Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) issued a statement Thursday on why he will support the “historic agreement” designed to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Below is his statement in its entirety.
“For years, the Congress, the President, our European partners, and the international community have imposed a series of tough economic sanctions on Iran with the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Those sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and I commend President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the entire team, along with our P5 +1 partners, for their efforts to negotiate an agreement to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
The question for Members of Congress, who will vote on this agreement, is whether it achieves its stated goals. Given the importance of this question, I believe every Member of Congress has an obligation to thoroughly review the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), consider the testimony presented at the Congressional hearings, and listen to competing views before reaching a final judgment.
Since the JCPOA was submitted to Congress on July 19, 2015, I have carefully reviewed all of its terms, attended the classified briefings and numerous presentations, and reviewed the transcripts of all the hearings that have been held in both the House and the Senate. I have also met with opponents and supporters of the agreement. While I respect the opinions of those on both sides of this issue, I have concluded that this agreement advances the national security interests of the United States and all of our allies, including our partner Israel. This agreement is the best path to achieve our goal – that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. Indeed, I firmly believe that, should Congress block this agreement, we would undermine that goal, inadvertently weaken and isolate America, and strengthen Iran.
The benefit of any agreement must be measured against the real-world consequences of no agreement. Many forget that when these negotiations began in earnest two years ago, Iran was a threshold nuclear weapons state and remains so until and unless this agreement is implemented. As Prime Minister Netanyahu warned at the United Nations in 2012, Iran was a few months away from having enough highly enriched uranium to produce its first bomb. Today, prior to the implementation of this agreement, it has a nuclear stockpile that, if further enriched, could produce up to 10 bombs. It currently has installed nearly 20,000 centrifuges that could convert that fuel into weapons material. Indeed, many analysts believe that the combination of Iran’s nuclear stockpile and its centrifuges would allow it to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for a bomb in two months.
In addition, Iran has been enriching some of its nuclear material at its deep underground reactor at Fordow, a very difficult target to hit militarily. Moreover, Iran was in the process of building a heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could generate plutonium to be used for a nuclear weapon. Finally, Iran has been operating for years under an inadequate verification regime that increases the risks of a covert program going undetected.
This agreement blocks all of these paths to acquiring weapons-grade nuclear material and puts in place an inspection system that assures the detection of any violation and future dash to acquire a nuclear weapon. The Interim Agreement has already neutralized Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium that Prime Minister Netanyahu highlighted in his speech. This final agreement will significantly scale back the remainder of its program. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be cut from 9,900 kg to 300 kg, and that remainder will be limited to low-enriched uranium that cannot be used for a weapon. In addition, the agreement removes two-thirds of Iran’s installed centrifuges. No enrichment activities may be conducted at Fordow for a period of 15 years, and the facility at Arak will be permanently converted to one that does not produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Taken together, these measures will extend the breakout time from about two months to at least a year and put in place layers of verification measures over different timelines, including some that remain in place permanently. It is generally agreed that these measures would allow us to detect any effort by Iran to use its current nuclear facilities – Natanz, Fordow, or Arak – to violate the agreement. The main criticism with respect to verification is that the agreement does not sufficiently guard against an effort by Iran to develop a secret uranium supply chain and enrichment capacity at a covert place. However, the reality is that the agreement permanently puts in place an inspection mechanism that is more rigorous than any previous arms control agreement and more stringent than the current system. The agreement ultimately requires inspections of any suspected Iranian nuclear site with the vote of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians can block such inspections in the face of a united Western front. Are we really better off without this verification regime than with it?
In exchange for rolling back its nuclear program and accepting this verification regime, Iran will obtain relief from those sanctions that are tied to its nuclear program. However, that relief will only come after Iran has verifiably reduced its nuclear program as required. Moreover, if Iran backslides on those commitments, the sanctions will snap back into place. The snapback procedure is triggered if the U.S. registers a formal complaint against Iran with the special commission created for that purpose. In addition, those U.S. sanctions that are not related to the Iranian nuclear program will remain in place, including U.S. sanctions related to Iran’s human rights violations, support for terrorism, and missile program.
