Preventing Iran from Developing Nuclear Weapons:
Why I Support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The world we seek is a place of opportunity, but the world we inhabit is filled with frightful dangers, many of which converge today around the Mideast.  One boiling cauldron of theocratic repression and nuclear ambition in the region is the state of Iran.

The Iranian government has been a brutal oppressor of its own people and a sponsor of terrorist activity around the world, from Syria to Argentina. With its well-documented plans for building nuclear weapons and its efforts to destabilize the Middle East, it has been rightly considered a menace to international goals of nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear peace.

Congress is currently debating the proposed nuclear agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons that was negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

As a Maryland State Senator and a professor of constitutional law, and not a Member of Congress, I harbor no illusions that my thoughts on this agreement will have any influence on the course of events in Congress next month. 

But, as I knock on doors throughout our district, many people have asked for my thoughts on the current situation and so I offer here my general perspectives to give anyone interested a glimpse into my thinking on this important subject.      

I have spoken to several Members of Congress about the agreement, consulted numerous foreign policy experts who reside in our community (and there are a whole lot of them), read everything I could find from competing perspectives, and talked at length to 8th District residents on all sides of the debate: people strongly opposed, people strongly in support, and people conflicted, ambivalent, and uncertain.  I am impressed by the moral seriousness of everyone I spoke with and take heart, even through all the heated controversy, that everyone here is looking for the same outcomes: not nuclear war but enduring peace, not world chaos but world order, and not religious and ethnic hatred but pluralism and coexistence.  I see great consensus as to the ends even with the palpable disagreement over the means of getting there.     

Everything I have learned leads me to believe that the agreement represents our best chance to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is a strategic, political and moral imperative.  The Iranian regime is despotic and authoritarian, and we cannot afford the possibility of it becoming a nuclear power.

The JCPOA contains many strong provisions that dramatically reduce the threat of a nuclear Iran. First and foremost, it places inspectors on the ground to constantly monitor Iran’s nuclear supply chain. Moreover, the deal imposes stringent physical prohibitions on Iran’s current supply of potential nuclear ingredients. The physical conditions of the agreement amount to shutting off both the uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear bomb. The agreement requires Iran to relinquish the vast majority of its centrifuges, which are pieces of equipment used to enrich uranium and turn it into a nuclear fuel. The regime must also surrender 97% of its enriched uranium.  Iran will be barred from enriching uranium beyond energy-grade fuel, which is 3.67% enrichment; weapons-grade uranium is enriched 90% or more.

The JCPOA therefore shuts off the uranium pathway to a nuclear bomb for at least fifteen years. The deal eliminates the risk of the creation of a bomb via the plutonium route by compelling Iran to reconfigure the core of its Arak reactor so that it can produce only small amounts of plutonium, prohibiting the construction of another reactor capable of producing appreciable amounts of plutonium, and mandating the removal of all used fuel rods.

Taken together, these restrictions demolish and bury Iran’s current nuclear program. Furthermore, if the regime chooses to risk massive military intervention by violating the agreement and preparing to make a nuclear weapon, it will take the state’s nuclear engineers much longer to achieve a bomb than it would take them in the absence of an agreement, giving us a lot more time to respond decisively. In other words, the deal extends Iran’s so-called “breakout time”—the time it would take the government, with no resistance, to develop a nuclear bomb—from about two months today to a full year

Of course, all these limitations and stipulations are meaningless unless the United States can hold Iran to its end of the bargain. That’s where the deal’s robust and comprehensive inspection regime comes in.  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will regularly scrutinize every known component of Iran’s nuclear program: nuclear sites, uranium mines, centrifuge factories, and supply chains. All nuclear facilities and aspects of the supply chain will be under constant surveillance—both human and electronic—for at least twenty years. Inspectors will even be keeping tabs on machines capable of producing centrifuges. To build a bomb, Iran would need to find a secret source for every aspect of its program, a feat never accomplished by any country laboring under similarly demanding conditions and inspections. 

Most nuclear experts agree—and this is a point I have been focused on—that if Iran attempts to cheat, we will catch them. If they evade the terms of the agreement, either by blatantly cheating or blocking inspectors, crippling international sanctions on Iran will automatically “snap back” into place. Crucially, under the deal’s terms, the United States can trigger these sanctions without the prior approval of China or Russia.  The agreement thus requires, and provides for, rigorous inspection, scrutiny, and accountability.  We therefore can and must be vigilant in enforcing its terms.

