As Congress debates what if anything to do about the Iran nuclear deal, a growing number of experts – including the former head of Israel’s atomic energy agency — is urging legislators to make sure that the United States continues to comply with the accord.
“The bottom line is the agreement is good for Israel,” Uzi Eilam told a small group in Washington on Tuesday assembled by the liberal Jewish group, J-Street.
Eilam, a retired brigadier general, former Director General of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and Chief Defense Scientist of Israel’s Defense Ministry, said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would prevent Iran from amassing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon in “the foreseeable future.”
Eilam differs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has demanded that negotiators swiftly “fix or nix” the accord by expanding its restrictions on Iran. However, most of Israel’s national security establishment agrees with Eilam that Israel is better off with the current agreement than with no restrictions on the Iranian program. “Knowledgeable, responsible and experienced” Israeli practitioners hold this view, Eilam said.
U.S. national security experts also overwhelmingly support the JCPOA.
On Monday, 90 US nuclear scientists, including Richard Garwin, a designer of the hydrogen bomb, released a letter recommending that Congress take no action jeopardizing the Iran deal. Noting that the 2015 agreement severely impedes Iran from developing a nuclear weapon until at least 2030 and that the other signatories remain firm in their support, the scientists wrote, “Congress should act to ensure that the United States remains a party to the agreement.”
President Trump, who on Oct. 13 refused to certify the benefits to US national security of the JCPOA, has tried to deflect responsibility for the fate of the accord to Congress. Under US legislation passed when Barack Obama was still president, Congress has until Dec. 15 to decide whether to restore nuclear-related sanctions or introduce other legislation affecting US compliance. A simple “snap-back” would require only 50 votes, while amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act would need 60 votes.
Congress could take a positive step and remove the requirement that Trump re-certify the deal every 90 days – a provision that angers the president, who asserts that Iran has taken advantage of the JCPOA to extend its influence in the Middle East. Congress could also try to put in place new demands on Iran that go beyond those negotiated by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Democrats, whose votes would be needed to meet the 60-vote threshold required for this approach, are unlikely to support such legislation.
Iran and the other signatories have also made it clear that they would oppose such efforts to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement. Iranian officials have said they would remain within the deal if the Europeans do, while noting that it would take them only four days to resume enriching uranium to the 20 percent level – a possibility if the US re-imposes the sanctions waived under the JCPOA.
Eilam said that while no non-proliferation agreement is perfect, the Iran deal provides sufficient time to address the JCPOA’s shortcomings. He said that the international community should use the next 13 years to negotiate an extension of the agreement and try to maintain restrictions on the Iranian program until 2045. This will “give the younger generation time to get into power and change the situation” in Iran, he said.
Eilam declined to answer a question from this analyst about what new incentives the United States or others could offer Iran to persuade it to agree to extend the sunset provisions in the JCPOA. Eilam also would not comment on whether Israel – the sole nuclear weapons power in the Middle East – would agree to more transparency about its own arsenal in the interest of convincing others in the region not to develop weapons of their own.
Numerous nuclear experts have urged the United States to build on the JCPOA rather than undermine it.
The Atlantic Council commissioned a series of papers in the spring from prominent arms control specialists who suggested making the JCPOA the gold standard for new non-proliferation accords and starting a regional dialogue on nuclear safety as one way of easing Arab-Iranian tensions.
The 90 signatories of the new letter also made recommendations for enhanced verification and multilateral control of uranium enrichment facilities in other non-nuclear weapons states to increase confidence that these installations are not being diverted to military purposes.
The JCPOA, the US nuclear scientists said, is “necessary to provide the time needed to develop and implement these initiatives.”
Eilam, addressing concerns that Iran might be secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, noted that foreign countries have considerable intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program that goes beyond that collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. He expressed confidence that the world would know quickly if Iran sought to cheat on its commitments and that Israel, the United States and Iran’s regional adversaries could deal with Iran’s non-nuclear threats.
“Iran is not North Korea and we know much more about what is going on in Iran than North Korea,” he said. He also called Iran a “relatively sober and normal country” – not the fanatic theocracy portrayed in caricatures put forward by hawks in Israel and the United States.
Barbara Slavin is director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.