— by Congressman Jerrod Nadler, U.S. Representative for New York’s 10th Congressional District. Nadler’s district contains the largest Jewish population in the country.
This September, we will face one of the most serious global security decisions in our history. It is a decision that I have taken my time to consider, knowing the stakes are too high to allow for anything but clear-headed and thoughtful analysis, with an acute awareness that there are sharply divided opinions and passionate feelings on both sides.
I believe there is one overriding objective against which we must judge the P5+1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Although we know that Iran will remain a major menace to the region and the world, even without nuclear weapons, a nuclear armed Iran would represent an unacceptable threat to the United States, to Israel, and to global security. With respect to this objective, the interests of the United States and of Israel are identical, even as there are different views on how to achieve it.
I bring to my analysis the full weight of my responsibilities as a member of Congress, and my perspective as an American Jew who is both a Democrat and a strong supporter of Israel. I have sought to ignore the political pressures, as well as the demagoguery and hateful rhetoric on both sides that I think has been harmful to the overall political discourse.
After carefully studying the agreement and the arguments and analyses from all sides, I have concluded that, of all the alternatives, approval of the JCPOA, for all its flaws, gives us the best chance of stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Accordingly, I will support the agreement and vote against a Resolution of Disapproval.
I am satisfied that the JCPOA components, including its inspections and verification provisions, are sufficient and are not based on trusting Iranian compliance. While I am concerned that many of the key elements expire in the 10–15 year timeframe, our debate must center on whether the deal is preferable to the available alternatives. The only decision that matters at this moment is whether to support or reject the agreement that is on the table now, not on whether we could or should have gotten a better deal. It has been my duty, therefore, to consider the consequences of supporting or rejecting the JCPOA, and having decided that, to continue to pursue ways to further guarantee the security of the United States and our allies.
In the last 15 years, Iran has unfortunately made substantial progress in its nuclear program. Prior to the Interim Agreement in 2013, Iran had progressed to the point where it was only 1 month away from producing enough fissionable material for a nuclear bomb. The Interim Agreement forced Iran to get rid of its 20 percent enriched uranium, moving the “breakout” timeline — the length of time it would take Iran to produce enough fissionable material for a nuclear weapon — to 2–3 months. That is where Iran is now — at the threshold of developing a nuclear bomb.
While U.S.-led international sanctions were successful in bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table, such sanctions did not stop them from moving very close to developing a nuclear weapon. While far from perfect, I believe the JCPOA is, at this moment, the best chance we have to prevent Iran from actually becoming a nuclear weapon state.
The terms of the agreement prohibit the Iranians from ever developing, or attempting to develop, a nuclear bomb. I believe the agreement, properly monitored and enforced, does a very good job of doing that, and of increasing the breakout time to over a year, for a time period of at least 12–15 years.
The JCPOA shuts off both the plutonium and uranium pathways to a nuclear bomb. By reconfiguring the Arak reactor so it can produce only minute amounts of plutonium, requiring that all spent fuel rods be shipped out of the country, prohibiting the construction of a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods, and banning the construction of any other reactors that can produce significant amounts of plutonium, the agreement blocks all routes to a plutonium weapon. The agreement blocks the uranium pathway by requiring that the bulk of Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium be shipped out of the country, reducing it by 98 percent — from 12,000kg to 300kg. Iran’s future enrichment of uranium will be limited to 3.67 percent, far below the 90 percent necessary for weapons-grade material, and they will be not be permitted to exceed 300kg — far less than is needed for one nuclear bomb — for 15 years. To further guarantee this, Iran will be required to disconnect 14,000 of their 19,000 centrifuges and store them, subject to constant observation and verification, to be used solely for spare parts.
All of their nuclear facilities — reactors, enrichment plants, centrifuges, storage sites, etc. — as well as the entire nuclear supply chain, will be under 24/7 human, photographic, and electronic surveillance for 25 years. This will give the United States and our partners more access, more intelligence, more time, and more options to respond appropriately should there be any suspicion of Iran’s violation of the agreement.
