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Chris C.
Democrat DE

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  • Nuclear Agreement With Iran

    by Senator Christopher A. Coons

    Posted on 2015-12-15

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    COONS. Mr. President, today our Nation is distracted by grave concerns, by threats abroad and at home, by concerns about our economy and our people. I stand here today to call on us to continue to be focused on something that is not currently at the top of the news but on something that is a pressing and ongoing national concern. We need to be strictly and aggressively enforcing the terms of our nuclear deal with Iran that we reached with a variety of our other international partners and that is currently moving forward. We need to push back on Iran's bad and disruptive behavior, not just in its region but globally, and give our administration and international agencies the resources and the nominees confirmed that will allow them to be successful in enforcing our actions against Iran.

    A few short months ago, if you asked anyone what topics would be at the top of the list of America's foreign policy conversation or the upcoming Presidential campaign, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who didn't mention the Iran nuclear agreement front and center. It completely centered the debate in this Chamber and around the country last summer and fall. What a difference a few months can make.

    This morning many of us are deeply concerned about an alleged bomb threat in Los Angeles that is causing hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to be sent home mid-schoolday. And in response to the recent and horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, we are focused on identifying weaknesses in our border security and in finding ways to protect the American people without compromising our fundamental values.

    We are rightly focused on expanding the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS and on finding a way to assist our allies in providing safe haven to some of the millions of refugees fleeing terror and chaos abroad. Sadly, we are also distracted by a Republican Presidential primary in which a leading candidate has cast aside the Constitution in favor of incendiary rhetoric. That is why I rise today to make sure we remain focused on one of America's most important challenges to the United States and our key allies, including, centrally, Israel, which is enforcing the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran.

    On September 1, after a long study and real reflection and significant debate, I ultimately announced my support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement. Just over a week later, the review period ended and Congress failed to reject the deal, so it moved forward. The agreement took effect a month and a half later on October 18, known as adoption day, when Iran agreed to give the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, dramatically expanded inspection and verification powers. We are now 3 months into the JCPOA, and I want to take this opportunity today to assess areas where the Obama administration and our international partners have done well over the past 3 months and to highlight areas where we must do more.

    Since adoption day, we have seen some progress and some real setbacks on implementing the terms of the deal.

    First the positives, and there are some. Iran has begun to reconfigure its plutonium nuclear reactor at Arak so it can no longer produce materials necessary for a nuclear weapon. The government has also started to dismantle its enrichment centrifuges and its infrastructure that would have enabled it to use uranium as a nuclear weapon in the short term. The IAEA has also continued to make preparations to monitor and verify the deal and to increase its number of inspectors on the ground, to deploy modern technologies to monitor Iran's declared nuclear facilities, and to set up a comprehensive oversight program of Iran's centrifuge manufacturing facilities and its entire nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mines, to mills, to enrichment facilities.

    These steps are promising, but by no means do they tell the complete story of Iran's bad behavior since this deal was reached, nor do these few positive steps indicate that implementing the terms of this deal going forward will be anything less than exceptionally difficult. In fact, not only will enforcement of this deal be incredibly tricky, but I believe how effectively and aggressively we enforce the JCPOA in these early months and years will set the table for how we respond when Iran commits violations later. Whether we respond now when Iran commits minor violations around the boundaries of the nuclear deal will send a critical message to our allies and adversaries alike.

    I am confident that the actions taken by the United States and our allies to counter and restrain Iran and the Middle East, especially in these early months of the deal, will profoundly impact Iran's behavior going forward.

    That brings me to less positive news. When I announced my support for the JCPOA last September, I made it clear that it was based on a deep suspicion of Iran, an inherent distrust of their intentions, and a clear-eyed commitment to aggressively oversee and enforce the terms of the deal.

    My concerns proved justified on October 22 when Iran concluded a ballistic missile test in clear violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929. Those unlawful tests came just days after adoption day under the JCPOA. Last week, before the U.N. Security Council could finish their investigations and take any concrete actions, we heard reports of a second Iranian ballistic missile test on November 21.

    I fear the Iranians are taking action after action in this area and others to [[Page S8651]] demonstrate that they are willing to flout international rules, regulations, and restrictions. And in the absence of our decisive action, these misdeeds by the Iranians will simply continue and escalate.

    Today, a new report from the IAEA gives further justification to the distrust shared by supporters and opponents of the nuclear deal. The IAEA report on the so-called possible military dimensions--or PMD--of Iran's nuclear program found ``that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003.'' These activities included computer modeling that took place as recently as 2009.

    The PMD report details just how determined Iran has been to develop nuclear weapons capability. Iran developed detonators. Iran experimented with explosives technology. Iran engaged in computer modeling of a nuclear explosive. Iran even set up organizations specifically dedicated to nuclear weapons activity. It is not hard to connect those dots, and the IAEA did. That agency found that Iran engaged in efforts to demolish, remove, and refurbish facilities related to testing nuclear weapons components. Its government also offered misleading explanations of its past nuclear behavior.

    It is equally important to note what the IAEA did not find. Iran's weapons program didn't advance beyond an exploratory stage. The IAEA found no indication there was a whole undeclared nuclear fuel cycle in Iran or that Iran held significant amounts of undeclared uranium.

    Despite the ambiguous nature of this report, I think the take-away is clear: Iran's nuclear weapons-related activities and its sustained determination to hide and obfuscate its behavior reinforce our justifications for ongoing distrust of the Iranian Government and for the strict monitoring and verification of the components of the nuclear deal.

    My colleagues and I have access to classified material, meaning we know more than is publicly known about the extent and direction of the nuclear weapons program in Iran. But the IAEA report is important because it establishes a baseline for Iran's program, for our assessment of their breakout time, and for our knowledge of how far they have gotten in weaponization. Knowledge of these efforts is critical to our future enforcement of this deal.

    The IAEA report also reaffirms that as implementation of the deal moves forward, the international community must continue to seek and consider information about Iran's past nuclear activity. In my view, the IAEA must maintain its ability to continue reviewing any new information related to Iran's past nuclear weapons program, and we have to continue to assertively investigate any new accusations of Iranian covert activity or malfeasance.

    We have to continue to counter Iran's rogue actions--which only serve to isolate Iran on the world stage--by continuing to enforce sanctions without exception and be prepared to impose new sanctions if and when Iran's behavior warrants it. For example, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, was right to immediately shine a spotlight on the recent ballistic missile test I recently cited and to call for a U.N. Security Council investigation promptly. When that investigation is completed, the Security Council should act, but if it doesn't, I hope and expect that the administration is ready to enforce a series of unilateral American actions, including direct sanctions against those Iranians responsible for this violation. While these ballistic missile tests are outside the parameters of the JCPOA, our response has to be strategic, and we have to make sure Iran knows it can't continue to simply and blatantly disregard the international community and the U.N. Security Council.

    Since the announcement of the JCPOA, the Treasury Department has taken steps to target Iran's malign activity in the region. In November, the Treasury Department designated three Hezbollah procurement agents and four companies in Lebanon, China, and Hong Kong for purchasing dual-use technology on behalf of Hezbollah. These sanctions followed actions in July against three senior Hezbollah military officials in Syria and Lebanon who were providing military support to the Syrian regime and an additional Hezbollah procurement agent who served as the point person for the procurement and transshipment of weapons and materials for the group and its Syrian partners for at least 15 years.

    These designations also follow Treasury's actions during negotiations over the JCPOA when the Department utilized multiple authorities and sanctioned more than 100 Iranians and Iran-linked persons and entities, including more than 40 under its ongoing terrorism sanction authorities.

    In November, Treasury also participated in the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Group on Iran, through which participants discussed our joint efforts to counter Iran's support for Hezbollah, for the Assad regime, and for other militant proxies in the region. That working group continues to improve information sharing and cooperation to take joint actions targeting Iran's support for terrorism and its other destabilizing activities in the region and around the world.

    In early December, Saudi Arabia agreed to designate 12 Hezbollah officials for terrorism, further disrupting their ability to raise and move funds around the gulf.

    Implementing this agreement successfully will demand that we continue to develop discrete, clear, and public responses to minor Iranian violations of the agreement. My view on this was shaped in no small part by advice I got from a dear, long-term friend in New York, Maurice, who told me about his experience decades ago negotiating a complex commercial deal with Iran. After 2 years of excruciating and detailed back-and-forth negotiations, he told me they sat at the table to sign their agreement and begin their commercial partnership. After shaking hands across the table, the lead Iranian negotiator said: Now, my friend, the negotiations begin in earnest.

