Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at AIPAC Conference

March 2, 2015

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

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Israel’s security—our mutual security—is also at the heart of one of President Obama’s most important foreign policy objectives: ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.  As President Obama has repeated many times: we are keeping all options on the table to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  As he said in Jerusalem: “Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained.”  And he added, “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

President Obama said it.  He meant it.  And those are his orders to us all.

That is still the way we see the danger of a nuclear Iran today.  Given Iran’s support for terrorism, the risk of a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the danger to the entire global non-proliferation regime, an Iran with a nuclear weapon would not just be a threat to Israel – it’s an unacceptable threat to the United States of America.

We understand the unique concerns of our Israeli friends and partners.  In Jerusalem, President Obama made plain: “when I consider Israel’s security, I also think about a people who have a living memory of the Holocaust, faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian government that has called for Israel’s destruction.  It’s no wonder Israelis view this as an existential threat.  But this is not simply a challenge for Israel; it is a danger for the entire world, including the United States.”

I want to be very clear: a bad deal is worse than no deal.  And, if that is the choice, there will be no deal.

Negotiations continue.  And, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  As of today, significant gaps remain between the international community and Iran.  I’m not going to get into details about ongoing negotiations – nor should sensitive details of an ongoing negotiation be discussed in public.  But, I do want to make five key points about our approach to the negotiation.

First, with the Joint Plan of Action, we have already succeeded in halting Iran’s nuclear program and rolling it back in key areas.  Let’s recall what has been achieved over the last year.  Iran is doing away with its existing stockpile of its most highly enriched uranium.  Iran has capped its stockpile of low enriched uranium.  Iran has not constructed additional enrichment facilities.  Iran has not installed or operated new centrifuges, including its next-generation models.  Iran has stopped construction at its potential plutonium reactor at Arak.  In short, Iran is further away from a nuclear weapon than it was a year ago—and that makes the world safer, including Israel.

Moreover, we’re not taking anything on trust.  What matters are Iran’s actions, not its words.  That’s why, as part of the Joint Plan of Action, we’ve insisted upon—and achieved—unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program.  Before the Joint Plan, inspections happened only every few weeks, sometimes every few months.  Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency has daily access at Iran’s key nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordow, verifying that Iran is meeting its commitments.  If I can paraphrase, President Reagan, with a twist, our approach is “distrust and verify.”

Second, we’ve kept the pressure on Iran.  I know this firsthand because, when I was U.N. ambassador, President Obama personally directed me to make sure that the Security Council’s sanctions had bite—and they do.  Today, even with limited sanctions relief, Iran’s economy remains isolated from the international finance system and cut off from the vast majority of its foreign currency reserves.  Iran’s oil exports have dropped almost 60 percent since 2012.  The rial has depreciated by more than 50 percent.  And, Iran’s overall GDP has shrunk by almost 10 percent.  All told, sanctions have deprived Iran of more than $200 billion in lost oil revenues.

But sanctions are a tool, not an end in themselves.  The question now, after the pressure that we and our partners have brought to bear, is whether we can verify that Iran cannot pursue a nuclear weapon.  The question now is whether we can achieve a comprehensive deal.  A good deal.

This is my third point—a good deal is one that would verifiably cut off every pathway for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  Every single one.

Any deal must prevent Iran from developing weapons-grade plutonium at Arak, or anywhere else.

Any deal must prevent Iran from enriching uranium at its nuclear facility at Fordow—a site we uncovered buried deep underground and revealed to the world in 2009.

Any deal must increase the time it takes Iran to reach breakout capacity—the time it would take to produce a single bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium.  Today, experts suggest Iran’s breakout window is just two to three months.  We seek to extend that to at least one year.

Any deal must ensure frequent and intrusive inspections at Iran’s nuclear sites—including the uranium mills that produce the material fed into Iran’s enrichment and conversion facilities—to create a multi-layered transparency regime that provides the international community with the confidence it demands.  That’s the best way to prevent Iran from pursuing a covert path to a nuclear weapon—to stop Iran from working toward a bomb in secret.

Any deal must address the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.  And, going forward, we will not accept a deal that fails to provide the access we need to ensure that Iran’s program is peaceful. 

And, any deal must last more than a decade—with additional provisions ensuring greater transparency into Iran’s program for an even longer period of time.

That’s what we’re working toward—a good, long-term, comprehensive deal that verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This brings me to my fourth point —we cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal.  I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forego its domestic enrichment capacity entirely.  But, as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable.  Even our closest international partners in the P5+1 do not support denying Iran the ability ever to pursue peaceful nuclear energy.  If that is our goal, our partners will abandon us, undermining the sanctions we have imposed so effectively together.  Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position.  Nor is it even attainable.  The plain fact is, no one can make Iran unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses.

We must also understand what will happen if these negotiations collapse. I know that some argue we should just impose sanctions and walk away.  But let’s remember that sanctions have never stopped Iran from advancing its program.  So here’s what’s likely to happen without a deal.  Iran will install and operate advanced centrifuges.  Iran will seek to fuel its reactor in Arak.  Iran will rebuild its uranium stockpile.  And, we'll lose the unprecedented inspections and transparency we have today. 

Congress has played a hugely important role in helping to build our sanctions on Iran, but they shouldn’t play the spoiler now.  Additional sanctions or restrictive legislation enacted during the negotiation would blow up the talks, divide the international community, and cause the United States to be blamed for the failure to reach a deal—putting us in a much weaker position and endangering the sanctions regime itself.  Meanwhile, the Iranians are well aware that if they walk away from a deal, Congress will pass new sanctions immediately—and President Obama will support them.

So, if Iran refuses to resolve this matter diplomatically—and is clearly to blame for that failure—its isolation will only increase.  The costs will continue to grow.

Finally, I know that some question a deal of any duration.  But, it has always been clear that the pursuit of an agreement of indefinite duration would result in no agreement at all.  The question is, what is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?  A deal that extends for a decade or more would accomplish this goal better than any other course of action – longer, by far, than military strikes, which would only set back Iran’s program for a fraction of the time.  And, at the end of any deal, Iran would still be required to offer comprehensive access to its nuclear facilities and to provide the international community the assurance that it was not pursuing nuclear weapons.  And, if it failed to do so, we would have the ability to make our own decisions about how to move forward, just as we do today.  There’s simply no alternative that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon better—or longer—than the type of deal we seek.

We can always bring consequences to bear for the sake of our shared security—harsh consequences.  But, precisely because this is such a serious issue, we must weigh the different options before us and choose the best one.  Sound bites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  Strong diplomacy – backed by pressure – can.  And, if diplomacy fails, let’s make it clear to the world that it is Iran’s responsibility.

One final word on Iran: even if we succeed in neutralizing the nuclear threat from Iran, we will still face other threats—Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its gross violations of human rights, its efforts to destabilize neighboring states, its support for Assad and Hamas and Hezbollah, its intolerable threats against Israel.  Our sanctions against Iran on these issues will remain in place.  We will continue to counter Iran and the full range of threats it poses.  Tehran must understand—the United States will never, ever waver in the defense of our security or the security of our allies and partners, including Israel.

The bottom line is simple: we have Israel’s back, come hell or high water—and I’ve been right there with you all through some pretty high waters.  I was proud to fight again and again for Israel’s security and its basic legitimacy at the United Nations – from leading the charge against the deeply flawed Goldstone report to casting this administration’s only veto in the Security Council to block a counter-productive resolution.

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