International sanctions will be suspended only after Iran’s compliance with these required steps, a process that is likely to take 6–9 months. If Iran violates the terms of the deal, sanctions can be re-imposed at any time by the United States, through our veto of the continued suspension of sanctions. This so-called “snap-back” mechanism will enable the U.S. to compel sanctions unilaterally, even without the agreement of any other country.
If Iran fulfills its obligations, and sanctions are suspended, about $56 billion of Iranian funds, which are currently blocked in foreign banks, will be released to them. If Iran remains in compliance, the international weapons ban against Iran will be lifted in 5 years and the ballistic missile ban in 8 years. These provisions are the focus of many of the objections to the JCPOA. However, for reasons I will discuss, I do not believe they provide sufficient cause to reject the agreement.
There is no doubt that the Iranian regime remains a terrifying and remorseless danger to the world. Iran sponsors terrorism, threatens the destruction of Israel, backs regimes guilty of human rights abuses, and foments instability throughout the region. Unfortunately, the agreement does not provide answers to these problems, and so the United States and our allies will have to continue countering Iran’s illicit activities on numerous fronts. Yet, the JCPOA is not intended to, and cannot be judged on its ability to, solve these problems. Conventional threats must be distinguished from the nuclear threat. A nuclear-weaponized Iran is a game-changer for the region and the world. Beyond posing an existential threat to Israel, it would be more dangerous, more destructive, and more destabilizing; and deterring or countering Iran’s support for terrorism would be far more difficult. Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered this same warning to the United Nations. The key is to stop a nuclear Iran.
Criticisms of the Agreement
In order to fairly evaluate the deal, there are a number of key criticisms that must be addressed:
- We shouldn’t lift sanctions because that would provide a multi-billion dollar windfall to Iran, much of which would be used to support terrorism and continue illicit conduct. Nor can we allow the lifting of critical bans on conventional and ballistic weapons sales to such a dangerous regime.Saying we should never lift sanctions is saying that we should never negotiate — that any deal, whatever its terms, is unacceptable. Multilateral sanctions were imposed, with international cooperation, to force the Iranians to the negotiation table to reach a deal that would prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The P5+1 countries and Iran have now successfully concluded such an agreement, and Congress can either support or reject the agreement. The lifting of the sanctions was always expected if we reached a deal. If we rule out the lifting of sanctions in exchange for any deal to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, there can be no conceivable incentive for Iran to agree to anything — no quid for the quo — and the only option left would be military action.
In addition, the Iranians will almost certainly get this money whether Congress approves the JCPOA or not. These funds are held in foreign banks — mostly in China, India, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. If the Iranians fulfill their obligations over the next 6–9 months, these countries, which are eager to do business with Iran again, will almost undoubtedly lift their sanctions in accordance with the terms of the deal, and the Iranians will get their money, regardless of Congressional support or rejection of the JCPOA. Congress can only reject the lifting of American, not foreign, sanctions.
Because of the multilateral sanctions, the Iranian economy has declined by more than 20 percent. The bulk of the money from this sanctions relief will have to be used to improve their suffering economy, lest there be popular unrest that might threaten the regime. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that some percentage of the money might be used for illicit purposes.
Similarly, we know that the lifting of the conventional weapons and ballistic missile embargos will add additional resources to an already dangerous regime.
It is clear that these are dangerous consequences. The United States will have to provide additional military and other aid to Israel and our other allies in the region. It should also be noted that the embargos on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles were established along with the nuclear sanctions. The Chinese and Russians, along with Iran, argued that, as part of the nuclear sanctions, the embargoes should be lifted after the Iranians fulfill their initial obligations in 6–9 months. This was a hotly contested issue in the negotiations, and a surprising issue for those not involved in the talks when it emerged in the final JCPOA. American negotiators, however, managed to delay the lifting of these bans to 5 and 8 years, respectively. Given the imperative of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — an existential threat that would make Iran’s conventional threats fundamentally more dangerous and difficult to counter — such sanctions relief, while a heavy cost, must be considered part of what is necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb.
