Senior officials in the Obama administration admitted to Congress on Tuesday that the Iranian regime continues to conduct key nuclear research despite ongoing negotiations with the United States meant to curb Tehran’s contested program.
When asked during testimony before the Senate Banking Committee about Iran’s continued research into key nuclear technologies, the officials said that Iran is "tinkering" with advanced technologies to enrich uranium, a key nuclear fuel.
Asked by Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), the committee’s chairman, whether the 2013 interim agreement with Iran has significantly halted Iran’s pursuit of advanced nuclear know-how, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that Iran is most likely still conducting limited research at several of its nuclear sites.
"You’re absolutely right, that there’s no doubt Iran is seeking to continue other [work on] centrifuges," Blinken said. "But under the agreements it can’t do the critical kind of testing" needed to make great advances.
"Are they tinkering with centrifuges and trying to build them in some places? Almost certainly," Blinken said.
"But that’s a little more than tinkering," Shelby responded. "They continue to pursue their goal."
David Cohen, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, agreed with Blinken’s assessment.
"There is no question that, as Deputy Secretary Blinken said, the Iranians remain interested in their nuclear program. These negotiations are designed to ensure going forward Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons," Cohen said.
Blinken and Cohen also reiterated that the administration’s goal in talks is not to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but to delay Tehran’s development of a bomb.
As the administration continues its talks with Iran through June, senators have become increasingly concerned that Iran is violating the terms of the interim agreement and making great leaps in its nuclear work.
Critics argue that, despite the interim deal and ongoing talks, Iran is continuing its most controversial nuclear operations, including the construction of new reactors and work on ballistic missiles.
Under the terms of the interim agreement, which the administration claims has "halted" Iran’s progress, Tehran can still enrich uranium up to a point, pursue unlimited construction of plutonium light water reactors, and advance its ballistic missile program.
Iran has also enriched enough uranium to fuel two nuclear bombs in the past year, according to experts.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee clashed over new legislation aimed at ratcheting up sanctions on Iran should talks fail later this year.
This development marks a key win for the Obama administration, which has pushed hard against new sanctions and lobbied its allies to abandon a bipartisan bill authored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.).
Menendez’s decision to break with his Republican colleagues on the timing of the vote makes it unlikely that the legislation will pass the Senate with enough support to negate a presidential veto.
Menendez announced after the hearing that he will not support passage of the bill until after March 24.
The timing of such a vote has become a point of contention among lawmakers, with some arguing that such a delay would dampen the impact of any sanctions.
If Menendez and other Democrats delay a vote on the bill until the end of March, senators will not be able to revive the legislation until April 13, when Congress returns to Washington after a two-week break.
Menendez is backing this delay, despite his admission that sanctions may not become effective until up to six months after passage.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), another key player who said Monday that he would support new sanctions, announced during the hearing that he has sided with Menendez on delaying a vote.
"I’ve been a long supporter of strong sanctions," Schumer said at Tuesday’s hearing. "It is sanctions, tough sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought them to the negotiating table."
However, negotiations must be given more time to play out, Schumer said.
Schumer said that he and colleagues, including sponsors of the original sanctions bill, would not vote on the bill until March 24.
Despite his decision to back a delay in the sanctions bill, Menendez accused the administration of ignoring Iran’s ongoing efforts to "cheat" on the interim nuclear deal.
"They’re cheating in the midst of our negotiations," Menendez said, explaining that Iran has continued to try to procure illegal nuclear technology and conduct experiments on advanced centrifuges.
"Right now in Tehran there is legislation pending to deploy centrifuges that can enrich uranium more efficiently then ever, to increase the production of a form of nuclear fuel that is just shy, just shy of bomb grade material," Menendez said.
Nothing the United States does will impact Tehran’s decision on whether or not to sign a nuclear deal, Menendez said.
"What you’re really telling us when I hear your worries about what the Iranian perception is, is that in fact they’re unlikely to make a deal," he added. "I think you need to be looking at what Iran is doing right now."