Iran is on the pathway to fully restarting its contested nuclear weapons program due to insufficient international inspections of its military sites and caveats in the landmark nuclear deal that permit it to reengage in nuclear enrichment work within the next several years, according to experts who testified Wednesday before Congress.
Ahead of President Donald Trump's expected announcement to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, top lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged the administration to preserve the agreement and focus on more aggressive enforcement.
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Reps. Ed Royce (R. Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), the chair and ranking member of the committee, both advised the Trump administration to "enforce the hell out of" the deal, rather than abandon it.
They offered this advice despite testimony by leading nuclear experts that Iran has repeatedly violated agreement and could be back on the pathway to a nuclear weapon within the next five or six years.
While Trump is expected to lay out his plan later this week, White House officials have remained mum about what exactly the president will say and how he will proceed with either enforcing or leaving the agreement.
Congress is set in the coming weeks to consider a range of new sanctions and other measures to target Iran's growing military influence in the region, as well as its continued aggression against U.S. forces operating in Syria and other areas.
David Albright, a prominent former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told lawmakers that Iran has violated key portions of the agreement and remains just as committed to nuclear weapons work as it was before the deal was struck.
"Given Iran's current trajectory, the risk is great that Iran will seek nuclear weapons once the nuclear limitations start to end, or these JCPOA limitations begin to sunset," Albright said. "The first nuclear sunset of note is eight years after Adoption Day, or six years from now, when Iran can scale up advanced centrifuge manufacturing."
Within the next three years, Iran will be permitted to transfer and move arms across the region. While the Islamic Republic has already engaged in this behavior, despite current bans, the removal of this prohibition would allow the country to legally purchase and build sensitive technology to enable its weapons work.
"Iran has merely temporarily frozen its most threatening nuclear weapons capabilities," Albright said. "It has stated as a matter of policy that it will not allow inspections of its military sites, even though some are known to have been the site of secret gas centrifuge manufacturing and nuclear weapons development work."
Other military sites that cannot be inspected encompass those tied to nuclear weapons development and other sensitive equipment.
Iran has "violated the deal on many occasions," according to Albright, who outlined efforts to avoid verification requirements and exceed the limits of heavy water, another nuclear byproduct.
Iran also has run more advanced nuclear centrifuges than permitted under the agreement, another key violations, according to Albright.
Despite the evidence of violations, both Royce and Engel were in agreement that Trump should keep the deal and find ways to more forcefully police it.
"I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it," Royce said. "Let's work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to possible nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming, as our allies have recognized."
Engel said that if the United States pulls out of the deal, it would send a message to the globe that America "cannot be counted on to keep its word." Such a move also would erode the United States' ability to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, according to Engel.
Gen. Charles Wald, former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, told lawmakers that the deal has weakened America's ability to respond to Iranian aggression in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"Iran is already moving more directly and brazenly against U.S. interests and our allies," Wald said in his testimony. "This stems in part from what the JCPOA does: it removes the aforementioned restrictions on Tehran's power projection resources. Yet this also results from what the JCPOA represents: the weakening of U.S. credibility to push back as Iran aggravates the growing security vacuum in the Middle East."
Iran, now flush with cash as a result of the deal, has strengthened its missile programs, which already were among the most advanced in the region.
"For the first time in decades, Iran is at daggers drawn with U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf," Wald said. "It is assisting its Houthi proxy in Yemen with attacks on U.S. ships and our allies—including a steady hail of ballistic missiles targeting Saudi cities and bases. Flush with rising revenues from sanctions relief, Iran is also consolidating control over the heart of the Middle East and directly undermining U.S. efforts to stabilize Syria and Iraq."