Floor Speech on Iran by Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

July 15, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Mentioned Suspect Entities & Suppliers: 

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following speech on Iran in the U.S. Senate:

“M. President, I again come to the floor to speak about one of our greatest national security challenges – a nuclear-armed Iran and the latest conflicting remarks coming from Iran’s leaders.

Let me say at the outset, as I have said in the past, I support the Administration’s diplomatic efforts. I have always supported a bipartisan two-track policy of diplomacy and sanctions.  At the same time, I am convinced that we should only relieve pressure on Iran in exchange for verifiable concessions that will fundamentally dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear program and that any deal be structured in such a way that alarm bells will sound – from Vienna to Washington, to Moscow and Beijing – should Iran restart its program anytime in the next 20 or 30 years.

Now, I am gravely concerned by the recent remarks of Iran’s Supreme Leader whose views about what Iran is willing to give up in a deal seem to deliberately undermine the positions of Iran’s negotiators in Vienna and clearly curtail their flexibility as we enter into a critical stage of the talks. 

Yesterday Foreign Minister Zarif gave an interview that went public with Iran’s negotiating position. And let’s break down exactly what it is that he offered: He said that Iran will freeze its nuclear fuel program for several years, in exchange for being treated like other peaceful nuclear nations and for sanctions relief. Let’s be clear – this would leave 19,000 centrifuges spinning in Iran.  It would not, from what I can tell, require Iran to dismantle anything.

In my view, this is not a starting place for an endgame.  It is the same obfuscation – the same Iranian tactics that we have seen for years, for decades.  Iran puts offers on the table that appear to be concessions, but, in reality, are designed to preserve Iranian illicit nuclear infrastructure and enrichment so that the capacity, the capacity to breakout and rush toward a nuclear weapon is still very much within reach.  That is not an endgame.  It’s a non-starter.

Essentially, what Zarif is offering is the same concessions as what Iran made for the interim agreement over 6 months ago.  And in exchange, Iran gets sanction relief.  Except we know that Iran is not like any other nation and its history of cheating, lying, and evading inspections proves it.

As one commentator said this morning, “So it seems that Iran is trying to protect its nuclear breakout capacity while trying to appear moderate.”

Zarif’s proposal last night, in my view, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.  It’s more moderate than the Ayatollah’s outlandish demand for 190,000 centrifuges last week, but at its core it’s an offer to not give anything in terms of enrichment capacity – and, in exchange, receive sanctions relief. And that’s unacceptable.

The Zarif proposal would extend the Joint Plan of Action – allowing Iran’s nuclear program to run in place subject to inspections – but make no concessions – none – not a single concession that would demonstrably setback Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the long-term, including no concessions on the number of centrifuges and the secret Fordow enrichment facility. Iran would get the relief it wants while retaining the infrastructure to quickly rebuild its stockpile of highly enriched uranium.

Now M. President, that is straight out of the North Korea handbook – freeze and preserve your ability for a future date.

If you recall, in October 1994, the United States and North Korea signed an Agreed Framework which the international community hoped would end the on-going crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program.  The agreement froze the operation and construction of North Korea’s nuclear reactors which were part of its covert nuclear weapons program. In exchange the United States agreed to provide two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors.

There were high hopes for the agreement with many calling it a first step in the full normalization of political and economic relations with North Korea.

While North Korea carried out some of the measures called for in the agreement, it simultaneously continued its ballistic missile program improving the range and accuracy of its missiles, and it secretly began to pursue a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons separate from the plutonium program which the agreement had frozen.

International tensions once again came to a head in January 2003 when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Following its withdrawal from the NPT, North Korea kicked out IAEA inspectors, restarted the nuclear reactor that had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework, and began moving spent fuel rods to a reprocessing facility that can produce plutonium.

At the time of its withdrawal North Korea – like Iran – said it “had no intention of making nuclear weapons" and that its nuclear activities "would be confined only to power production and other peaceful purposes."

Of course, as we know now, North Korea would conduct a nuclear test establishing its potential to build nuclear weapons.

This history should serve as a warning about what could happen if we allow Iran to maintain a robust nuclear infrastructure.  The fact is Iran is simply agreeing to a freeze, to temporarily lock the door on its nuclear weapons program – as is – walk away and should they later walk away from a deal as they have in the past, they can simply unlock the door and continue their nuclear weapons program from where they are today.

This is exactly what the talks were intended to avoid.  As I stand here, our negotiators in Vienna and Secretary Kerry are working to reach an agreement.  Our terms have been on the table for months. 