- We should not trust the Iranians. They will attempt to covertly develop a nuclear bomb.This agreement is not built on trust. It is built on inspections and monitoring to verify compliance, and to detect any violations or cheating. While criticisms have been made of the monitoring and inspection provisions, they are more thorough and intrusive than in any previous agreement. More importantly, they are strong enough to guarantee that Iran will not be able to illicitly produce any fissionable material — either through uranium enrichment or plutonium production — without our knowing about it.
In addition to the 24/7 monitoring of the full nuclear supply chain, the JCPOA has two categories of inspection: declared sites and undeclared sites. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have full and complete access to all declared sites — round-the-clock human, photographic, and electronic surveillance. Inspectors will know immediately of any violations.
The agreement also provides access to any undeclared site. If the IAEA suspects that illicit activity is taking place at an undeclared site, it can demand access to that site with as little as 24-hour notice. The Iranians, under certain circumstances, can delay the inspection for up to 24 days. But if uranium enrichment were taking place at that site, and the Iranians somehow managed to remove thousands of centrifuges, miles of piping, and all of the necessary uranium handling equipment within 24 days, without being observed, there would still be, for years, un-removable trace elements and other radioactive isotopes that would expose the covert enrichment. It is almost inconceivable that the Iranians could divert thousands of kilograms of uranium and thousands of centrifuges from the supply chain unobserved, could construct a massive secret enrichment facility unobserved, could bring in the uranium and centrifuges on fleets of trucks or barges unobserved, could supply massive amounts of electricity through secret power transmission lines, and could then dismantle that plant and the transmission lines and remove all traces within 24 days, all unobserved. It is also inconceivable that the Iranians could operate a totally secret supply chain without our noticing the secret mines and mills. I am convinced, therefore, that it would be almost impossible for the Iranians to cheat on uranium enrichment.
They could not cheat on production of plutonium because this can only be accomplished in a nuclear reactor. Nuclear reactors are declared sites subject to constant inspection. Any attempt to use a potential secret reactor would be exposed because of the necessary diversion of uranium fuel for the reactor from the fully monitored supply chain.
There are certain violations, however, such as computer modeling of bomb design or other weaponization research, that would be less easily detectable. The JCPOA is not foolproof in this regard, nor could any agreement be. But as long as the limits on production of fissionable materials — enriched uranium or plutonium — are rigorously enforced and monitored, other violations cannot lead to development of a nuclear bomb.
Having spoken with experts and officials at the highest levels, I am convinced that the deal will stop Iran’s nuclear development from approaching weapons-grade levels for at least 15 years. Any violation will be quickly uncovered because the inspection and verification elements of the agreement are exhaustive, and, while not perfect, effective.
- While the JCPOA may do an effective job at delaying Iran from developing a nuclear bomb for 15 years, it “paves the way” for an Iranian bomb afterwards.The agreement certainly does not “pave the way” for an Iranian bomb. But there is cause for concern starting in the 10–15 year period. While under the terms of the deal, Iran is prohibited from ever developing a nuclear bomb and any actions clearly for that purpose would constitute a violation of the agreement, the provisions designed to enforce this will begin to be cut back after 10 years. Iran would then be permitted to install more advanced centrifuges, and the breakout timeline would begin to shrink. After 15 years, the limit of 300kg of 3.67 percent low-enriched uranium will sunset. Iran will be permitted higher levels of enrichment and greater quantities of enriched uranium overall, provided they submit an annually updated plan to the IAEA which justifies these levels and amounts for peaceful, civilian use. Legitimate civilian purposes — such as generating electricity — require no more than 5 percent enrichment, while a bomb requires 90 percent. If Iran began to produce higher grade uranium or greater quantities than necessary for civilian use, the inspectors would know it instantly.
