Last summer, the international community reached a landmark agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Roughly one year later, Americans must ask ourselves: Has the deal succeeded?
To receive relief from sanctions related to its nuclear program, Iran took a number of important steps. It shipped nearly its entire 12-ton stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country, reduced its number of functioning uranium enrichment centrifuges by two-thirds and permanently re-engineered the Arak heavy-water reactor by filling its core with concrete. These steps cut off Iran’s short-term uranium and plutonium pathways to producing a nuclear weapon.
Iran also provided the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog, with unprecedented, 24/7 access to monitor all of the country’s known and declared nuclear facilities. That access covers Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, from uranium mines and mills to centrifuge production and enrichment facilities.
As a result of Iran’s initial compliance with the agreement, the deal has extended the time it would take Tehran to “break out” and assemble enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon from two to three months to a year or more. The agreement has also strengthened our intelligence agencies’ understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and significantly improved the likelihood we will detect any incidents in which Iran litigates the boundaries of the deal.
So, measured by whether the agreement has prevented Iran from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon, it has so far been successful.
Still, I have long suspected Iran would push the boundaries of the deal to test how the United States and our allies would respond.
For example, Iran’s heavy-water stockpile in February briefly exceeded the limit set by the deal. Whether this was an attempt by the Iranian regime to test the international community’s seriousness about enforcing the deal, or simply a genuine accident, the result was clear: The IAEA observed the incident and reported it to the United States, and the international community made sure Iran corrected it immediately.
I was not surprised to learn that Iran appears to be attempting to test the margins of the agreement. That’s why congressional oversight, intelligence collection, intrusive inspections and continued multilateral diplomacy are so important.
But we also have to look beyond the agreement and consider Iran’s broader, non-nuclear behavior.
Iran continues to propagate anti-Semitism and call for the destruction of Israel. The regime continues to build its military arsenal and support terrorism throughout the Middle East — especially in Syria, where Iran bears substantial responsibility for keeping the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime in power.
In addition, Iran has continued to conduct illegal ballistic missile tests — including four since the agreement — and violate the human rights of its citizens and non-Iranians, particularly minors, foreign journalists and businessmen.
It is precisely because of these destabilizing, provocative actions that America and our allies must do everything we can to enforce the terms of the agreement, push back on Iran’s bad behavior in the Middle East and maintain our credible, conventional military deterrent in the region.
Yet these actions also underscore an important point about the agreement: It was a transactional — not a transformational — agreement. The reality is that this deal seeks to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb — not to bring the country into the community of nations. Only the Iranian government can do that, and the regime’s behavior demonstrates it does not intend to comply with international norms and rules.
Today, nearly a year into implementation of the Iran agreement, what lessons does the deal offer for U.S. diplomacy and for Americans thinking about who to support in the presidential election?
First, Iran remains untrustworthy. Since its 1979 revolution, it has pursued interests and advocated values completely opposed to those of the West. Its approach to regional crises has not changed.
Second, Iran seeks to exploit weak states and power vacuums. We must disrupt Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East and support our regional partners, especially our vital ally, Israel.
Third, the past year has shown that international engagement and multilateral diplomacy can be effective — even with rogue states such as Iran. We must talk to our enemies, while at the same time maintaining coercive tools such as sanctions to respond to terrorism, human rights violations and illegal ballistic missile tests.
As part of these efforts, we must make it clear to Iranians why businesses don’t want to invest in their country — namely, because its business environment is corrupt, opaque and controlled by the military.
The last lesson I’ll mention is this: Sustained, long-term congressional oversight of this deal remains essential. Regardless of what happens in November, I intend to stay actively engaged in ensuring enforcement of the agreement.
Speaking of the next president — let’s be clear. Preventing Iran from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon will require steady leadership, a nuanced understanding of diplomacy and constant scrutiny of Iran’s behavior. But only one leader understands these stakes, and only one leader has the experience, knowledge and temperament to implement the agreement successfully and advance a wise and principled American foreign policy.
Ultimately, our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and preserve America’s global leadership role rest in the hands of the American people. We would be wise to learn the lessons from the first year of the nuclear deal, and to let those lessons guide us toward the right choice this fall.