    All of us who have studied Iran's behavior and know the history of their work to conceal their nuclear weapons program and their work to destabilize the region know that Iran will cheat on this agreement. They will litigate the boundaries. They will find ways large and small to test us.

    For example, the nuclear agreement bars Iran from enriching beyond 3.67 percent. How will we respond if, for example, for a month Iran claims it accidentally enriched to 4 percent? We are unlikely to snap back the full multilateral sanctions regime because such a move would have little support in the international community for such a small and transient infraction and could be perceived as an overreaction. But inaction is not an option either. In coordination with our allies, we must develop a menu of responses that allow us to respond quickly and precisely to minor violations of the deal because there are no real minor violations of the deal. Otherwise Iran will little by little eat away at the constraints of this agreement, and our deterrence and credibility will collapse.

    In addition to deploying sanctions more effectively and ratcheting them up as necessary, the international community must also increase our efforts to push back against Iran's malign activity in the Middle East. More specifically, we have to enhance our campaign of interdicting Iranian weapons shipments and support to its proxies in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Iran sends illicit arms shipments to terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis who pass through international waters, and under both domestic and international law, the United States maintains its authority to disrupt these shipments. We must use that authority to act and to demonstrate our will. We must use that authority to work with our partners in the region and our allies around the world to increase the tempo and scope of our interdiction efforts. Successful interdiction efforts not only get deadly weapons out of the hands of terrorists but also deter Iran and undermine its proxies throughout the Middle East.

    We know we can be successful in this aspect of our enforcement because the administration has already successfully disrupted Iranian weapons shipments in recent months. Although many of us have been briefed in a classified setting about encouraging developments in this area, I think it is important that we have at least one example that we can share with our colleagues and the world.

    [[Page S8652]] Please take a look at this picture to my left. In September, a raid off the coast of Yemen seized a large cache of Iranian arms destined for the Houthi rebels who seek to undermine the legitimate Yemeni Government. This massive weapons shipment included a whole series of the component parts of sophisticated TOW missiles, including 56 tube- launched, optically tracked, wire-guided TOW missiles and the associated sights, mounts, tubes, battery sets, launcher assemblies, guidance systems, battery assemblies, and nearly 20 other sophisticated anti-tank weapons. I commend the administration for these efforts and for this successful interdiction in international waters, but we cannot stop there.

    Every month while Iran negotiates with the international community with one hand, with the other hand it has been sending millions of dollars' worth of weapons to the murderous Assad regime in Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to the Houthis in Yemen. We must not stand by while Iran continues to spread its terror and destabilize this region. Nor is it sufficient simply to increase our interdiction efforts. We must publicize these efforts when successful.

    When an American smalltown sheriff pulls off a successful drug bust, we better believe that sheriff is going to hold a press conference and put on the table the drugs and guns taken off the streets. Actions like that send a simple signal to those who engage in the drug trade that there is a sheriff in town who is actually going after bad actors and who isn't going to tolerate this destabilizing and illegal activity.

    I think the American people and the international community need to know about Iran's bad behavior and our willingness to take effective actions to push back. Just as importantly, Iran needs to know that the international community remains serious about cracking down on its illegal arms shipments and its promotion of terror.

    I am committed and I am willing and ready to help the administration increase its interdiction efforts in any way I can. A shared commitment to this from my colleagues--a shared focus on this from my colleagues-- is especially important today when many members of the administration and the American people are understandably focused elsewhere: on our Presidential election next year, on the global refugee crisis, and on recent terrorist attacks and the conflict with ISIS.

    These are busy times. As the holidays approach and as Congress nears a massive budget deal, I see my colleagues and my constituents focusing less and less on Iran, but we must maintain our focus for the months and years to come. Given the 24/7 news cycle and the media's incessant focus on the crisis of the moment, we will be tempted to turn our attention elsewhere.

    Adoption day was not the end of the agreement with Iran. In fact, it signified just the beginning. And we must think strategically about the Middle East, which critically includes Iran as the central promoter of terrorism and source of destabilizing action in the region.