To be sure, this agreement, like every negotiated deal, is imperfect. Critics raise valid points that should be neither scoffed at nor dismissed out of hand. Some people have pointed out that an immediate end to the economic sanctions against Iran and its trading partners will represent a multi-billion dollar boon to its economy, some of which money will doubtless be spent by the Iranian government for nefarious purposes abroad. This is a serious point.  It is vitally important that the United States take steps to strengthen the ability of our allies in the region to defend themselves against any potential increase in terror activity that may result from Iran’s newfound financial largesse.  I call upon President Obama to determine what additional assistance and support we might offer to that end.  We must remember that this is a plan to address one overwhelming “existential threat”--the Iranian nuclear peril--and not all of the regime’s theocratic and nihilistic troublemaking outside its borders. 

Other critics express misgivings about what may happen after many of the restrictions elapse in 10-15 years. However, I am comforted by the analysis of former Israeli Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy who has endorsed the agreement and observes that, “In the Middle East, a decade is eternity.” Even if the deal only prevents development of a nuclear bomb for 10 years, the options available to a future President at that time would be no worse than our situation today and could be much better.  Indeed, in the meantime, we should be working hard for a more decent government in Iran and a more humane foreign policy by its leaders.  

Ultimately, we must recognize that the people calling sincerely and passionately for Congress to block the plan have failed to present a better way to neutralize Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and I am convinced this is because it is extremely unlikely that such an alternative exists. Indeed, jettisoning the deal at this point would only exacerbate the deal’s flaws, leaving the United States isolated from our European allies and the whole world in a more uncertain and perilous condition. Rejection of the deal will result in either a weakened agreement, without U.S. participation, or, even worse, in an emboldening of Iran’s most militaristic hardliners, many of whom have promised to renew their nuclear ambitions if the deal falls through.

On the sanctions front, the cat is mostly out of the bag: Our European allies have already begun lifting sanctions, and there is limited international appetite for continuing them. As former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen said recently, “It’s totally unrealistic to believe that if we backed out of this deal that the multilateral sanctions would stay in place.” But we know from history—our unilateral sanctions in place since 1979 had little impact—that the effectiveness of sanctions depends on their comprehensive multilateral support.  Further, discarding the agreement now may actually put us at loggerheads with our allies around the world.  Will we really exact sanctions and reprisals against Germany and France for dealing with Iran?  This is not a likely or reassuring scenario. 

To be clear: This agreement does not address, much less end, Iran’s human rights abuses, which are horrific and endemic. The regime leads the world in per capita executions and is on pace to hit a 12-year high in executions, many without even the most minimal due process protections. To a strong opponent of the death penalty like me, this state of affairs is appalling.  Furthermore, the anti-Semitism, misogyny and sexism of the regime are egregious.  Most importantly, the fact that the Iranian regime continues to export terror to other countries presents a peril that we must confront with continued vigilance by a unified world community.  And let us not forget that three Americans remain unjustly imprisoned in Iran, and another remains missing. We must continue working toward their release and act to see that this agreement will help to create a new context within which to fight for their return.  

Successfully thwarting Iran’s nuclear program does not mean we have halted its aggression in the region or stopped its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. We must continue to work outside the agreement to confine and neutralize Iran’s government as a military threat, and to hold steadfast in our support for the security of our ally Israel. We must also maintain our terrorism-related sanctions, which are unaffected by this deal. But Iran’s conventional threats to peace and security would only be compounded by its acquisition of a nuclear arsenal; I agree with Admiral Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, who recently said, “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear capability, this [deal] is the best option.”

Successful diplomacy means taking the world first as it is as we strive to remake it. Foreign policy change requires realism, pragmatism, compromise, and multilateralism, as well as idealism. I am convinced that the JCPOA is our best option for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weaponry, which is a scary and untenable thought indeed.  If Congress acts, even out of the best of motives, to block the agreement, it will compromise the goal of securing an Iran without nuclear weapons, thereby undermining the security interests of the United States and our allies.  To my mind, approving this agreement is clearly the right choice today. 

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