There are some who oppose the agreement because it does not prevent Iran from engaging in adversarial actions throughout the Gulf, the Middle East, and elsewhere. That conduct, however, was never within the scope of these negotiations nor the objective of the international sanctions regime aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. President Reagan understood the distinction between changing behavior and achieving verifiable limits on weapons programs. He negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, not because he thought it would change the character of “the Evil Empire” but because limiting their nuclear arsenal was in the national security interests of the U.S. and our allies. That reality is also true today. An Iranian regime with nuclear capability would present a much greater threat to the region than an Iran without one. In fact, today, as a threshold nuclear weapons state, Iran wields more influence than it will under the constraints of this agreement. That is why our focus has appropriately been on reining in the Iranian nuclear program.
The lifting of the sanctions will certainly give Iran additional resources to support its priorities. Given the political dynamic in Iran, some of those additional resources will likely be invested to improve the domestic standard of living. But even if all the resources were used to support their proxies in the region, respected regional observers agree that they are unlikely to make a significant strategic difference. Moreover, any effort by Iran to increase support for its proxies can be checked by the U.S. and our allies through countermeasures. Finally, it is clear that any alternative agreement opponents seek would also result in the lifting of the sanctions and freeing up these resources.
In my view, opponents of the agreement have failed to demonstrate how we will be in a better position if Congress were to block it. Without an agreement, the Iranians will immediately revert to their status as a threshold nuclear weapons state. In other words, they immediately pose the threat that Prime Minister Netanyahu warned about in his U.N. speech. At the same time, the international consensus we have built for sanctions, which was already starting to fray, would begin to collapse entirely. We would be immediately left with the worst of all worlds – a threshold nuclear weapons state with diminished sanctions and little leverage for the United States.
I disagree with the view that we can force the Iranians back to the negotiating table to get a better deal. All of our European partners have signed on to the current agreement. Consequently, the U.S. would be isolated in its quest to return to negotiations. And in the unlikely event that we somehow returned to negotiations, the critics have not presented a plausible scenario for achieving a better agreement in a world where fewer sanctions means less economic pressure.
The bottom line is that if Congress were to block the agreement and the Iranians were to resume nuclear enrichment activities, the only way to stop them, at least temporarily, would be by military action. That would unleash significant negative consequences that could jeopardize American troops in the region, drag us into another ground war in the Middle East, and trigger unpredictable responses elsewhere. Moreover, the United States would be totally isolated from most of the world, including our Western partners. The folly of that go-it-alone military approach would be compounded by the fact that such action would only deal a temporary setback to an Iranian nuclear program. They would likely respond by putting their nuclear enrichment activities deeper underground and would likely be more determined than ever to build a nuclear arsenal.
We don’t have to take that path. This agreement will give us a long period of time to test the Iranians’ compliance and assess their intentions. During that period, it will give us a treasure trove of information about the scope and capabilities of the limited Iranian nuclear program. Throughout that period and beyond, we reserve all of our options, including a military option, to respond to any Iranian attempt to break out and produce enough highly enriched material to make a bomb. But we will have two advantages over the situation as it is today – a more comprehensive verification regime to detect any violation and a much longer breakout period in which to respond.
As former Secretary Clinton has indicated, the fact that we have successfully limited the scope of Iran’s nuclear program does not mean we have limited its ambitions in the region. We must continue to work with our friends and allies to constantly contain and confront Iranian aggression in the region. The United States and Israel must always stand together to confront that threat. The fact remains that Iranian support for their terrorist proxy Hezbollah continues to destabilize Lebanon and poses a direct threat to Israel, as does its support for Hamas. We must do all we can to ensure that our ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region, including providing increased funding for Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile and Iron Dome anti-rocket systems. Consideration should also be given to previously denied weapons if a need for such enhanced capabilities arises. We must always remember that some of Iran’s leaders have called for the destruction of Israel and we must never forget the awful past that teaches us not to ignore those threats.
The threats Iran poses in the region are real. But all those threats are compounded by an Iran that is a threshold nuclear weapons state. This agreement will roll back the Iranian nuclear program and provide us with greater ability to detect and more time to respond to any future Iranian attempt to build a nuclear weapon.
For all of the reasons given above, I’ve concluded that this is an historic agreement that should be supported by the Congress.”