The problem is that, in 15 years, the Iranians may be legally permitted to deploy so many advanced centrifuges — for “peaceful” purposes — that, if they then decide to develop a bomb, they could enrich sufficient uranium quickly. However, to switch from producing 5 percent uranium to 90 percent, they would first have to reconfigure the centrifuge cascades — a process that requires time to implement. We would, fortunately, observe this conversion process instantly. So, in 15 years, if Iran begins to aggressively pursue the necessary nuclear material for a bomb, the breakout timeline, after being extended to over a year by the JCPOA, would shrink back down to 2–3 months.
The only practical way, in such a short timeframe, to prevent them from developing a bomb at that point would be military action.
Critics are right in their concern about a short breakout timeline and the limited options available. This appropriately makes many people, including me, uneasy. It is why I have struggled with this decision, why I have pressed the Administration and security experts with my concerns, and why many of my colleagues are unable to bring themselves to support the JCPOA. However, the very same concern exists today, in the absence of a deal.
After examining the provisions and the shortcomings, we must decide if, on balance, the JCPOA gives us better odds of averting an Iranian nuclear bomb than any other available option.
If the agreement is adopted, it will reliably prevent development of an Iranian nuclear bomb for at least 10–15 years. Even after 15 years, the options available to a future President to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb would be, at worst, no different or more restrictive than the options available now. This conclusion follows from a sober assessment of the alternatives being suggested and the likely consequences of a rejection of the JCPOA.
If the United States rejects the agreement, there are several possibilities:
- First, Iran could pull away and reject the deal. The Europeans, Russia, and China, being eager to resume business with Iran, having agreed to voluntary sanctions only in order to coerce Iran into negotiating an agreement, and having reached what they regard as a reasonable agreement only to have Congress pull the rug out from under them, would certainly not want to maintain their sanctions. As former Bush Administration Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson has stated, it is “totally unrealistic” to expect the multilateral sanctions to stay in place should the United States decide to reject the JCPOA. The agreement, therefore, and the sanctions regime, would fall apart. Iran could then resume its enrichment program, and begin the 2–3 month countdown to a nuclear weapon. We saw prior to 2010 that American sanctions alone were not sufficient to deter Iran from aggressively ramping-up its nuclear development program. That would leave military action as the only option. That is why the President warns of war as the alternative to approving the JCPOA. And our generals tell us a U.S. military strike could, at best, delay the Iranian nuclear program for 3–5 years, with a likely considerable cost in American and Israeli lives, including many civilians.
- Second, Iran might accept the JCPOA without U.S. participation. In that case, the other countries might go along. In 6–9 months, all the non-U.S. sanctions would be lifted. Iran would resume doing business with most other countries, and would get its $56 billion, some of which would be used to sponsor terrorism and other illicit activities. There would be less diligent oversight, less fear of punitive action against violations, and Iran would enjoy full legitimacy and inclusion from the international community. Meanwhile, the United States — Israel’s closest ally and the only partner on the Security Council or in the P5+1 whose interests are as closely aligned in terms of preventing Iran from becoming an existential threat — would sit on the sidelines, separated from the JCPOA.
- Third, Iran might initially accept the JCPOA without U.S. participation. At any time after the sanctions are lifted and after Iran pockets the $56 billion and the benefits of trade with the Europeans, China, Russia, etc., Iran could then decide that, since the United States was not adhering to the terms of the agreement, it would not either. The Iranians could then kick out the inspectors and begin enriching as much as they want. The United States would not be able to get the other countries to re-impose sanctions since our former partners would blame us, not the Iranians, for the collapse of the deal. Plus, they would have powerful economic incentives not to halt their newly resumed trade and investments. And, as we have discovered, U.S. sanctions alone are significantly less effective.
This scenario also yields a much higher likelihood of having to choose between an Iranian bomb and military action in just a few years.
The alternative being suggested by many, however, posits that the United States, after rejecting the agreement, can, through our banking system, coerce the rest of the world into unwillingly boycotting Iranian banks. This scenario envisions use of such “secondary sanctions” to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table, where we would get a better deal. In other words, we would take on essentially the rest of the world, including all our closest economic and diplomatic allies, and, by threatening to cut off their access to the American economy through our banks, would coerce them into re-imposing sanctions when they believe the United States, not the Iranians, caused the problem by rejecting the JCPOA.
