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Iran Nuclear Agreement a Good First Step, But Engagement with Congress Necessary

By Blaise Misztal

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The political framework for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran announced today represents diplomatic progress toward preventing a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. However, while the announced framework is a good first step, many questions still remain. Moreover, it is disappointing that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have not thus far acknowledged the role lawmakers on Capitol Hill play in approving the deal. BPC encourages the administration to use this moment to start a civil and objective national dialogue about the deal’s merits.

The announced parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) provide specifics on a number of technical issues critical to restricting Iran’s nuclear program. These include: only 5,060 centrifuges will be allowed to enrich uranium for the next decade; all operational centrifuges will be the older IR-1 model; non-operational centrifuges will be dismantled and secured by the International Atomic Energy Agency; a prohibition on enrichment above 3.67 percent; and a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium.

A number of other issues remain insufficiently addressed by the JCPOA that make it difficult to evaluate fully how this deal might actually impact Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. For example, how will Iran dispose of the over 6,000 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium it currently possesses? Will this stockpile be shipped out of the country? Diluted to a lower level of enrichment? Or converted from gaseous to solid form, in which case it might be reconverted and used for a potential breakout? Further, does the requirement that Iran “implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimension of its program” mean that actually answering the IAEA’s questions is not actually a condition of the deal itself? Also, while the JCPOA provides that Iranian “significant non-performance” could result in the re-imposition of all sanctions, there is a little indication of what could count as significant, who determines it, or whether other punitive measures might be implemented for lesser infractions.

While we are hopeful that these issues will be addressed in further negotiations, the JCPOA alone is unlikely to serve as a foundation for the executive-legislative cooperation that is needed to fully implement a lasting and stable comprehensive agreement. First, the JCPOA details that “the architecture of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be retained,” putatively to allow for “snap-back of sanctions.” However, this appears to signal that the Obama administration will seek to use its waiver authority to lift sanctions on Iran without having to go to Congress for their repeal. Indeed, while President Obama laudably offered to brief lawmakers and work constructively with them, he stopped short of explicitly acknowledging the one thing they have demanded: a right to review and vote on a final deal. Furthermore, his suggestion that anyone who criticizes the JCPOA is advocating for war is not conducive to the objective review of the deal details that now needs to occur.

After many false starts and delays, today’s deal is a laudable diplomatic achievement. What was agreed to at the table in Switzerland, however, still needs to be analyzed, evaluated and debated by Congress and the American people. One way to ensure that this happens is to embrace lawmakers’ rightful role in reviewing the agreement, whether on their own or with the assistance of an independent panel to assess the deal. While the announcement of the JCPOA has passed, it is still not too late for Congress and the White House to work together on this issue.

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, IRAN, JOHN KERRY, NUCLEAR WEAPONS, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA