Repeated concessions by the Obama administration during ongoing nuclear talks with Iran have all but guaranteed that the Islamic Republic will emerge as a nuclear threshold state that could build a weapon with little effort, according to arms control experts who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Stephen Rademaker, national security adviser for the Bipartisan Policy Center and former assistant secretary of state for arms control, international security, and nonproliferation during the George W. Bush administration, said during the hearing that the recent preliminary deal "fundamentally signifies acceptance by the international community of Iran as a nuclear weapons threshold state."
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President Barack Obama has touted the framework agreement completed at the end of March as a deal that would extend Iran’s nuclear breakout time—the duration required to amass enough nuclear material for a weapon—to a year. But he also acknowledged earlier this month that at the end of a 10-to-15-year deal, Tehran’s breakout time would be "almost down to zero."
"What we’re agreeing to here is a pathway, a process, but at the end of that pathway, 10 to 15 years, the football will be on the one-inch line," Rademaker said. "That close to having a nuclear weapon. That fundamentally is what is being agreed to here."
He added that the framework deal is a "huge retreat" from previous U.S. negotiating positions and a "big victory for Iran."
"After year 15, we’re not going to be worried about one nuclear weapon," he said. "They’ll be on the one-inch line for dozens of nuclear weapons, an arsenal."
Experts at the hearing also raised concerns about the verification provisions of the preliminary deal.
While Obama has said Iran will face the "most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history," Iranian leaders have maintained that its military sites—key locations for potential nuclear weapons development—will not be open to inspection.
Additionally, the leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the chief United Nations body responsible for inspecting nuclear programs, has said that Iran has failed to answer the majority of its questions about the "possible military dimensions" of Tehran’s nuclear activities.
Charles Duelfer, former chairman of the U.N. special commission that investigated Iraq’s weapons programs under Saddam Hussein, said the commission had more access to the Iraqi dictator’s facilities and documents than anything that has been proposed so far regarding Iran
"Yet we struggled after six or seven years and couldn’t accomplish the task that was given us," he said. "Even with all that access we couldn’t do that job."
Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) noted other obstacles in verifying that Iran is not violating the deal and pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. A study released by the Pentagon last year found that the abilities of U.S. intelligence agencies to detect covert nuclear operations are "either inadequate, or more often, do not exist."
The United States will also be forced to work with other countries—including some that have more favorable relations with Iran—to ensure that Tehran complies with the agreement, Royce said.
"The IAEA and its inspectors will play an essential role in monitoring Iran," he said. "But it will ultimately be up to the Administration and its negotiating partners, which includes Russia and China—likely acting through the UN Security Council or another international body—to decide whether Iran is complying with its commitments. This is another weak link."
Questions have already been raised about the willingness of U.S. negotiating partners to maintain restrictions on Iran throughout the duration of the deal. The Obama administration criticized Russia last week after it lifted a ban on selling the advanced S-300 air defense missile system to Iran, which could complicate future U.S. strikes on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
Negotiations between Iran and the six major powers known as the P5+1 will resume this week in Vienna, where the timing of sanctions relief for Tehran remains one of the top outstanding issues between the two sides ahead of a June 30 deadline for a final deal. Iran has insisted that all sanctions be lifted immediately upon the completion of an agreement while U.S. officials prefer their removal in phases.
The State Department has not denied reports that Iran could receive up to $50 billion in unfrozen assets after agreeing to a deal, a measure critics describe as a "signing bonus." Tehran has already received $11 billion in sanctions relief during the negotiating period.