Just after Labor Day, the U.S. Congress will consider a vital question: whether to support or reject an international agreement intended to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
This objective is critical to our national security. Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran, a sponsor of terrorism that considers the United States the “Great Satan,” would pose an enormous danger to America and an existential threat to Israel and our other allies in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would generate a destabilizing nuclear arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and possibly other Sunni nations seeking to counter-balance Iran, a Shiite nation.
The question, then, is whether the international agreement negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and Germany) is the best strategy for blocking Iran’s potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
This question is one of the most important that I will face representing Oregonians in the U.S. Senate. I have carefully read the agreement and met with policy experts, intelligence analysts, advocates, and the ambassadors of our partner nations to explore the strength of every argument and counter-argument. I have sought and received the counsel of Oregonians on both sides of the issue, and I deeply appreciate their passionate and extensive insights.
Taking all of this into account, I believe the agreement, titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is the best available strategy to block Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
I have not reached this conclusion without reservations. The deal has strengths but also significant shortcomings.
The JCPOA’s strongest aspect is that for 15 years it creates an effective framework for blocking Iran’s three pathways to development of a nuclear weapon: the uranium, plutonium, and covert paths.
It blocks the uranium path by requiring Iran to dismantle two-thirds of its centrifuges, reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 97% to no more than 300 kg (which is below the amount necessary for a single weapon), and limit enrichment to 3.67% (far below the 90% enrichment necessary for a nuclear bomb).
The agreement blocks Iran’s plutonium pathway by requiring Iran to pull out the core of its Arak reactor and to fill it with concrete, to build any replacement with a design that will not produce weapons-grade plutonium, and to forego the reprocessing of spent fuel.
And the agreement blocks a covert path to a bomb by imposing extensive inspections and monitoring, including tracking the entire uranium production cycle from mining forward, employing electronic instrumentation to monitor equipment, and providing for on-site inspections where a violation is suspected. It includes unprecedented procedures to guarantee that Iran cannot indefinitely stall those inspections; and even if the maximum 24 days are required before inspectors gain entry to a site, any work with radioactive material will be detectable. These measures make it, in the words of 75 non-proliferation experts and diplomats in a recent letter, “very likely that any future effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, even a clandestine program, would be detected promptly.”
But this agreement also has significant shortcomings. It does not block Iran’s importation of conventional arms, allowing Iran to acquire conventional arms after 5 years and ballistic missile technology after 8 years. It does not dictate how Iran can spend the dollars it reclaims from cash assets that are currently frozen. It does not permanently maintain bright lines on Iran’s nuclear research or nuclear energy program, lifting the 300 kg and 3.67% enrichment limits after 15 years.
These exclusions raise troubling concerns. It is certainly possible, perhaps probable, that Iran will use its additional resources and access to conventional arms to increase its support for terrorist groups. And it is certainly possible that Iran will use its nuclear research or nuclear energy program to provide a foundation for a future nuclear weapon program.
Because of these shortcomings, many have argued that the United States, instead of implementing the agreement, should withdraw from it, persuade our partners to set the agreement aside, and work together to negotiate a better deal.
However, the prospects for this are slim. All of our partners in the P5+1 believe that the current deal — in regard to its central goal of blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb — is sound. They have committed the good faith of their governments behind the agreement and intend to honor the deal as long as Iran does likewise, with or without the United States.
And Iran has every reason to honor the agreement even if the U.S. rejects it. The JCPOA fulfills Iran’s goal of lifting the international sanctions, providing access to billions of dollars from currently frozen accounts, and setting the stage for valuable trade and investment partnerships. If Iran were to follow this course, it would gain many benefits while leaving the United States at odds with the balance of the P5+1, undermining American influence.
On the other hand, if Iran were to exit the agreement in response to its rejection by the United States, the outcome is no better. The United States would be viewed by the international community as undermining a strong framework for peacefully blocking a potential Iranian bomb. Iran would be free of both the limits on its nuclear enrichment program and the extensive verification measures, greatly reducing confidence in the state of Iran’s nuclear activities. And international support for economic sanctions — which have met their aim of getting Iran to negotiate — would probably fray, with nations and companies eager to pursue long-delayed deals. This would give Iran some of the economic relief it is seeking without the burden of intrusive inspections.
In short, in this situation the international diplomatic and economic tools for blocking an Iranian bomb would be damaged, increasing reliance on military options while at the same time diminishing confidence in the actual state of Iran’s activities. This is a dangerous combination.
Thus, when all is added up, the best option for the U.S. is strong engagement in the JCPOA, utilizing that engagement to hold Iran strictly accountable to the agreement. This delivers a strong framework for ensuring Iran does not have a nuclear weapon program for at least 15 years and substantial time to respond if Iran attempts to launch such a program.
After 15 years, where there is substantial concern about the possibility of Iran making a “dash” for a bomb, Iran will still be subject to the JCPOA’s requirement that it will never “seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” In addition, it will continue to be subject to ongoing intensive monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The United States can and should work to strengthen this framework. It should direct a massive intelligence program to back up the JCPOA in the first 15 years and to strengthen the IAEA’s monitoring after 15 years. It should lead the international community in establishing, for the years after the bright lines on uranium enrichment expire, the size and enrichment level of Iran’s uranium stockpile that would constitute a violation of Iran’s commitment. And the United States needs to make clear that such a violation would have strong consequences.
In addition, the United States should be vigilant in monitoring Iran’s potential use of cash released from frozen accounts to increase support to terrorist groups and should amplify efforts to counter Iranian activities that destabilize the region.
No foreign policy choice comes with guarantees. The future, whether we approve or reject the deal, is unknowable and carries risks. But the agreement offers us better prospects for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and more tools and leverage to ensure that outcome.
Therefore, when the Senate debates the Iran agreement after Labor Day, I will vote to support it.