When anyone says we can get a “better deal”, this is the alternative to which they are referring.
There are several problems with this scenario: First, it is far-fetched, unlikely to work, and would create an economic disaster. The countries we would have to coerce are among the biggest economies in the world. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a recent piece; “If we were to cut them off from the American dollar and our financial system, we would set off extensive financial hemorrhaging, not just in our partner countries but in the United States as well.”
As Secretary Lew pointed out, 40 percent of our exports go to these countries, and those exports could not survive a cut-off of U.S. connections to their banking systems. Our trading partners know that we are not going to shut down our exports — with all the job loss and economic havoc that would entail here at home — nor are we going to cut off countries that hold 47 percent of foreign-held American treasuries.
I agree with this analysis that such a threat is too risky and not credible.
Second, the Administration has stated loudly and clearly that it believes cutting off banking relations in this fashion would create an economic disaster. Because of this belief, the Administration would not do it — they will neither threaten nor carry out such an action, and this alone removes this alternative from consideration, at least for the next 18 months.
And I do not believe that any new Administration, no matter what candidates may say in an election campaign, would really run the huge risk of causing a domestic and global economic collapse.
In summary: U.S. rejection of the JCPOA would almost certainly result in a far greater likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear bomb in relatively short order. This would leave us with only the terrible choice between military action — which would still only temporarily delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program — and accepting a nuclear-armed Iran. Accepting the JCPOA is clearly preferable to accepting the consequences of its rejection. This is a conclusion I have not reached alone — the overwhelming majority of military, security, intelligence and nuclear proliferation experts agree that the Iran deal is the best course available for achieving our objective. The JCPOA prevents an Iranian nuclear bomb for at least for 15 years, and perhaps indefinitely. This is clearly in the interests of the United States, Israel, and our other Middle East allies. The alternatives are either totally unrealistic or leave us with a likelihood of an Iranian nuclear bomb well before 15 years.
While I am supporting the JCPOA as better than any available alternative, it is true that the deal has some clear weaknesses. I discussed some of the weaknesses I found most concerning with some of my colleagues and constituents, and raised these issues in a recent Op-Ed [Link]. I also discussed these concerns directly with the President, as did others. The President responded directly to the issues we raised in a letter addressed to me [Link]. I am gratified that the President’s response satisfied some of these concerns. But I recognize they do not cover every challenge in the agreement.
The Public Discourse
While I am firmly convinced that the agreement is the best course of action amongst the alternatives, I am well aware that there are those who strongly disagree. I accept there will be many who will say that the assurances my colleagues and I sought from the Administration are inadequate and that they fail to mitigate some of the most serious concerns raised with the JCPOA’s shortcomings. And there will be those who believe that my evaluation of the agreement versus its alternatives, and their respective implications, is flawed. But again, I have made this decision according to my principles, with thorough research and careful consideration. That is all I can do, and I hope it is enough for people to believe that it is a decision I reached honestly, without political calculation, and with the sole objective of protecting the United States, Israel, and the world from the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Regardless of how my colleagues decide to cast their votes, I also respect their decisions and commitments to voting their consciences. And it is my assumption that all of my colleagues who care deeply about the security of the United States and of Israel, no matter whether they ultimately support or oppose this agreement, are honestly trying to reach the same objective — stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and thereby protecting countless American and Israeli lives. It is a collective desire to bring safety and security in the immediate and long-term, to curb nuclear proliferation in a region that has experienced too much violence and bloodshed already, and to stand in the way of further destabilization and bad behavior by Iran in the form of terrorism and human rights abuses. While there may be disagreement on the best course for achieving these goals, there should be no doubt that there is a shared desire to find the best course.