And now, at the critical hour, the Supreme Leader throws a monkey wrench into the negotiations, surprising even his own negotiating team, by demanding 190,000 centrifuges must remain for any final deal.

It is our obligation at this point to be asking some very pointed questions: Are Zarif and President Rouhani truly empowered to make this deal?  Even if Zarif and Rouhani’s intentions seem sincere, can we say this about the ultimate decision-maker in Tehran, Supreme Leader Khamenei?  Does the Supreme Leader want a deal? Or are his red-lines an attempt to undermine the negotiations?

Secretary Kerry said this morning that – “the U.S. believes Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program under the NPT.”

Let’s remind ourselves of first principles here. No country has a right to enrichment.  They may have the ability to enrich – the desire to enrich, but they do not have the right to enrich – and certainly not Iran given its past behavior.

Let’s remember how we reached this point.  Iran – over a period of decades – has deceived the international community about its nuclear program, breaching its international commitment in what everyone agrees was an attempt to make Iran a nuclear weapons state – or at least a threshold state.

Experts, like those at The Institute for Science and International Security believe that Iran began building secret uranium enrichment centrifuge facility underground at Fordow in 2006, three years, three years before it was declared to the IAEA.

Now Iran is seeking to turn the tables in the negotiation – to again convince the international community – through words rather than deeds – that it seeks a peaceful nuclear energy program.

The Supreme Leader called the idea of closing Fordow “laughable.” This is a facility built under a mountain, declared only after Iran was caught cheating – and designed to withstand a military strike.  It does not take a nuclear expert to draw the obvious conclusion about Iran’s intentions.

If Iran can’t even agree to close the facility that is at the heart of its covert enrichment program, what concessions can it possibly make that would address international concerns?  Are we supposed to take Iran at its word when its actions have demonstrated over years that it is not a good-faith actor?  Are we supposed to believe that Iran wants 190,000 centrifuges – about 171,000 more than it has right now – for peaceful purposes?

M. President, that is truly laughable.  Even for a country that doesn’t have the world’s 3rd largest oil reserves which Iran does – that would be an absurd position.  Iran can – and, in fact, already does – get cheaper and better nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor from Russia than it could make at home.  Let me repeat that – get cheaper and better nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor from Russia than it could make at home. 

Experts agree that centrifuges must be a part of the deal.  David Albright – a respected former IAEA Inspector – has said that for Iran to move from an interim to a final agreement, it would have to close the Fordow facility and remove between 15,000 and 16,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges.  Even then, we are looking at a breakout time of about 6 - 8 months, depending on whether Iran has access to uranium enriched to just 3.5 percent – or access to 20 percent enriched uranium.

Dennis Ross – one of America’s preeminent diplomats and foreign policy analysts who has served under Democratic and Republican Presidents – has said Iran should retain no more than 10 percent of its centrifuges – that’s no more than 2,000.

So, maybe the comments we’ve heard from the Supreme Leader were – as some analysts have suggested – an effort by the Supreme Leader to superimpose limitations on the negotiating team so, at some point, that they will be free to say that these issues are out of their hands – in the hope of somehow forcing a better deal this week in Vienna.

So I’d suggest that we are either seeing a not-so-clever-game of good-cop-bad-cop, or Iran’s negotiators in Vienna have done a poor job of communicating with their boss believes is the bottom line at the negotiating table.  Or maybe, we just haven’t been listening to what we don’t want to hear. 

From the onset of the talks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani have said that they would not dismantle any centrifuges.  President Rouhani was adamant in an interview on CNN that Iran will not be dismantling its centrifuges.  Let me quote from that interview.

Rouhani: We are determined to provide for the nuclear fuel of such plants inside the country, at the hands of local Iranian scientists. We are going to follow on this path.
Zakaria: So there will be no destruction of centrifuges, of existing centrifuges?
Rohani: No. No, not at all.

Let’s remember that the onus in these talks is on Iran, not the P-5.  Iran is the party at fault.

Iran is the party that comes to these talks with unclean hands.  Iran is the party that has been consistently and overwhelmingly rebuffed by the UN and the international community for its nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism – the subject of 6 UN Security Council resolutions and a multitude of sanctions regimes.

Just last week, the U.S. Courts agreed to a landmark payment of $1.7 billion to the families of Iranian terror victims, including families of the 241 service members who died in the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks bombings in Lebanon in 1983 – 31 years ago – and 19 who died in the Khobar Towers bombing in Eastern Saudi Arabia in 1996 – both bombings perpetrated by Iran.

