The Senate has no weightier responsibility this fall than consideration of the nuclear agreement recently negotiated by the United States, key world powers, and Iran. The decision facing each Senator this week will be whether to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or to reject it. For me, this decision has been as difficult as they come.
The fundamental question for me is what this agreement means for the prospects of Iran getting a nuclear bomb. This agreement with the duplicitous and untrustworthy Iranian regime falls short of what I had envisioned, however I have decided the alternatives are even more dangerous.
At home in Oregon I’ve made it a practice to attend as many of the demobilizations for servicemembers coming home as I can. Many Oregon Guard members are returning from their second, third, or fourth tour of duty. I felt I owed it to them to use the time available to really dig into this agreement. I read it and reread it and read it again.
As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I’ve always pursued international challenges based on two core principles: 1) try hard-nosed diplomacy first, and 2) be guided by the facts. That second principle was especially relevant in 2002 when I stood with just 22 other Senators to oppose the war in Iraq. I continue to believe that if my side had prevailed on the Iraq question, the Senate might not be considering this Iran resolution before us now.
Two years ago, I made the decision to support the President’s efforts to negotiate with the Iranians. I did, however, make it clear that I was skeptical about the prospects. Iran’s leaders have lied to the international community about their interest in nuclear weapons for decades and they were even caught doing what they said they would not do: constructing secret facilities to build a nuclear bomb. My skepticism was grounded in the history of Iran’s deception and my doubt that Iranian leaders would honor any commitments they made about a nuclear weapon.
My bottom line for any agreement has always been that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unthinkable. There is no need to debate the finer implications of an Iranian bomb. In the hands of a theocratic regime with stated genocidal goals it would be an existential threat to modern civilization. It is the fundamental obligation of all civilized nations to prevent any government or group that has declared as its goal the destruction of another nation or people from acquiring and deploying such a weapon by any and all means.
I began reviewing the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with all of this mind.
The basic premise of the Iran agreement is straightforward: the Iranians get billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for a decade or more of restrictions on their nuclear activities and infrastructure.
Critics of this agreement have raised a number of important, serious, and reasonable questions. First, with respect to sanctions relief, Iran is the largest supporter of state-sponsored terrorism in the world. It is very disturbing that in all probability, a large portion of the funds derived from sanctions relief will flow to Hezbollah and other groups working to destabilize the region.
Having recognized that, the quandary is that if the United States rejects this agreement, Iran will get more money anyway. That’s because our allies have indicated that they will not support continuing the international sanctions that have been so effective. So whether the agreement passes or fails, the Iranians are likely to get some form of sanctions relief.
Critics are right that this agreement requires Iran’s leaders to freeze many activities rather than completely destroy or dismantle their nuclear infrastructure, as I and others had called for. When key restraints begin to expire in 10 to 15 years?—?a blink of an eye to a country that measures its history in millennia?—?our country will still have to deal with an Iranian leadership that wants to build an industrial-scale nuclear enrichment program. That’s a big problem, but in the absence of this agreement, Iran will have an even quicker path to a bomb, particularly with the certainty international sanctions will unravel without this agreement.
Critics are also right that the Iranian regime will undoubtedly look to push the limits of this agreement. Given the nature of the Iranian regime and its history on this issue, the U.S. must be ready for Iran to attempt to violate its commitments in large and small ways. All contracts and agreements, commercial and diplomatic, are premised on the idea that one side or the other may attempt to violate them. Much of the language of such deals is intended to police those violations. I believe the American government and our allies are entering into this deal with clear eyes and appropriate caution.
I and others have been able to secure from the President written commitments that the administration will treat cheating, however small, as a serious problem warranting a strong response and that our allies will stand with us against Iranian violations, regardless of the commercial interests that may develop over time. We have agreements with our allies to take the strongest possible actions against Iran if it does not fully live up to its end of this deal. These agreements ensure that all of the parties on our side have the complete set of economic, political and security incentives to police and prevent violations of this deal. I will use my seat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to push for zero tolerance for violations.
