08.05.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy Thoughts on the Iran Nuclear Agreement United States Senate Floor

This is not the first time nor will it be the last time I speak in this chamber about the Iran nuclear agreement.  But after listening to some of the hearings on this subject in the House and Senate last week I want to provide a bit of my own perspective on the challenge before us.  

I remember during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when some of President Kennedy’s top advisors as well as Members of Congress pushed for a military attack.  A war between the two nuclear superpowers would have – at the very least – risked the annihilation of both countries, and fortunately President Kennedy had the thoughtfulness, patience, and fortitude to resist that pressure. 

It is not easy to stick with the long slog of tough negotiations when others are clamoring for military solutions.   It is the same today as it was back then.  

Today we are considering an agreement at the end of such a slog of negotiations between the United States and our allies, and Russia, China, and Iran to curb an illicit nuclear program that threatens the Middle East and the world.  

I know from conversations with the President and with Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz how difficult this was and that they were prepared to walk away rather than settle for a bad deal.  Based on what I have heard so far, this is not a bad deal.

While there are aspects of the agreement that I and others have legitimate questions about, we already know quite a bit.  

We know that prior to the negotiations Iran’s nuclear program was hurtling forward despite multilateral sanctions.  I remember back in September 2012, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that Iran was within months of producing a nuclear bomb.  Whether or not that was accurate then, it certainly is not accurate if this agreement is implemented.

We know the negotiations succeeded in freezing Iran’s nuclear development in place, and now we have an agreement to roll back Iran’s program.

We also know this is the most rigorous monitoring and inspection regimen ever included in a nonproliferation agreement, more rigorous than I suspect many observers predicted. 

And we know that without this deal, the monitoring and on-site inspections would go away, and so would support for the international sanctions that we painstakingly built.

We know that the sanctions reprieve in this agreement is limited and reversible.  It is structured so that many sanctions remain in place.  Additionally, if Iran fails to meet its commitments we and our partners can revoke the limited relief and impose additional sanctions.

The hasty critics of this agreement are long on scorn but short on alternatives. 

While many have expressed concern about what may happen 15 years from now, they ignore the fact that if Congress rejects this agreement Iran can immediately resume its development of highly enriched uranium and build a nuclear weapon in far less than 15 years.  Is that the alternative they support?

Or is it another war in the Middle East, which our senior military leaders say could spiral out of control and, at best, would delay the resumption of Iran’s nuclear weapons program by 2 – 3 years, after which it would not be subject to international inspections?

Many of the most vociferous critics of this agreement reflexively supported sending American troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq.  I voted against that war, after reading the intelligence files and finding no credible evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.  That colossal mistake killed or maimed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and by now has cost more than $2 trillion, with the meter still running.

Or is the critics’ alternative to reject the agreement and then somehow convince the other parties to it – Russia, China and the rest of the P5 + 1 – to impose even stronger multilateral sanctions?  Have they bothered to ask officials in any of those governments what the chances of that would be?

I am as outraged as anyone by Iran’s support of terrorism, its arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of Americans, its denial of due process, use of torture and other violations of human rights, and its summary executions of political opponents. 

But as horrific as Iran’s behavior is, it pales compared to the havoc that Iran could wreak if it obtains a nuclear weapon.  A nuclear armed Iran could commit acts of terrorism that dwarf by thousands or even millions of times over those it engages in today.  There is simply no comparison.

A workable agreement would not just buy more time; it can also buy new opportunities.  In Iran, the impetus for reforming its hostile and destabilizing foreign policy comes from the Iranian people. 

For decades the Iranian middle class has been smothered – first, by a revolution that crushed their aspirations, and then by a regime that imposed the harsh consequences of its own criminal behavior on the Iranian population. 

Ordinary Iranians overwhelmingly do not want empire; they want more economic opportunities, freedom of expression, and to re-engage peacefully with the world.  With this agreement the Iranian middle class can continue to be a factor in future negotiations.

It is well understood that in the Congress we agree or disagree, we debate, and we vote.  And we do so, ideally, in a manner that reflects the respect that each of us owes to this institution. 

We are but transitory occupants of the seats the voters have afforded us the opportunity to occupy, and in carrying out our responsibilities we should do our best to live up to the standards of those who created what we take pride in calling the world’s oldest democracy.

I mention this because, as I said earlier, I listened to portions of the hearings in various House and Senate committees on the Iran nuclear agreement, at which the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Energy testified.

Presumably, they were asked to testify because the members of those committees have questions or concerns about the agreement and wanted to hear the witnesses’ responses.  However, rather than a respectful, substantive exchange, what has too frequently occurred has been an embarrassing display of political theater.

What we have heard is a series of speeches often containing assertions or accusations that are either contradicted by the text of the agreement or without factual basis, followed by questions the witnesses were unable to answer – either because when they tried they were interrupted or time had expired. 

Frankly, it was often embarrassing to watch and did a disservice to the American people who deserve to know that their representatives are engaged in a substantive, in-depth exchange of views on the hugely important issue of how to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

I have questions myself because, short of unilateral surrender by one party, every agreement involves compromise.  That is as true for international diplomacy as it is for this body. 

Neither side gets everything it wants.  Anyone who suggests that was a possible outcome here is fooling themselves, or even worse, deceiving the voters who sent them here. 

The President has been unwavering in his insistence that the goal of this agreement is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and I commend him for his vision and resolve. 

It is now up to Congress to carry out its oversight responsibility.  We can strive to make this work, keeping in mind the vital national security interests at stake for our country and for our allies, or impulsively sabotage this chance. 

But we should engage in this process in a manner that enhances the image of this institution and that affords those in our government who spent years negotiating this agreement the respect and appreciation they deserve. 

Mr. President, there have been many thoughtful articles and opinion pieces written about the Iran nuclear agreement, and I am sure there will be many more.  I ask unanimous consent that one of them, authored jointly by Eric Schwartz and Brian Atwood, two former Assistant Secretaries of State who have also both served as Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, be printed in the Record at the end of my remarks. 

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