There is an inescapable reality with this type of complicated, life and death decision — there are many uncertainties, both as to how the agreement would play out and how, if we reject the JCPOA, the alternative scenarios would play out. No one can pretend that we are choosing between a set of flawless options. These decisions are hard, involving close calls and uncertain future predictions.
In this situation, it is inevitable that people of good conscience and common goals will come down on different sides of the issue. This is why, despite the majority of the Israeli political establishment being opposed to the JCPOA, many members of Israel’s security establishment — including former heads of the IDF, the Shin Bet, and the Mossad — agree this deal is the best option available to protect Israel. That is how both sides of the debate in America are able to produce experts for their respective views. It is no surprise that Jewish members of the House and Senate are likely to be split down the middle in voting to support or reject the agreement.
It is with this perspective that I have become increasingly disturbed by the rhetoric being used by some on both sides of the debate. We have apparently reached the point in our public discourse where, if the stakes are high enough, if emotions run deep and opinion is sharply divided, ridicule and ad hominem attacks on the character and loyalty of those who differ become acceptable in the political dialogue. I condemn this and encourage others of good will to do the same.
I am outraged that some on the Left are making anti-Semitic accusations of dual loyalty or treason when someone, particularly a Jewish member of Congress, decides to oppose the agreement. I am also deeply disturbed that some opponents of the agreement have taken to questioning the sincerity of people’s support for Israel (or their “Jewishness”, if it applies) if that person believes the JCPOA is the best option we have for protecting Israel and the world from the threat of Iran as a nuclear weapon state.
Similarly, I disagree with those who suggest that Israel’s government or people must not interfere in seeking to shape American decisions on these issues, and I see such statements as a means of silencing an important part of the discussion. Israel and Israelis have an absolutely legitimate right to be concerned, given the existential threat they face, and to articulate that concern openly within the American political debate. If Iran were allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, that would represent a fundamental threat to the existence of Israel. A single nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv could destroy the homeland of the Jewish people, causing a catastrophic and irrevocable loss of Israeli lives and threatening the existence of our most important ally in the Middle East. Without Israel raising the alarm, the world might not have prioritized this threat and we would be in a weaker position than we are in today to respond to this terrifying question.
I have personally experienced this dangerous dynamic of poisonous rhetoric before, at another moment when opinion was sharply divided and some people placed politics and emotion above clearheaded thinking. When I voted against approving the use of force in Iraq, I did so not only because I was unconvinced by the justifications or arguments being made by the Bush Administration, but because of my understanding of the history and dynamics in the region. As I said at the time, Iran — not Iraq — was the real threat, and if we removed Iraq as a buffer to Iranian influence and expansionism, Israel and the United States would be left to suffer from the consequences. Suffice it to say, I took a lot of criticism for my vote, and both my American patriotism and my commitment to Israel were questioned. What made it even more difficult was the fact that the attacks on 9/11 centered in my district. And while history has proven my decision to have been the right one, the demagoguery is an unfortunate stain on that period.
It was wrong then and it is wrong now to question loyalties or motivations. A decision to support the JCPOA does not make someone anti-Israel. My decision to support the JCPOA is based on my conclusion that the JCPOA makes both the United States and Israel safer. I have been an extremely vocal and unrelentingly strong supporter of Israel for my entire career. I will continue to be so, and refuse to allow anyone to question my long record or my commitment. It is, in large part, because of my support for Israel that I have made the decision I am convinced is the best option for achieving our overriding security imperative.
Just as we can all agree that we must not let Iran become a nuclear state, we also can all agree that the JCPOA is not perfect. As I have said before, there are parts of the deal that are good and parts that are not. This is why it has been such a difficult decision for me and for so many of my colleagues. After the votes are taken, we must come together to advance our shared goals and security objectives. The stakes are simply too high. Going forward, the President, Congress, and all those concerned will need to work together to fill the gaps and strengthen the defenses of our Middle East allies. Poisonous rhetoric and scorched earth politics weaken our ability to do so. I look forward to working with my colleagues and other stakeholders on both sides of this decision in the critical days, months, and years ahead.