Finally, opponents are right to be concerned by the issue of access agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran. These two access agreements contain the technical details for how Iran will satisfy international concerns about the past military dimensions of its nuclear program broadly and about one military site in particular. While current rules stipulate that agreements between the IAEA and member countries are not typically shared, this is not a typical case and Iran is not a typical country. I intend to use my position on the Intelligence Committee to push for reforms at the IAEA.
But it is important to note that these access agreements are about reviewing past Iranian activities, the essential details of which are already known. In my judgment the international community’s central concern should be restricting Iran’s current and future nuclear activities.
Having taken part in many negotiations over three decades of public service, I am keenly aware that no agreement satisfies every demand. Rather, the question I have been wrestling with over these past weeks is whether this agreement is more likely than any alternative to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program in its tracks.
This agreement does contain restrictions on the Iranian program.
- It will reduce Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent, from 10,000 kilograms?—?which is enough for several nuclear bombs?—?to 300 kilograms, which would not be enough for a nuclear weapon.
- It will prohibit Iran from enriching uranium beyond 3.67 percent U-235 for at least 15 years?—?well below the 90 percent needed to make weapons.
- It will remove two-thirds of the 19,000 centrifuges currently installed in Iran and place them under international supervision, and will limit the remaining centrifuges to first-generation technology.
- It will force Iran to redesign its plutonium reactor so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium, and it will require Iran to ship spent fuel from that reactor out of the country indefinitely.
- And the inspections regime, while not as robust as I would support, will for the first time allow for a review of Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain from uranium mines to centrifuge production plants.
Having talked to the technical experts who will be involved with the implementation of this agreement, I have come to the conclusion that its many overlapping provisions will make it exceedingly difficult for the Iranians to build a nuclear weapon in the short term and will lengthen the time required should they choose to break their commitments and try to build one in the future. But weighing these benefits against this agreement’s shortcomings is a tough call and I think people can reasonably disagree about the final verdict.
No one can be certain what will happen if this agreement is rejected, but all signs point to even more risk and even less stability in the region. Our international partners, who helped negotiate this agreement and who now stand behind it, have only reinforced that point, both in public and in my private conversations. If this agreement is rejected the most likely scenario is not one in which a chastened Iran returns to the negotiating table hat in hand to make additional concessions, but rather one where Iran’s leaders continue to test and install new centrifuges and edge ever closer to the bomb, free from the intrusive inspections that this agreement would create. When negotiations between the Europeans and Iran broke down during the Bush administration, Iran went from less than a thousand centrifuges to many thousands. If the U.S. rejects this agreement, I see no reason why the mullahs won’t run the same play again, adding to the already 19,000 centrifuges they currently have.
Nothing about this decision is based on a hope that Iran’s leaders will moderate over time. I have watched for more than three decades the nefarious role this regime has played in the region. When I first came to Congress in January of 1981, supporters of the Islamic Revolution were holding captive more than 50 Americans in blatant violation of international law. Today there can be little dispute that Iran is the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism. I do not discount Tehran’s decades of deceit and I do not believe this or any other agreement is likely to change the fundamental character of this odious regime. Nor do I dismiss as mere rhetoric the statements made by Iranian leaders about Americans and Israelis. As somebody who lost family in Theresienstadt, I agree that when people express a desire to harm you, the safe bet is to take them at face value. The ayatollahs of Iran must never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Given that there is now enough support for this agreement in the Senate, the task before all of us is to ensure that this and future administrations implement the agreement fully and enforce it vigorously. It is the responsibility of this Congress to oversee this implementation with all the tools at its disposal. This vote will hardly be the end of the Senate’s consideration of Iranian malfeasance and responding to the ongoing threats posed by Iran’s leaders will require people to move on after this debate and come together again with common purpose. With that in mind, I will vote to support the agreement.
Successfully countering Iranian influence will require the U.S. to shore up our relations with allies in the region, and a renewed focus on supporting moderate, non-theocratic, groups and governments. It will also require a renewed focus on the vital importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance. To that end, I will be working with colleagues in the Senate and the House to strengthen security assistance and cooperation with Israel, and to ensure if Iran’s leaders ever decide to recklessly charge toward war, Israel and the United States will have a qualitative military edge so significant that success will never be in doubt.
*Ron Wyden (Democrat) is a Senator for the State of Oregon.