    We must redouble our efforts to follow through on the most rigorous enforcement of the JCPOA or face terrible consequences. We have to scrutinize Iranian actions ever more closely for signs it is reneging on its commitments. This JCPOA is set to last in principle for 15 years but in some terms indefinitely. Congress must not waiver--not for 1 day--in our oversight of the implementation of this agreement.

    Whether my colleagues supported or opposed the deal, we should put our differences about that aside and focus on enforcement. The deal is designed to deter Iran from evading or cheating on the deal while also countering Iranian bad activity in the region. That is why I worked with a group of my colleagues to introduce the Iran Policy Oversight Act in September. This bill, cosponsored by supporters and opponents of the JCPOA, helps ensure the United States aggressively enforces the terms of the nuclear deal. The Iran Policy Oversight Act also provides support for our friends in the Middle East, most centrally our vital and steadfast ally, Israel.

    I am pleased to hear the administration is working on negotiating a new 10-year memorandum of understanding for Israel's security, and I am pleased to hear that its assistance will continue to grow to ensure Israel maintains its qualitative military edge.

    In recent weeks, I have also had the chance to discuss the Iranian deal and our intention to continue to enforce the sanctions that remain on the books and to interdict and to push back against Iran's destabilizing regional activities. When I was in Paris at the global climate conference, I had the chance to discuss this issue with French Government officials and business leaders. I will continue these efforts in early January when I will travel with seven other Senators to the Middle East and to Europe to discuss our progress implementing this nuclear deal and the challenges that remain.

    I commend President Obama and his administration for engaging with Congress during the debate over the Iran agreement and in the months since it took effect, but I urge the administration not to lose focus and to work with this Congress in the months ahead to ensure strict enforcement of the agreement.

    But we in Congress have our part to do here as well, not the least of which is making sure the executive branch has capable and effective officials, which is a crucial part of effective implementation. In recent months, not only has the Senate not done its job, but this Chamber's inaction and our apparent focus instead on Presidential politics means we are increasingly making this Chamber less relevant in American foreign policy.

    The United States has a very qualified and capable leader in the enforcement of sanctions in Adam Szubin, who oversees the current imposition and enforcement of sanctions at the Department of Treasury. Mr. Szubin worked under the Bush administration and under the Obama administration. He is a dedicated, capable, seasoned career professional who has been widely complimented on a bipartisan basis by members of the Banking Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee on which I serve. He has been nominated to be the new Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism Financing--a position critical to the successful enforcement of the JCPOA--but his nomination has been on hold for months for no clear and publicly stated reason.

    Adam Szubin's nomination is one of more than two dozen national security-related nominations, including Tom Shannon, nominated to be the Under Secretary of Political Affairs at the State Department. Tom Shannon is a career Foreign Service officer and a determined, dedicated, nonpartisan professional who also would play a critical role in working with our allies and ensuring successful enforcement of this agreement.

    Adam Szubin, Tom Shannon, and nearly two dozen other nominees have been blocked, seemingly for purely partisan reasons in this Senate. I call on my colleagues to release their holds and to give the administration the resources and the personnel it needs to do its job in enforcing this difficult deal.

    The Senate's commitment to overseeing and enforcing the terms of this deal must go beyond simply doing our job and giving the President's nominees an up-or-down vote. We have to do more. I stand ready to work with this President and the next one to fully oversee the JCPOA. The length of this agreement will transcend Presidential terms, and implementing it should transcend politics as well.

    We know Iran will seek every opportunity to push the limits of this deal in an attempt to test our resolve. We must not let Iran relitigate the terms of the deal and escape the boundaries of this deal and lay the groundwork for its future development of a nuclear weapon. We must deter them by holding them accountable.

    When this President or a future President, Republican or Democrat, successfully enforces this deal, I will be the first one to compliment them for countering Iran's destabilizing activity in the region. And when the administration, current or future, isn't actively and vigorously enforcing this deal and pushing back on Iran, I will be the first to ask--to demand--that it do more.

    The Iranian Government is paying close attention to everything we do, and I, for one, am determined to make sure that Congress, the administration, and the American people are doing the same, to demonstrate to Iran our determination and our will to deter them [[Page S8653]] and to closely and vigorously enforce this difficult deal.

    Thank you, Mr. President.

    With that, I yield the floor.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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