Argument

Implementing the Iran Nuclear Deal Is Only the First Step

Even after sanctions are lifted, Washington must remain steadfast in its resolve to push back on Iran's destabilizing actions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks, November 18, 2015, at the Overseas Security Advisory Councils (OSAC) 30th Annual Briefing, in the Dean Acheson auditorium of the Department of State in Washington, DC. More than 1,300 public and private security professionals from US-based businesses, academia, faith-based institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and the federal government attended the two-day conference.       AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks, November 18, 2015, at the Overseas Security Advisory Councils (OSAC) 30th Annual Briefing, in the Dean Acheson auditorium of the Department of State in Washington, DC. More than 1,300 public and private security professionals from US-based businesses, academia, faith-based institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and the federal government attended the two-day conference. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Last summer, world powers reached a historic agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Since then, the international community has taken some positive steps to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But if we fail to do more to strictly and aggressively enforce the deal, the agreement may not survive into 2017.

From Iran’s illegal ballistic missile tests last fall, to its dangerous military operations near U.S. ships, to its recent detention of two U.S. Navy vessels in the Arabian Gulf, Iran’s recent actions underscore that we must remain deeply distrustful of the regime. While I’m pleased that the ten American sailors detained this week were released safely, these incidents have shown that the Obama administration must do more to push back against Tehran’s regional aggression. The longer the United States hesitates to punish Iran for its bad behavior, the more we invite it to cheat on the nuclear deal and flout international rules.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Austria, where I met with nuclear inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna. The trip also included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other regional leaders. Many of these officials expressed concerns about an emboldened Iran. After these discussions, I returned home even more convinced that we must reassure our allies in the region that we will not waver in our commitment to push back on Tehran and its destabilizing actions.

It has been nearly six months since the nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed. Now, we may be only a matter of days from the JCPOA’s “Implementation Day.” On Implementation Day — which will fall on whichever day Iran is certified to have complied with all tenets of the nuclear deal — Iran will suddenly gain access to billions of dollars in sanctions relief — but it will not get that relief until the IAEA has certified that it has met a number of key milestones, including the elimination of its two short-term pathways to developing a nuclear bomb. Specifically, reaching Implementation Day will mean that 12 tons of Iran’s enriched uranium — nearly its entire stockpile, which took it a decade to develop and could have been transformed into bomb-grade material — has been shipped out of the country and secured, and nearly two-thirds of the Iranian centrifuges used to enrich uranium have been disabled.

Implementation Day will mean that Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak, intended to produce weapons-grade plutonium, will have been disabled by filling its core with concrete. It will also mean that international inspectors have unprecedented access to monitor Iran’s entire nuclear fuel cycle, which includes all of its uranium mines, mills, and centrifuge production facilities, far exceeding traditional IAEA authorities.

Despite these milestones, though, it’s clear that our efforts to deter Iranian aggression must extend beyond the nuclear deal. In September, the Obama administration led a successful interdiction of an Iranian ship loaded with weapons bound for Houthi rebels in Yemen, a violation of international law outside of the JCPOA’s jurisdiction.

The United States has long maintained unilateral sanctions against Iran for its human rights abuses, ballistic missile activity, and material and financial support for terrorism. Throughout negotiations over the JCPOA, the Treasury Department sanctioned more than 100 Iranians and Iran-linked persons and entities, and in recent months, the Department sanctioned Hezbollah officials and agents who sought to threaten Israel and provide military support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria. Just last week, Treasury levied new sanctions against a Lebanon-based telecommunications firm for supporting Hezbollah. These efforts must continue.

Without sustained, consistent, and vigorous enforcement of these existing non-nuclear sanctions, we know Iran will continue to test the boundaries of the deal and probe our responses. That’s why I expect that the Obama administration will soon proceed with imposing new sanctions on Iran in response to two recent ballistic missile tests that clearly violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929.

Congress can play a constructive role in a number of ways. The Senate must confirm key national security nominees who have been blocked for purely political reasons. These nominees include Laura Holgate, a non-proliferation expert nominated over five months ago to serve as ambassador to the U.N. Agencies in Vienna, and Adam Szubin, an expert on international sanctions and terrorist financing, nominated last April to a critical post at Treasury.

We should also take a proactive step by passing the Iran Policy Oversight Act, a bill I introduced along with both opponents and supporters of the nuclear deal, to clarify ambiguous provisions in the agreement and offer increased support to our allies in the region, especially Israel. Congress must also provide adequate long-term funding for the IAEA, which is responsible for inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities and monitoring its compliance with the JCPOA.

But we cannot enforce the deal alone. As I discussed with my colleagues and with regional leaders last week on my trip to the Middle East, we must work with our international partners to uncover and consider new information about Iran’s nuclear activity to measure its adherence to the JCPOA and continue to assess how long it would take Tehran to “break out” and dash to a nuclear weapon if the agreement collapses. Given the difficult steps that Iran must take before Implementation Day, that breakout time has been extended from just a few months to a year.

In the months to come, our willingness to effectively and aggressively respond to Iran’s ballistic missile tests, provocative actions in the Arabian Gulf, and other bad behavior will set the tone for our enforcement efforts through the next decade and beyond.

The Iranian government is paying close attention to everything we do. Congress, the Obama administration, and the world, must be equally watchful of Iran’s behavior. Only through vigilance and vigorous oversight can we deter Iran and enforce this important deal.

Photo Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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