian oil, uniform international cooperation set in motion the process for reaching the JCPOA.

Some opponents have argued that if Congress rejects the agreement before us, we could then re-impose sanctions, force the Iranians back to the negotiating table and thereby secure a “better” deal. However, the agreement is one that all of those aforementioned countries, as well as our closest European allies, strongly support and have ratified by a U.N. Security Council resolution. If America walks away through congressional rejection, it is unlikely that our negotiating partners in the P5+1, who are eager to resume business with Iran and gain access to their natural resources, would agree to reconstitute the present multilateral sanctions regime. Moreover, it would be incredibly difficult to convince the Far Eastern and South Asian countries that are anxious for Iranian oil to once again refrain from its purchase. This point has been underscored by credible voices beyond current executive branch officials, including former Bush Administration Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. As Secretary Paulson recently explained, “Unilateral sanctions don’t work. They really have to be multilateral. As someone who spent a lot of time dealing with the Europeans and Japanese, and looking at the financial system, I can just tell you how hard it was — even when we found abuses and went to the governments — to get their governments to enforce it. So, it’s a difficult thing. [I think] it’s totally unrealistic to believe that if we backed out of this deal that the multilateral sanctions would stay in place. I’m just trying to envision us sanctioning European banks or enforcing them, or Japanese banks, or big Chinese banks.”

The American Banking System

Opponents of the deal have advanced the colorable argument that sanctions applied through the American banking system would be sufficient to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. This would be achieved by forcing other nations to make a choice between continued participation in the American financial infrastructure or the pursuit of the newly available business opportunities in Iran. It is a theoretically attractive proposition when considering the appeal of the U.S. banking system and the continued importance of American currency throughout the world. The prospect that international corporations could face potentially billions of dollars in fines, depending entirely on the degree to which any future administration would enforce secondary banking sanctions, might encourage compliance with our policy preferences. Before reaching a conclusion, I felt compelled to thoroughly consider this possibility.

Peril of Secondary Sanctions

Despite the threshold appeal of this argument, I have concluded that the interconnectedness of the global economy — as recently demonstrated by the rapid, world-wide spread of volatility in the markets — makes unilateral action unlikely to succeed. Put another way, an attempt to re-impose an effective sanctions regime through leveraging the strength and influence of the American banking system is not a viable path forward.

One of the few attempts to actively enforce secondary sanctions took place in the late 1990’s and sought to deter investment and trade with Cuba, extending the U.S. embargo extraterritorially to cover foreign persons and corporations. Using the Helms-Burton Act, the United States sought to penalize any person or business that engaged “in a commercial activity using or otherwise benefiting from confiscated property.” As a vast amount of property was confiscated when the communist Castro regime took power, and nationalized many industries, the act essentially targeted any international economic activity with Cuba. This effort was widely seen by other countries as an unwelcome and objectionable attempt to substitute the foreign policy and trade objectives of the United States for those of other sovereign governments. The European Union — as well as individual member states — challenged the secondary sanctions regime through the World Trade Organization. Ultimately, the United States relented and ceased our efforts to force international compliance with unilateral American sanctions related to Cuba.

Similarly, in the current context, the attempt to impose secondary banking sanctions would likely meet with strong resistance. Consequently, we would have to threaten some of our closest allies and economic partners, including nations that are responsible for over half of our total trade. The outcome of this type of high stakes financial showdown is uncertain, and could backfire, resulting in adverse consequences for our gross domestic product should America be compelled to follow through on cutting off some of our trading partners from the U.S. banking system.

Equally problematic, an attempt to impose secondary banking sanctions on reluctant countries eager to do business with Iran is complicated by our country’s $18 trillion national debt, $6 trillion of which is held by foreign entities. Two of the nations we might seek to coerce, China and Japan, hold $1.27 trillion and $1.2 trillion respectively, in U.S. Treasuries and account for 40 percent of all foreign-held debt. Upon inclusion of Taiwan, India, South Korea and Russia — countries eager for Iranian oil or access to their market — that amount rises to $2.92 trillion, over 47 percent of U.S. National Debt held abroad.

A sudden withdrawal from U.S. Treasury securities, for instance, could be catastrophic. While dramatic due to the global impact, at the first indication that a foreign government was attempting to liquidate a large part of its holdings, the price of such Treasury securities would likely plummet and the wider American market could face immediate and significant losses. For instance, in November 2007, a report that was later repudiated asserted that Chinese officials were considering shifting $1.4 trillion of China’s foreign currency reserves out of dollar-denominated assets. Investors immediately responded and the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 360 points in one day, while the dollar sank against other major currencies. An actual step in this direction would be exponentially worse.

A foreign sovereign could also elect to refrain from any further purchase of U.S. Treasuries, a move with considerably less negative exposure for that government. Over time this could steeply reduce the amount of capital available to our economy. As long as demand for credit far outstrips the domestic supply, such an action would result in a steady rise of interest rates, make it increasingly difficult to finance a budget deficit or even service the existing national debt. In short, the American economy would be adversely impacted.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently observed that “[if] we were to cut them off from the American dollar and our financial system, we would set off extensive financial hemorrhaging, not just in our partner countries but in the United States as well.” In this regard, after careful study, I agree with the perils of this approach. Therefore, I am unable to conclude that a viable path to a better deal exists in the aftermath of congressional rejection of the JCPOA. Consequently, we likely would be left without the upside of a globally endorsed and reasonably strong nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran, and no means of forcing the regime back to the negotiating table. That is an untenable result.

IV. Moving Forward

The agreement, while imperfect, provides the United States in the current geopolitical and economic climate with the best opportunity to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Moving forward, Congress will play an important role in guaranteeing that sufficient resources are deployed for the implementation of the JCPOA and our increased efforts to counter Iran’s activities throughout the Middle East. First, we must ensure that the IAEA receives adequate funding to wholly fulfill its newly designated responsibilities. They are the front line of verification and enforcement and we must be confident in their ability to detect illicit activity. Second, it is required by law that every 90 days the President certify to Congress that Iran remains in full compliance with the agreement. This will provide a quarterly opportunity for congressional oversight and a transparent review of any potential Iranian violations. Third, Congress must examine the methods by which we can increase pressure on Iran and make the consequences clear, should they continue to support terror, threaten Israel and undermine our other allies in the Middle East. The JCPOA only affects sanctions put in place as a response to Iranian nuclear activity. The United States is free to maintain or even strengthen other existing sanctions, a possibility Congress should seriously consider in the event of continued Iranian non-nuclear misbehavior.

For the reasons set forth above, I conclude that the JCPOA is the most preferable vehicle to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Accordingly, I will vote against a Resolution of Disapproval.