FPI Bulletin: Suggested Questions for Senate Hearing on the Iran Nuclear Deal

December 16, 2015

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing analyzing the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and related issues. The hearing will feature testimony from Stephen D. Mull, lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation; Thomas M. Countryman, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation; and Lieutenant General Frank G. Klotz, USAF (Ret.), undersecretary of energy for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

FPI believes the following questions will be useful to lawmakers and their staffs as they consider Iran’s progress in implementing the JCPOA and U.S. efforts to ensure compliance.

The Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s Nuclear Program

In a December 2 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that Iran concealed, and continues to conceal, efforts to weaponize nuclear material. Yet on Tuesday, the Obama administration voted in favor of an IAEA Board of Governors resolution that closes the investigation of the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. This step amounts to a complete reversal of its earlier position that Tehran’s full disclosure constitutes a prerequisite for any agreement or for sanctions relief.

“They have to do it,” said Secretary of State John Kerry on April 8, referring to Tehran’s disclosure of PMD. “It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.” On July 24, 10 days after Tehran and the P5+1 announced the JCPOA, which established a roadmap for PMD resolution, Kerry said, “PMD has to be resolved before they get one ounce of sanctions relief.”

  • What rationale underlay the Obama administration’s initial requirement of full PMD disclosure, and why does that rationale no longer apply?
  • Would you agree that the IAEA Board of Governors resolution enables Iran to receive sanctions relief even though it stonewalled the investigation of PMD?
  • How can the JCPOA remain credible if the United States repeatedly shifts the goal posts in response to Iranian noncompliance?

On July 14, President Obama declared that the agreement would enable inspectors “to access any suspicious location. Put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary.” Yet as David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, noted in August 2015 congressional testimony, without a full disclosure of PMD, the IAEA “cannot know where to go and who to speak to.”

Moreover, Albright noted in a June 2014 report, a failure to disclose PMD would create “clear precedents to deny inspectors access to key facilities and individuals. … Tehran could declare a suspect site a military base and thus off limits. And what better place to conduct clandestine, prohibited activities, such as uranium enrichment and weaponization?” Such concerns assume particular importance in light of Iran’s years-long concealment of other nuclear facilities, including the key uranium enrichment plants at Fordow and Natanz.

  • Would you agree that stonewalling the investigation of PMD sets a precedent for blocking inspectors’ access to suspicious sites?
  • How can the IAEA properly verify Iran’s nuclear activities and devise a baseline for verification if it lacks access to the sites that most likely hosted them in the past?
  • If the United States ignores Iran’s past and ongoing deception concerning PMD, why would Iran hesitate to deceive us in the future?
  • In light of Iran’s refusal to disclose its weaponization activities, is there any clear reason to trust its assertions that it won’t develop a nuclear weapon?


Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program

Iran has conducted two ballistic missile tests since the July 14 nuclear agreement, violating a binding 2010 U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution — in effect until the JCPOA’s implementation next year — that prohibits such activity. It also defies the UNSC resolution that followed the JCPOA, which contains non-binding language prohibiting ballistic missile development for eight years, thereby flouting the spirit of the agreement. However, the Obama administration, despite its repeated pledges to hold Iran accountable for any failure to meet its obligations, has yet to penalize Tehran for its bad faith.

  • Would you agree that Iran’s continued development of ballistic missile technology reflects its long-term intention to acquire a nuclear weapon? Could such activity plausibly reflect any other purpose?
  • What steps, if any, will the Obama administration take to punish Iran for its ballistic missile tests and deter future missile tests?
  • Why should anyone believe that the White House plans to hold Iran accountable for any future violations of the agreement if the White House refuses to hold Iran accountable for violating its UNSC obligations?


Renewing the Iran Sanctions Act

President Obama has repeatedly highlighted the potential of snapback sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance with the agreement. For this reason, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has called for the renewal, for 10 more years, of the Iran Sanctions Act, a key part of the legal framework that authorizes the imposition of sanctions on Iran. As Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), a supporter of the JCPOA, put it, “Congress should ensure that the Iran Sanctions Act is not allowed to expire, so that the sanctions architecture remains as a backstop if snapback sanctions are implemented.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another supporter of the agreement, expressed similar sentiments. “If sanctions are to snapback in the event of an Iranian violation, we cannot wait for Congress to pass new Iran sanctions,” he wrote. “The Iran Sanctions Act must be renewed so that sanctions are at the ready in the instance of Iranian cheating.”

  • Does the White House support the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act? If not, how can Congress remain confident that the Obama administration intends to penalize Iran for noncompliance?


Terrorism and Human Rights Sanctions

“We will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and its human rights violations,” President Obama pledged on July 14. “Obviously,” said Secretary of State John Kerry on August 3, “we all know about [Iran’s] support of Hizballah, the support for the Shia militia in Iraq, the support for Houthi and other involvements in the region, support for terror historically which we have opposed and we continue to oppose, and we will oppose going forward in the future.”

Thus, lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to impose new sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which oversees the regime’s global terrorist operations. The paramilitary force also executes many of the regime’s human rights abuses, which have dramatically increased since the deal.

  • Does the Obama administration support imposing new sanctions on the IRGC because of its ongoing regional aggression, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses?
  • If not, how can President Obama plausibly claim that it remains committed to combating Iran’s foreign aggression and domestic repression? Does the White House have alternate plans to punish or deter Iran’s belligerence?


