WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke today at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., to offer his assessment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action one year since world powers reached the agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.
Video of Senator Coons’ remarks, and a subsequent Q&A moderated by Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius, is available at the Council on Foreign Relations' website here.
Senator Coons’ opening remarks as prepared for delivery:
REMARKS TO THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
“AN ASSESSMENT OF THE IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT ONE YEAR LATER”
THURSDAY, JUNE 23, 2016
Today, as we approach one year since the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA, I will evaluate whether this deal has succeeded and explain what I’ve done to honor my commitment to aggressively oversee its implementation and enforcement.
Last year, after closely scrutinizing the terms of the deal, I concluded it represented the least-bad option for achieving one of America’s most important foreign policy goals: preventing Iran from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Since “Implementation Day” of the agreement in January, we’ve seen real and meaningful progress toward that goal.
Iran shipped twelve tons – nearly its entire stockpile – of enriched uranium out of the country. The Iranian regime reduced by two-thirds its number of functioning uranium enrichment centrifuges, and Iran permanently reengineered its heavy water reactor at Arak by filling its core with concrete. These steps cut off Iran’s most likely short-term pathways to producing a nuclear weapon with either uranium or plutonium.
Iran also gave the International Atomic Energy Agency, or the IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog, unprecedented, 24-7 access to monitor all of its declared nuclear facilities. That access covers Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, from uranium mines and mills to centrifuge production and enrichment facilities, including every known nuclear site in Iran.
These steps have temporarily frozen Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. As a result of Iran’s initial compliance with the agreement, the time it would take Iran to “break out” and assemble enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon has been extended from just two to three months to a year or more.
So, measured by whether the agreement has prevented Iran from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon, this deal has so far been successful.
But I have long suspected Iran would seek to push the boundaries of the deal in minor ways to test how the United States and our allies would respond.
Earlier this week, I met with Ambassador Steve Mull, the Obama administration’s Lead Coordinator for Iran Nuclear Implementation. I heard what I expected: the departments of State, Treasury, and Energy, and our intelligence community, are working together to monitor and enforce the JCPOA. American officials also communicate regularly with their Iranian counterparts, the European Union, and other parties to the deal.
As I anticipated, there have been a handful of occasions in the past year in which the United States mobilized our P5+1 partners to hold Iran to the parameters of the JCPOA.
Here’s a public example: when Iran’s heavy water stockpile in February briefly reached 130.9 metric tons, above the JCPOA limit of 130 metric tons, the IAEA quickly observed and reported the anomaly, and Iran addressed it.
There are a few other incidents I can’t describe in public, but in each case, the United States rallied our international partners to address a discrepancy or disagreement and enforced a strict interpretation of the deal.
In the years to come, we must remain focused on aggressive enforcement. Congressional oversight will be critical.
But we also have to continue to push back on Iran’s destabilizing and provocative actions outside the parameters of the nuclear agreement.
From its repeated calls for the destruction of Israel, to its support for terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, to its ongoing illegal ballistic missile tests and human rights violations, Iran is not a responsible state seeking to rejoin the international community.
Yet, these actions also underscore an important point about the deal: the JCPOA was, is, and will most likely remain a transactional – not transformational – agreement.
This deal seeks to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb – not bring Iran into the community of nations. Only a real change in direction by the Iranian government can do that.
Rather than walking away from the deal, the United States must remain engaged and lead the international community’s enforcement of the agreement.
As I tell my Senate colleagues, regardless of whether you opposed or supported the JCPOA, we have a shared interest in working together to make sure this deal succeeds.
With that said, where are we today, nearly one year into the deal?
Two things have not changed.
First, Iran remains untrustworthy. Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has pursued interests and advocated values completely opposed to those of the West. Its approach to regional crises has not changed.
Second, Iran continues to exploit weak states and power vacuums. We must disrupt Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and support our regional partners, most importantly by concluding a strengthened, 10-year Memorandum of Understanding with Israel.
Two additional points are worth emphasizing.
Broadly, the past year has shown that international engagement and multilateral diplomacy can be effective – even with rogue states like Iran. There is value in talking to our enemies.
More specifically, we are today engaged in a public disagreement with Iran about whether it is seeing the benefits of the deal.
When Valiollah Seif [vah-le-O-lah sah-EEF], Governor of Iran’s central bank, spoke here at the Council on Foreign Relations in April, he argued that the United States and our European allies have not honored our JCPOA obligations because Iran has not received the benefit of broader access to the international financial system.
