The Mixed Message of the Senate Letter On the Iran Nuclear Talks

By Daryl G. Kimball (UPDATED 8:00pm)

Clearly, Congress has an important role in implementing any comprehensive, final-phase agreement between the P5+1 and Iran to “ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.” Those talks are now underway in Vienna.

In that role, members of the Senate and House have a responsibility to support the efforts of the P5+1 on the basis of a clear understanding and realistic expectation for what the negotiations can deliver and for what is necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

In a letter to the President signed by 83 Senators that was released today by the American Israel Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the members helpfully express their support for the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and their commitment to working with the President “on a bipartisan basis.”

However, the letter outlines a number of ambiguous and, in some cases, factually-challenged statements that undermine the letter’s value as a guide for what might constitute a successful nuclear negotiation with Iran.

Most significantly, the letter begins by stating that “We all hope that nuclear negotiations succeed in preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapons capability.”

Unfortunately, Iran already has a nuclear weapons capability. According to the U.S. intelligence community Iran has had, at least since 2007, the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it were to choose to do so.

Today, Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity can be significantly reduced but not entirely eliminated, even it Iran were required to dismantle its uranium enrichment machines and facilities, as some of the signatories of the Senate letter have argued.

The Senators’ letter also calls for “preventing Iran from ever developing or building nuclear weapons,” which is closer to the stated goal of the Obama administration and the United States’ P5+1 partners.

The conflicting language on this point undermines AIPAC’s assertion that the letter is an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

There is a difference between stopping Iran short of “having a nuclear weapons capability” and stopping it short of “building nuclear weapons” — and AIPAC and U.S. Senators should be more careful in their statements about what they are seeking.

The Senators’ letter also suggests that one of the “principles” that the United States should insist on is that “… any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to the bomb.”

Another letter circulated by Reps. Cantor and Hoyer with AIPAC support and signed by 393 other members of the House  includes similar language, expressing the hope that “a permanent diplomatic agreement will require the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons-related infrastructure ….”

How such a principle can or should be implemented in practical terms is not clear. From a technical standpoint, uranium enrichment facilities, virtually any nuclear reactor, or research on such fuel cycle technologies has civil and military applications.

While it is possible to put in place more intrusive inspections to improve the international community’s ability to detect and deter weapons related experiments and the potential diversion of nuclear material to undeclared facilities, the “dismantling” of Iran’s major dual-use facilities and programs would be politically unsustainable in Iran, and is not necessary in order to stop Iran short of building nuclear weapons.

What the negotiations can potentially deliver and what members of Congress should expect and support is a final phase P5+1 agreement with Iran that:

  • establishes verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program that, taken together, substantially increase the time it would take for Iran to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and build nuclear weapons;
  • increases the ability to promptly detect and effectively respond to any attempt by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, including at undeclared sites and facilities; and
  • decreases Iran’s incentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the future.

As we have written elsewhere, there are realistic options that can address each of the main concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. But if Congress insists on unattainable outcomes or seeks to impose vague requirements on the negotiators, the chances for a diplomatic resolution will decrease, Iran’s nuclear capabilities may grow, and the chances of a conflict will increase.

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