WASHINGTON — President Obama heartily defended his nuclear deal with Iran at the State of the Union, vowing to veto a sizable bipartisan movement in Congress to keep sanctions pressure on the Islamic Republic.
“For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” Obama said, getting not as much applause as he may have hoped from the joint session.
The morning before he took the dais, though, a congressional panel heard that Iran has fully retained its ability to build a nuclear bomb that could be cranked out in as little as two months under the terms of the much-touted P5+1 agreement.
Gregory Jones, senior researcher of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on the Middle East and North Africa and Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade that the Obama administration has engaged in “mischaracterization of the deal’s benefits and the denial of the deal’s great flaw.”
“President Obama has said that the deal has ‘cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb,'” Jones said. “This is not true. Before the current nuclear deal, Iran could produce the highly enriched uranium — HEU — for a nuclear weapon in just six weeks. Over the next six months, the joint plan of action will increase this interval only slightly to eight weeks.”
“Iran will remain perilously close to a nuclear weapon. The joint plan of action allows Iran to continue to produce 3.5 percent enriched uranium which is the key starting material for any Iranian effort to produce HEU for weapons. Iran’s stockpile of this material will continue to grow during the course of this nuclear deal, though several White House statements, as well as Secretary Kerry, have incorrectly claimed otherwise.”
Jones warned that “as this stockpile of enriched uranium grows, the number of nuclear weapons that Iran can produce from it will grow as well.”
“Iran’s stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride is not supposed to grow. Iran is supposed convert the excess into an oxide form, but Iran can easily convert this material back into hexafluoride once it begins to produce nuclear weapons,” he added. “This fact is well known to U.S. technical experts, but their input was apparently either not sought or heeded.”
That means Iran could have enough uranium, once converted to weapons-grade material, for about four nuclear weapons by the time the interim agreement is up in July.
Mark Wallace, a former ambassador to the United Nations for UN Management and Reform during the George W. Bush administration, is now CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran. “Absent countries that fully and 100 percent cooperate, there is no such thing as verification that works,” he told the panel. “…Absent 100 percent cooperation, ‘verification’ equals bomb.”
The lawmakers on the panel who have seen the unfiltered version of the deal with Iran — which the administration won’t release to the American public because it says technical details need to be kept classified — remain convinced that the deal won’t stop Tehran from getting the bomb.
“First, if Iran has nuclear weapons Americans shouldn’t feel that they are safe, even if missile defense worked, because you can smuggle a nuclear weapon inside a bale of marijuana,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.). “Second, the best argument for this agreement remaining secret is it must contain wonderful pro-American provisions that hardliners in Iran are unaware of. Unfortunately — and I know the hardliners look to me for advice and information — we’ve seen it. It doesn’t.”
“No doubt President Obama will tout this deal as the ultimate achievement for diplomacy and peace while excoriating those of us who had the temerity to say, hey, wait a minute: I don’t trust the Iranian regime,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said of the agreement announced in November but not launched until Jan. 20.
“There is no mechanism that allows for adjudication of violations in this deal and that is very troublesome. Bottom line, as long as the infrastructure is in place for Iran to continue its nuclear program, the threat that it can create a nuclear weapon will always be all too real, and that where P5+1 momentarily failed in this interim agreement,” she continued.
And the public boasting from President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that Iran “would not dismantle any part of its nuclear program under any circumstance… it has me fearing what the administration will accept in a final comprehensive agreement.”
Zarif told CNN today that Iran brushed off Obama’s address as fodder for “domestic consumption” but not representing the agreement accurately.
“It doesn’t matter how the Americans try to spin it for domestic consumption. When it comes to Iran, it does matter,” Zarif said. The Obama administration has likewise accused Iran of altering details of the agreement for public consumption.
“The Iranian stockpile is essentially useless for their domestic energy program. However, 19,000 centrifuges and 7 tons of enriched uranium are highly useful when a nation is trying to build a nuclear weapon,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.). “We can all agree that nuclear science is complicated, but it seems that even someone with only a cursory knowledge of nuclear technology understands the dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities.”
“How concerned should we be that continued R&D will simply allow Iran to install highly advanced centrifuges in six months, or in a year, or in five years?”
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said “all of us are a little stunned” by the agreement.
“I think we’re stunned that not only does Iran continue to enrich uranium, but they’re very, very vocal about the fact that they’re going to continue the research and development on faster and faster spinning of centrifuges,” Royce said. “And for them to be making this pronouncement in the middle of this interim agreement on how they’re reaching this capability to develop and spin these centrifuges at supersonic speeds, setting new records, implies a certain intent on undetectable nuclear breakout capability.”