Iran’s duplicity has been going-on for decades.

So, who’s the bad-guy here?  Commentators may choose to see the US Congress as the antagonist here, but I’d suggest they look across the table and decide whether they’d take a deal with Iran on a nod and a handshake. 

In my view, through its history, through its actions, through its false words and deeds for decades – Iran has forgone the ability for us to shake on a deal that freezes their program.

The only option on the table can be a long-term deal that dismantles Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons programs. A deal that clearly provides for a long-term verification, inspection and enforcement regime, and incentives for compliance in the form of sanctions relief – based on Iranian actions that are verifiable, not on what Iran claims to be the truth.

The fact is – there is no sanctions, in my perspective, relief signing bonus.  If Iran wants relief from sanctions then it needs to tangibly demonstrate to the world that it is giving up its quest for nuclear weapons – Period!

Let’s remember that – though none of us in this Chamber is at the negotiating table – we have a tremendous stake in the outcome.  Without Congress’s bipartisan action on a clear sanctions regime, there would have been no talks and we would not even have had the hope of ending Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

As a separate and co-equal branch of government – representing the American people – Congress has an obligation to provide oversight and a duty to express our views of what a comprehensive deal should look like.  And I will continue to come to this floor to express my view and my concerns given what we’ve heard and seen in the past from Iran.

Iran has a history of duplicity with respect to its nuclear program, using past negotiations to cover up advances in its nuclear program.

And let’s not forget that President Rouhani, as the former negotiator for Iran, said – in no uncertain terms: “The day that we invited the three European ministers to the talks, only 10 centrifuges were spinning at Natanz. We could not produce one gram of U4 or U6. We did not have the heavy water production. We could not produce yellow cake.  Our total production of centrifuges inside the country was 150.  We wanted to complete all of these – we needed time. We did not stop. We completed the program.”

The simple truth, in this quote, is he admitted to deceiving the West.

M. President, everyone knows my history on this issue. Everyone knows where I stand. It’s the same place I have always stood.

For 20 years, I have worked on Iran’s nuclear issues, starting when I was a junior member of the House pressing for sanctions to prevent Iran from building the Bushehr nuclear power plant and to halt IAEA support for their uranium mining and enrichment programs. For a decade I was told that my concern had no basis – that Iran would never be able to bring the Bushehr plant on line, and that Iran’s activities were not a concern.

Well, history has shown that those assessments about Iran’s abilities and intentions – were simply wrong.

The fact is Iran’s nuclear aspirations have been a long and deliberate process. They did not materialize overnight, and they will not end simply with a good word and a handshake. We need verification.

If Iran’s nuclear weapons capability is frozen rather than largely dismantled – they will remain at the threshold of becoming a declared nuclear state should they chose to start again – because nothing will have changed if nothing is dismantled.

Make no mistake – Iran views developing a nuclear capability as fundamental to its existence.  It sees the development of nuclear weapons as part of a regional hegemonic strategy to make Tehran the center of power throughout the region.

This is why our allies and partners in the region – not just Israelis, but the Emiratis and the Saudis – are so skeptical and so concerned about having a leak-proof deal.  Quite simply, our allies and partners do not trust Iranians leaders, nor do they believe that Iran has any intention of verifiably ending its nuclear weapons program.

So, while I welcome the diplomatic efforts, and I share the hope that the Administration can achieve a final comprehensive agreement that eliminates this threat to global peace and security, for the U.S. Congress to support the relief that Iran is looking for, we will need a deal that doesn’t just freeze the clock on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, but a deal to demonstrable and verifiable action by Iran over years that in fact turns back the clock and makes the world a safer place.

The fact is – there are those who have created a false narrative six months ago – that is now self-perpetuating – in which anyone who expresses a different opinion is a war monger. For those who now say, well if we don’t have a deal, then what I would remind them that the Administration has said time and time again that no deal is better than a bad deal.  I agree with that statement. But I am concerned that there are forces who would accept a deal, even if it is a bad deal.

This doesn’t serve the interests of the negotiators at the table in Vienna – and it certainly doesn’t serve the interests of the American people who want to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.  And that any deal permanently eliminates the possibility that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon that threatens the international order.

One mistake is all it takes!

At the end of the day, keeping the pressure on Iran to completely satisfy the UN’s – and the international community’s – demands to halt and reverse its illicit nuclear activities is the best way to avoid war in the first place.

With that, M. President, I yield the floor."