Punishing Incremental Violations of the Deal

Both opponents and supporters of the JCPOA have expressed concern that Iran may commit continuous low-level violations of the deal that would gradually undermine it without provoking a strong response. As Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has noted, Tehran’s prior violations of its international commitments indicate that it “cheats incrementally, not egregiously, even though the sum total of its incremental cheating is egregious.”

As such, asserted Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE), a supporter of the agreement, the United States must penalize Iran even for “marginal cheating and ambiguous evasions of the deal.” “Iran must not be left with any doubt that it will feel the pain of sanctions from the entire global community the moment it violates the agreement,” he said.

  • Will the Obama administration punish Tehran even for minor violations of the deal? What threshold for compliance will you establish to determine whether an Iranian violation merits a response?


Iran’s Bid to Renegotiate the Nuclear Deal

When Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced his support for the JCPOA on October 21, he noted that Tehran would regard the future imposition “of any type of sanctions, at any level or under any pretext” as a violation of the agreement, thereby releasing Iran from its obligations. This statement appears to contradict the Obama administration’s interpretation of the JCPOA, which rests on the assumption that the P5+1 may snap back nuclear-related sanctions to penalize noncompliance. It also presumes that the United States may continue to sanction Iran for terrorism, ballistic missile activity, and human rights violations.

To date, however, the White House has issued no public response to Khamenei’s statement.

  • Can you please clarify your interpretation of the deal? Would the imposition of snapback sanctions release Iran from all of its obligations under the JCPOA?
  • What is the Obama administration’s response to Khamenei’s assertion that new sanctions related to human rights or terrorism would also release Iran from its obligations under the deal?
  • Has the White House expressed its concerns privately to the regime?
  • President Obama has repeatedly portrayed snapback sanctions as the JCPOA’s key enforcement mechanism. If the United States fails to alter Khamenei’s position, how will the White House ensure Iranian compliance or deter future Iranian attempts to reinterpret the agreement?


Iran’s View of the United States

Since the July 14 nuclear agreement, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tweeted an image of President Obama holding a gun to his own head; led crowds in chants of “death to America”; declared that the United States is behind the Paris terror attacks; accused America of creating ISIS and all other “takfiri [i.e., apostate] groups” opposed to Iran; argued that America manipulates Sunni Arab states as a “tool” to foment war against Iran; proclaimed that America “is the epitome of global arrogance” and “knows nothing about human morality”; described the United States as “the root of all evil things”; and declared that America “should be put on trial because of supporting and assisting terrorism.”

  • Before the nuclear agreement, the Obama administration once described such rhetoric as serving solely a domestic political purpose. Does the administration still consider that to be the case?
  • Can you cite any other Iranian actions or rhetoric suggesting that his perception of the United States has changed?

Since the July 14 agreement, Supreme Leader Khamenei has repeatedly portrayed U.S. calls for dialogue as an effort to undermine the regime, infiltrate the country with Western values that contradict Islam, and ultimately advance U.S. hegemony in the region. Therefore, he maintained, Tehran will not negotiate with America on any issue other than the nuclear program. “Our policy toward the arrogant government of America will not change a bit” under the deal, Khamenei said on July 18. “As I have repeated frequently, we have no negotiation with America on different global and regional issues. … America’s policies in the region are 180 degrees different from the policies of the Islamic Republic.”

By contrast, President Obama has argued that the nuclear deal may spur further U.S.-Iranian cooperation beyond the nuclear file. Because of the deal, he said on July 14, the Iranians “have the ability now to take some decisive steps to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community.”

  • How does the United States intend to alter Khamenei’s position?
  • If Khamenei feels no hesitation to humiliate the United States when it still remains in the position to withhold sanctions relief, why would he hesitate to continue provoking the United States once the White House has sacrificed much of its economic leverage?


Iran’s Emergence as a Regional Power

“The truth of the matter is that Iran will be and should be a regional power,” said President Obama on July 14, the day Tehran and the P5+1 announced the nuclear deal. This claim echoes previous statements Obama issued during the negotiations. If Iran and the P5+1 reach a nuclear deal, he said on December 29, 2014, “it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody.” The agreement, he said on April 7, 2015, may even “strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.”

Yet since the agreement, Tehran — among other belligerent actions — has increased its support for the Assad regime, Hizballah and Hamas; strengthened its joint military operations with Russia; provided arms and money to the Taliban; constructed a bomb-making factory in Bahrain; smuggled arms into Kuwait for use by a Hezbollah cell; launched cyberattacks against the United States; arrested an Iranian-American citizen as well as a Lebanese citizen with a U.S. green card; sentenced Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian to a prison term of unspecified duration; continued its brutal human rights abuses against its own people; and threatened America and Israel with destruction.

  • Does the Obama administration still believe that Iran “should be” a regional power?
  • Would you agree that the nuclear deal has not altered Iran’s regional aggression or domestic abuses?

President Obama has argued that the nuclear agreement would actually facilitate U.S. efforts to combat Iran’s regional aggression. “It will be a lot easier for us to check Iran’s nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies’ interests, if they don’t have a bomb,” he said on July 15.

  • Can you describe how the nuclear agreement has made it “easier to check Iran’s nefarious activities?”
  • What specific steps to stop Iran’s aggression has the United States taken since the JCPOA that the absence of an agreement once prevented it from taking?

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