“One of today’s witnesses has estimated that even if we were to force Iran to dismantle 80 percent of its 19,000 installed centrifuges — and of course they say they won’t dismantle one of them — even if we were to force it to close its entire enrichment facility at Fordow, even if we were to dismantle or convert its planned heavy water reactor to a light water reactor and agree to a multi-decade intrusive inspections regime, the fact is that Iran would still be six months away from nuclear breakout.”
Sherman stressed Congress members’ fear that the six-month interim agreement will go on for longer than the administration claims. “In November, the agreement was supposed to last six months but not until two months after it was signed. Eight months, it can be extended for another six months. We’re looking at 14 months. What happens during the 14 months?”
“Who will decide that Iran is just engaged in a delay program or that we’ve reached sufficient progress? I don’t think Congress should surrender this role because Congress has been right and three administrations have been wrong,” the California Democrat continued.
“Now we’re being asked, oh, just don’t do anything. Trust the president, he’ll do the right thing. The fact is that we’re told by the administration we can adopt new sanctions in a nanosecond should we decide that that is important. What he really means is — what the administration means is we can adopt new sanctions in a nanosecond if the administration agrees with them.”
Sherman said Congress is faced with dwindling options.
“We can act now and adopt sanctions that will go into effect in July but also schedule a vote in July where Congress could decide by joint resolution to suspend or prevent the sanctions from becoming effective, and we would do so if adequate progress is made,” he said. “We can have a compromise approach, right, and conference on the sanctions, and schedule a vote, affirmative vote, of both houses of Congress without delay, without filibuster, without obfuscation, without further division between the committees and the houses as to what the content would be and pass new legislation if warranted in July and soon enough to prevent any pocket veto since we go out in August.”
“The final approach is what I call the narcolepsy approach. Go to sleep until the administration decides to wake us up,” Sherman continued. “Then we’ll get around to thinking about something in July because we’ll notice that the six months — which is eight months — has passed. At that point you can be sure that this administration, like the prior two administrations, will be for delay, dilution and defeat, and we will be in session only a few weeks between the end of July and the end of the year.”
Resolve, he said, must be firm among lawmakers “that we’re not going to adopt the narcolepsy approach.”
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said as the agreement stands, Iran “gets to keep its yellowcake and eat it, too.”
“The U.N. has voted on five occasions, saying Iran has cheated in its nuclear capability and they should not be able to enrich at all. In one deal Iran just wiped away all of those U.N. resolutions,” Poe said. “When the United States negotiates a deal that makes the U.N. look tough, we got a problem. Just as bad, none of the changes agreed to are permanent and verification is difficult.”
“…The problem is that Arak reactor size and design is too big for a peaceful reactor. Experts say it more closely resembles a nuclear weapons facility. Well, no kidding. When asked if he thought that Arak could be used for peaceful purposes, former State Department nonproliferation official Robert Einhorn said, yes, it could. A 12-inch hunting knife could also be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.”
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) said he believes the deal is a “terrible mistake” that’s “naive” and “wrongheaded.”
“And I think it’s going to be very hard, I think, afterwards to try to put the genie back in the bottle, to get these sanctions going once again,” Vargas added. “And another thing that I’m very fearful of, I think the six months is going to turn into a year and then they’re going to ask for more time, and ‘aren’t we close’? And it’s going to continue to slide and to be more and more problematic.”
Wallace expressed frustration with those painting sanctions legislation as so detrimental to peace. “Remember what we’re talking about here. We’re saying, ‘We’re not going to do business with you. We’re going to close our pocketbook.’ We’re not invading them. We’re just simply saying, ‘We don’t like your policy, we’re going to close our pocketbook,'” he said.
“Somehow that’s being turned into war-mongering. Somehow that’s in debate. I don’t know about you all, but if somebody does something that I don’t like, I don’t want to do business with them. We shouldn’t do business with Iran. That’s what we’re debating here. Is that so controversial? We cannot allow partisanship to enter this debate and say that we’re somehow war-mongering because we don’t want to open our pocketbook.”
The ambassador implored lawmakers to each “go on the record with the president, the future president, as to what your red lines are.”
“That’s important that Congress speak with a unified voice,” Wallace said. “I beg you to do that.”
Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) later quipped, “Yeah, well since they saw us bomb Syria with President Obama’s red line, they know how serious we are.”