Here’s how I see it: the United States has upheld our end of the bargain. We have not prevented Iran from receiving economic benefits associated with the deal.
Iran’s recent economic activity – increases in oil exports, billions of dollars in business deals, and projected economic growth of three to five percent – also casts doubt on Iran’s claims.
Iran alone is responsible for making its market an attractive, safe place in which to do business. For many individuals and corporations, Iran is neither attractive nor safe. By entertaining Iranian complaints of inadequate sanctions relief, we risk giving these claims legitimacy.
If Iran is unhappy with the level of economic benefits it has received since the JCPOA, it has only itself and its actions to blame.
Today, as we look beyond year one of the JCPOA to five, ten, or even fifteen years from now, one thing is clear: if this agreement is to succeed, long-term congressional oversight of Iran remains essential.
This oversight falls into two categories, starting with congressional pushback on Iran’s bad behavior outside the deal’s parameters.
That’s why I’ve been outspoken on the floor of the Senate in calling for stronger efforts to interdict Iranian arms shipments to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
I’ve asked foreign leaders – including those from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar, India, and Russia – about how to strengthen our efforts to counter Iranian aggression.
I’ve urged Congress to provide the administration with unilateral authority to address Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile tests, given the inertia in the UN Security Council.
I’ve called on the administration to levy additional sanctions against IRGC-linked entities, like Mahan Air, which Treasury has done.
I’ve secured increased funding for the Department of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, which enforces these sanctions.
But Congress must also remain engaged in overseeing enforcement of the nuclear deal itself.
In January, I visited IAEA headquarters in Vienna, where I met with the Director General Amano. The JCPOA allows hundreds of nuclear inspectors to oversee Iran’s nuclear program through remote online enrichment monitoring and intrusive in-person inspections. These inspectors train in America’s unique national labs, are funded by the U.S. Congress, and utilize cutting-edge technology largely developed by American scientists.
Because we are asking the IAEA to engage in an unprecedented level of oversight, Director General Amano has recently raised concerns his agency is “stretched” thin as it implements this deal. That’s why Congress must do its part to make sure the IAEA has long-term, reliable resources. This IAEA responsibility has taken on even greater importance this week, given news that the agency has detected signs of North Korean plutonium reprocessing.
I’ve repeatedly called on Congress to take full advantage of the IAEA’s unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program by increasing the United States’ voluntary financial contribution to the agency, which would encourage our international partners to do their part, too.
I’ve pressed for the confirmation of Laura Holgate as U.S. Ambassador to UN Offices in Vienna, which includes the IAEA.
I’ve also called for renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, so we have a viable mechanism to snap back sanctions if Iran violates the JCPOA.
I intend to uphold my commitment to oversee strict enforcement of this deal, regardless of who is elected president this fall.
As our moderator wrote in a recent column, “the Iran nuclear agreement deserves more attention in this [presidential] campaign.”
I couldn’t agree more.
If we abandon the JCPOA, we don’t end up with a better agreement, nor do we end up with no agreement. Instead, our partners around the world will most likely develop a strategy to deal with Iran without American input or leadership.
If we abandon this agreement, we signal that we give up on diplomacy. We lose valuable intelligence. We forego the support of our allies. We close communications channels to Iranian leaders that have helped restrain Iran’s nuclear program.
Frankly, that’s exactly what the most conservative elements in Iran want.
Let me be clear: we can and should distinguish between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people.
The people of Iran continue to turn out at the polls to vote, even in elections that are neither free nor fair. They have repeatedly demonstrated in the streets for democracy and engagement, risking life and limb to do so. The Iranian people deserve our support in their struggle for democracy and human rights, especially during this holy month of Ramadan, as Muslims around the world are reflecting on hope and peace.
But the Iranian regime deserves condemnation for a decades-long pattern of human rights abuses, support for terrorism, and other bad behavior.
The government of Iran remains a dangerous, revolutionary regime, and it will continue to present a potential nuclear threat for decades to come.
Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon will require steady leadership, an understanding of the complexities of international diplomacy, and constant scrutiny of Iran’s behavior.
These tasks must be not just the responsibility of this president this year but also top priorities for the next president, the intelligence community, and members of Congress in the years to come.
That’s why I intend to stay actively engaged in monitoring enforcement of the deal and advocating for a strong foreign policy that supports our allies in the Middle East and promotes American interests around the world. Thank you.