Announcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iranian nuclear activities, President Obama claimed it would make “our country and the world safer and more secure.” On the contrary, what the agreement allows; the process by which it was negotiated and will be considered by Congress, will have far-reaching negative consequences on U.S. and global nonproliferation policies.
Normalizing Iran’s status. Undermining global nonproliferation standards
The JCPOA specifies in great detail the sanctions to be lifted on sectors, entities, and individuals, going beyond nuclear-related items to include conventional weapons and ballistic missiles. Verification relies on Iranian-provided inventories and declarations and separate, thus far secret, arrangements between the terrorist regime and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Requests for access will be “kept to the minimum necessary” to verify implementation and will “not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities.”
Particularly troubling for future nonproliferation efforts is the P5+1 countries’ acceptance of Iranian claims about the inalienability of its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The JCPOA allows Iran to continue enriching and reprocessing, despite lingering questions about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear activities and “diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
This acquiescence undermines the requirements in Article III of the NPT and conditionality in Article IV, which constitute the IAEA’s raison d’être. The JCPOA also rewards Iran’s decades of deception, breaches, and violations of its international obligations by including a commitment from the parties to engage in “different areas of civil nuclear cooperation.”
Eviscerating U.S. requirements, conditions concerning nuclear accords
As such, the multiparty agreement not only normalizes Iran’s nuclear status, it eviscerates the U.S. “gold standard” established by the Agreement for Peaceful Civilian Nuclear Energy between the United States and United Arab Emirates.
The UAE had taken verifiable action in combatting terrorist financing and the use of its territory as a transshipment point to Iran. Combined efforts by the Bush Administration and a bipartisan group of lawmakers culminated in the UAE agreeing to forego domestic uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing as part of the U.S.-UAE nuclear cooperation accord that entered into force in 2009. This no ENR pledge—the “gold standard”– was to be universally applied in the future.
In 2012, Obama Administration officials decided to adopt a case by case approach to the application of the “gold standard” but insisted it would remain a core requirement for nuclear agreements involving a country in the volatile, proliferation sensitive region of the Middle East and North Africa. It maintained the higher threshold for strong U.S. allies. Not so for the terrorist regime in Tehran, allowing it to retain indigenous enrichment and reprocessing, along with other nuclear capabilities and infrastructure.
The United States, along with the UK, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and China further agreed to facilitate Iran’s “acquisition of light-water research and power reactors” and supply “state-of-the art instrumentation and control systems”, among other assistance. There will be more “engagements” and “exchanges” in “nuclear science and technology” between all the parties.
The multiparty agreement with Iran also obliterates requirements conditioning American nuclear benefits on the potential foreign partner’s relationship with Tehran. Consider the recent debate over a new civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with China to replace the one expiring late this year. Bipartisan concerns exist about the PRC’s violations of the existing accord; Chinese entities and individuals helping Iran and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs; PRC violations of other US sanctions on these rogue regimes; and potential Iranian access to U.S. nuclear materials and technology via the Chinese.
These concerns were rendered essentially moot by the July 15th announced deal with Iran.
Under the JCPOA, China will be building two nuclear power plants for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Chinese conduits for Iran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic missile program, such as Li Fangwei, may have an easier time procuring and supplying Tehran with items on its WMD wish list. Li, also known as Karl Lee, is wanted by the FBI for operating “a large network of front companies” which he allegedly used to “defraud” U.S. financial institutions and engage in “prohibited transactions” violating a number of U.S. statutes, as well as the “Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations.”
This could be further facilitated by the U.S.-PRC nuclear cooperation agreement expected to go into effect, automatically, this week.
Process is part of the problem
Had Congress sought to block the entry into force of the U.S.-China civilian nuclear cooperation accord and prompt the President to revise and resubmit, a resolution of disapproval would have needed veto proof majorities in both chambers. Two other potential options would have also required enough support to override a Presidential veto.
This mechanism is based on Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and is essentially the same as the one for review and consideration of the multiparty agreement with Iran.
Under the AEA construct, nuclear cooperation agreements are a fait accompli. The Departments of State and Energy engage in discussions with potential partners for nuclear cooperation. Once they arrive at an agreement, the proposal is submitted to the President along with a document known as a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS).
An NPAS includes a synopsis of the foreign party’s nuclear program. It also refers to the physical and regulatory infrastructure, general nonproliferation policies, as well as relations, if any, with that nation and countries whose nuclear activities are of concern to the United States.
The President submits the 123 and the NPAS to the House and Senate committees for review. The agreement automatically goes into effect after 90 days of continuous session, unless Congress, within that timeframe, adopts a measure disapproving of the proposed accord or one making approval contingent upon a series of conditions being met. These stand-alone measures must have enough support to sustain a veto – an almost insurmountable hurdle, as history has shown.
This approval process may have been adequate when Section 123 of the AEA was enacted, but not for today’s realities. Over the past 60 years, tougher provisions have been written into the law, but the situation remains far from satisfactory. Standards need to be raised.
Congress therefore needs to look beyond disapproving and, hopefully, blocking the entry into force of the multiparty accord with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It should carefully examine authorities and mechanisms, including under the Atomic Energy Act, relevant to negotiations involving nuclear technologies and materials that have both a civilian, as well as military application.
It should review sanctions regimes relevant to countries of proliferation and terrorism concern. The House and Senate should then take immediate action to correct any deficiencies, if Congress is to prevent another JCPOA and further deterioration of nonproliferation standards.
Dr. Yleem D.S. Poblete is a PhD who served for close to 20 years on the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including as Chief of Staff and Staff Director. During this time, she was the staff lead for numerous Iran-related bills, including the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act enacted into law in 2012. She is currently a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.