Secretary of State John Kerry deplanes in Geneva, Switzerland, before speaking at the U.N. Human Rights council and further negotiations with Iranian officials over the future of their nuclear program.

Secretary of State John Kerry deplanes in Geneva, Switzerland, before speaking at the U.N. Human Rights council and further negotiations with Iranian officials over the future of their nuclear program. State Department photo

Don’t Blow Up an Effective Iran Deal

If members of Congress think blocking this deal will lead to a better one, they are dangerously mistaken.

After more than a year of intense, serious negotiations, top diplomats are closing in on a long-term, comprehensive deal with Iran that would effectively prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The agreement would be a major boon for U.S. and international security, for Israel and our other allies in the region, and for global efforts to prevent proliferation. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.

If members of Congress try to delay, block or reject the emerging P5+1 agreement with Iran, hoping that more sanctions will lead to a better deal, they are dangerously mistaken. 

The agreement that is taking shape would block Iran’s major potential pathways to nuclear weapons development—the uranium-enrichment route and the plutonium-separation route—and guard against a clandestine weapons program. It will establish strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program for more than 10 years, and perhaps up to 15 years.

Among other things, the deal will require Iran to significantly reduce its potential output of weapons-grade plutonium; strengthen International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, inspection authority on a permanent basis; limit Iran’s uranium enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels and cut its overall enrichment capacity by more than half, so that it would take Iran 12 months or more to produce enough weapons-grade enriched-uranium gas for one nuclear weapon. That is more than enough time to detect and disrupt any effort to develop nuclear weapons.

(RelatedWhy America’s Obsession With Iran’s Centrifuges Could Give Tehran)

In February, the P5+1 countries and Iran further narrowed their differences on remaining gaps. The two sides are close to concluding a detailed political framework agreement by the end of March -- perhaps sooner -- with a final, complete agreement by the end of June.

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry rejoined talks in Geneva to try to bridge remaining differences, which appear to involve the timing of lifting sanctions, the duration and phasing of the agreement, and limits on advanced centrifuge research and development.

Unfortunately, some senators are threatening to advance new Iran sanctions legislation. Some proponents of the new sanctions legislation, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., say quite plainly that their aim is to “blow up” the negotiations. 

Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., introduced legislation that would halt the implementation of any comprehensive P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran until Congress has a chance for an up-or-down vote. The bill includes several poison pill presidential certification provisions, outside the scope of the nuclear issue, including Iran's record on supporting terrorism. Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would debate a bill on the Senate floor next week.

These proposals have drawn veto threats from President Barack Obama – and for good reason. With an effective deal in sight, it would be irresponsible to initiate additional sanctions legislation or try to block implementation of an effective agreement soon after it is concluded. It would give Iran an excuse to walk away from the agreement, negotiations would break down, Iran would quickly expand its nuclear capacity and shorten its breakout timeline to mere weeks, the international sanctions regime would crumble, and the risk of a military conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran would grow.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu is pushing Congress in this direction. He claims in hyperbolic terms that the deal-in-the-making just isn’t good enough. He believes that additional pressure, through still tougher sanctions, will somehow persuade Iran’s leaders to dismantle their major nuclear facilities entirely. That’s a dangerous fantasy.

In 2005, when Iran had a few hundred centrifuges, insisting on zero enrichment in a nuclear deal may have been possible. Ten years and 19,000 centrifuges later, it is not. 

Even if Iran completely "dismantled" its nuclear infrastructure, it could rebuild it. For about a decade, Iran has had the basic capacity to produce bomb grade nuclear material for weapons. Tougher sanctions or a military strike will not eliminate the knowledge and basic industrial capacity.

Congress has many ways to responsibly and constructively weigh-in. In the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Ranking Member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., are taking a different and more constructive approach than their Senate colleagues. They are circulating a letter to the president stating that a nuclear agreement with Iran “must constrain Iran’s nuclear infrastructure so that Iran has no pathway to a bomb, and that agreement must be long lasting.” The letter reiterates that sanctions on Iran cannot be permanently lifted without Congress passing new legislation to repeal them and Congress will only consider permanent sanctions relief if an agreement forecloses “any pathway [for Iran] to a bomb.”

The agreement will not deliver everything the P5+1 countries want. But based on the signs emerging from the talks, it looks to be an effective approach that would effectively block Iran’s nuclear weapons potential for many years to come.