With the battle intensifying over the deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons as Congress conducts a 60-day review, a key charge that critics are making is that the Obama administration caved on a commitment to seek the dismantlement of Tehran’s nuclear program.
Except that it didn’t. Dismantlement of the Iranian program was never administration policy.
The charge is one of the arguments that opponents are airing to persuade Congress to pass a resolution barring the United States from lifting sanctions on Iran. With hearings on the deal to begin Thursday in the Senate, President Barack Obama has promised to veto any congressional action aimed at blocking his top foreign policy priority.
Some of the criticism, like the alleged surrender on dismantlement, is misleading or inaccurate. But that’s partly the price that President Barack Obama is paying for misstatements that he and one of his chief negotiators, Secretary of State John Kerry, made in the past.
Administration officials also have been loose with some of the arguments that they’re using to defend the air-tightness of the accord, which was finalized last week between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany after two years of talks.
An example: Iran would be punished for violations of the deal by the “snap back” of international sanctions that are to be lifted in return for Iranian steps that shut off pathways to a weapon through the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
It’s unclear how the United States and its allies would respond to minor violations – for example, slightly exceeding the 3.67 percent purity standard for enriched uranium – and it’s uncertain if Washington could rally sufficient support for the re-imposition of tough sanctions for minor breaches, especially if European firms are heavily invested in Iran.
“When Iran cheats, they cheat incrementally,” said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, a policy institute that’s lobbying against the deal.
Here are some key arguments that will be made for and against the deal during the 60-day congressional review, which commenced Monday.
Retreat on Dismantlement
Critics, including Senate International Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a GOP presidential hopeful, charge that the administration retreated from seeking the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program.
Corker and Graham, their spokesmen said, based their charge on an assertion made by Obama in an Oct. 22, 2012, debate with then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. During the debate, Obama said that, “The deal we’ll accept is that they (Iran) end their nuclear program. It’s very straight forward.”
Corker and Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also cited Kerry as saying at a Dec. 10, 2014, hearing before Royce’s panel that dismantlement was the goal.
That’s not exactly what Kerry said.
“But I don’t think that any of us thought that we were just imposing these sanctions for the sake of imposing them. We did it because we knew it would hopefully help Iran dismantle its nuclear program. That was the whole point of the regime,” asserted Kerry.
In both instances, however, Obama and Kerry were misstating their own policy.
Obama had made it clear four days before Kerry’s misstatement that he wasn’t seeking dismantlement.
“If we could create an option in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program and forswore the possibility of ever having a nuclear program, and for that matter got rid of all of its military capabilities, I would take it,” Obama said at the Brookings Institution, a policy institute. “But I want to make sure everybody understands it: that particular option is not available.”
Gary Samore, Obama’s first-term non-proliferation adviser and the head of United Against A Nuclear Iran, a bipartisan advocacy group, said that policy initially called for Iran to comply with U.N demands to “suspend” uranium enrichment “until confidence was restored in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”
“Note that ‘suspension’ is not the same as dismantlement,” Samore, executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said by email.
“We evaluated different options for limiting enrichment – numbers and types of centrifuges, stocks of enriched uranium, enrichment levels, etc. – as well as different formulations for the duration of these limits.”
That approach is reflected in the deal’s time-bound limits designed to extend from 2-3 months to a year the time that Iran would need to ramp up restricted low-enriched uranium production to producing a single bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium.
The administration is fending off charges that it reneged on a vow to ensure that U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors get immediate access to any Iranian sites, including military bases, when they suspect prohibited nuclear activities may be going on.
Kerry insisted on Fox News Sunday that, “There is no such standard within arms control inspections. We never had a discussion about ‘anywhere, anytime’ managed access.”
Both Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and Moniz, however, did separately use the phrase before the agreement was reached to describe access. But they were referring to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, where IAEA inspectors and tamper-proof monitoring devices will be deployed indefinitely.
The controversy involves non-nuclear facilities, like military bases. If the IAEA suspects that banned nuclear work is underway at those facilities, the deal sets up a 24-day process that ultimately gives the United States and its European allies the ability to require IAEA access.
Administration officials insist that during that period, satellites and other means would detect Iranian efforts to sanitize suspect facilities, triggering the “snap back” of punishing international sanctions. Moreover, they say, it would be impossible to erase traces of uranium or plutonium.
But some experts remain concerned, asserting that not all weapons work involves radioactive elements.
Olli Heinonen, a former deputy IAEA director who oversaw inspections in Iran, said that evidence of banned nuclear work could be swept from a small secret facility in 24 days. He cited two cases in 2003 in which Iranian technicians covered up uranium enrichment.
“Much of this equipment is very easy to move. So you can take it out over the night,” he said Tuesday. “Then there is this dispute settlement time which is 24 days: you will use that to sanitize the place, make new floors, new tiles on the wall, paint the ceiling and take out the ventilation.”
Iran can secretly develop nukes
Some opponents charge that Iran still will be able to evade detection by the IAEA and the combined intelligence resources, including spies, of the United States, its European allies and Israel, and secretly build nuclear weapons.
“I think we have to assume that they will cheat on the deal,” Sen. Tom Cotton, the Republican freshman from Arkansas who has been vociferous in his opposition to the agreement, asserted on MSNBC on July 19.
Indeed, Iran succeeded in concealing its uranium enrichment program for 18 years until an opposition group disclosed its existence in 2002.
But monitoring technologies have come a long way since then, U.S. officials and other advocates say. And those technologies and up to 150 inspectors will be deployed at Iranian facilities under the most intrusive international monitoring system ever designed, to track every part of Iran’s program from mining to enrichment.
Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association, a policy institute that supports the deal, said that Iran would have to secretly duplicate its entire uranium enrichment program and the associated facilities to obtain a nuclear weapon undetected.
“The chances of them doing that are miniscule,” she said.
Some experts, however, worry that Iran could launch a covert weapons program as enrichment restrictions phase out between the 10th and 15th years of the deal.
“The agreement essentially kicks the can down the road,” said an analysis published Wednesday by the Institute for Science and International Security, a policy organization headed by David Albright, a former IAEA inspector.
Iranian officials, the analysis said, laid out during the negotiations plans to ramp up their nuclear program after year 10 with advanced centrifuges. By year 15, the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon – if Iran chose to do so – “could shrink to just days,” it said.
The analysis recommended steps that the United States and its allies should take to prevent Iran from reaching that point, including making clear that they oppose “its nuclear plans after year 10” as Tehran has shown “no practical need for producing enriched uranium.”
“That effort needs to start now,” it said.