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By Melanie Campbell, Columnist
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) most recent quarterly report brings good news for supporters of the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. [i] The report confirms that Iran is meeting its nuclear obligations and has granted the IAEA unprecedented levels of access to ensure the agency can implement robust monitoring mechanisms and fully verify Iran’s continued compliance.
Despite this progress, skepticism of the deal remains high on Capitol Hill, with opponents introducing a seemingly endless number of anti-Iran bills in Congress. [ii] Although many are in response to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior, a senior State Department official warned Congress that such legislation could interfere with the JCPOA, warning that lawmakers should be wary of giving Iran “any excuse to walk away from the table.” [iii]
Congress is correct that managing Iranian non-nuclear aggression is important, but derailing the JCPOA is not the solution, and could potentially restart Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Instead, Congress should focus its energy on making sure the agreement succeeds. Congress can start by fully funding the IAEA’s monitoring and verification activities, distinguishing between actual JCPOA violations and Iran’s pursuit of regional security, and responding to these activities in a way that does not threaten to undermine the agreement.
As a crucial first step, Congress should ensure that the IAEA has the resources to effectively implement the agreement. The JCPOA provides the IAEA with unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program, but sustained funding is necessary to cover the costs of inspectors, travel, equipment, and verification activities such as facility inspections, nuclear material accountancy, environmental sampling, and satellite imagery analysis. The IAEA estimates it will need $10 million per year of additional funding beyond its current budget for JCPOA verification. [iv] Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget includes a modest increase in funding for IAEA activities, but still falls short of much needed requests. [v]
More importantly, Congress must distinguish between actual JCPOA violations and Iran’s pursuit of regional power projection, and respond with appropriate measures that do not undermine the deal. In response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, members of Congress claimed that Iran had violated the agreement and sought to renew the Iran Sanctions Act, which was suspended in accordance with the terms of the JCPOA. [vi] However, Iran’s missile tests are not a violation of the JCPOA. In fact, Iran emphasized throughout negotiations that its missile program was not on the table for discussion. Instead, critics are conflating the JCPOA with UNSCR 2231, a United Nations resolution that implements the JCPOA and also has a separate provision calling for Iran to “not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” [vii] So although the UNSCR 2231 includes implementation of the JCPOA, violating the other provisions of the resolution does not constitute a violation of the JCPOA.
Iran’s missile tests may not align with the spirit of the JCPOA, but the United States should hardly find it surprising that Iran continues to seek ways to establish its security in the region post-agreement. Iran lacks a strong conventional military, and therefore sees its missile program as vital for deterring its enemies by establishing a credible threat of retaliation against adversaries with much stronger conventional militaries, like Saudi Arabia or Israel.
Although it is prudent of Congress to monitor Iran’s regional activities, Congress must also recognize that Iranian attempts at shoring up its military capabilities are inevitable given continuing instability in the region and Iran’s central role in Middle East politics. Iran’s ballistic missile program and support of proxy groups are issues of concern, but are not as large of a threat to the United States as a nuclear Iran, and need to be responded to in a way that does not risk restarting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran’s current compliance with the JCPOA is encouraging, but it is important that Congress tread carefully so as not to undermine the agreement. There is no better version of the nuclear deal to be had, nor is one needed, and walking away from the JCPOA leaves the United States with only sanctions or military action as possible courses of action. Neither option is likely to provide an effective or lasting solution to preventing a nuclear Iran. Congress should recognize this and fully fund and support the JCPOA.
[i] “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors, February 26, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_Report_February_26_2016.pdf.
[ii] “Anti-Iran Moves in Congress,” United States Institute of Peace, April 20, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2016/feb/08/anti-iran-moves-congress.
[iii] Patrick Goodenough, “State Dep’t Official Warns Congress, Don’t Give Iran ‘Any Excuse to Walk Away From’ Nuclear Deal,” CSNNews.com, April 5, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/patrick-goodenough/senators-administration-walking-eggshells-iran-over-missile-launches.
[iv] David C. Trimble, “Nuclear Nonproliferation: Preliminary Observations on IAEA’s Role in Verifying the Iran Agreement,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, February 23, 2016, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-417.
[v] Jordain Carney, “Dem wants more funds for Iran deal watchdog,” The Hill, February 10, 2016, accessed April 23, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/269038-dem-senator-wants-more-funds-for-iran-deal-watchdog.
[vi] Michael Bowman, “Iran Missile Launches Prompt Sanctions Push in US Congress,” Voice of America, March 20, 2016, accessed April 25, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/iran-missile-launches-prompt-sanctions-push-in-us-congress/3229437.html.
[vii] Yishai Schwartz, “The Iranian Missile Launch and the Gray Lady’s Confusion,” Lawfare, October 22, 2015, accessed April 23, 2016, https://www.lawfareblog.com/iranian-missile-launch-and-gray-ladys-confusion.
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