The U.S.’s top nuclear negotiator admitted on Tuesday that Iran could continue developing ballistic missiles under the recently inked nuclear accord meant to scale back Tehran’s nuclear program.
Under pressure from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman conceded that the U.S. failed to "shut down" Iran’s ongoing development of ballistic missiles, which have long range capabilities and are the preferred weapon for delivering a nuclear payload.
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"It is true that in these first six months we’ve not shut down all of their production of any ballistic missile that could have anything to do with delivery of a nuclear weapon," Sherman told lawmakers during a hearing on the nuclear deal. "But that is indeed something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement."
This comprehensive agreement will not be agreed upon for at least six months, Sherman admitted, giving Tehran a lengthy window in which to perfect its weapons systems.
Iran plans to launch three new satellites into space in the coming weeks, according to regional reports. The technology used to conduct such a launch is similar to those used for ballistic missiles, leading experts to label Iran’s space program a cover for its ballistic missile work.
The "satellites are ready for launch and it is anticipated that one of them will be sent into orbit by the end of the current Iranian year," which ends of March 20, the deputy head of Iran’s Space Agency was quoted as saying on Monday by the semi-official Fars News Agency.
Senators on the SFRC criticized Sherman, the State Department’s under secretary of state for political affairs, for inking a deal that they said leaves gaping "loopholes" on which Iran can capitalize.
"Why did you all not in this agreement in any way address the delivery mechanisms, the militarizing of nuclear arms, why was that left off since they [Iran] breached a threshold everyone acknowledges. They can build a bomb. We know that," said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the committee’s ranking member. "They know that. They have advanced centrifuges. We have a major loophole in the research and development area that everyone acknowledges."
"We are going to allow them over this next year to continue to perfect the other piece of this, which is the [nuclear] delivery mechanism," Corker added. "Why did we do that?"
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) pointed out that "few countries" in the world possess both the ability to enrich uranium to high levels and an advanced ballistic missile program.
If Iran is awarded right to continue its enrichment, and continue its missile program, all it would have to do is ramp up uranium production "and now they’re a nuclear power," Rubio warned.
Sherman responded by stating that the ballistic missile program is secondary to its bomb-making capabilities.
"If we can get—and I don’t know whether yet if we will be successful—but if we can get to the verifiable assurance that they cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, if we know they cannot have a nuke weapon, then a delivery mechanism, as important as it is, is less important," she said.
Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) said he has been "disgusted" by the interim deal.
"I do not support what has been done," he told Sherman. "I think this thing’s a disaster. I was stunned when I saw what the agreement was. I’ve been disgusted as we’ve gone forward."
Sherman promised that Iran’s ballistic missile work would be addressed at a later time in a final agreement.
"We see this as a first step," she said. "We don’t consider the gaps that exist loopholes because this is not a final agreement. This is a first step."
Sherman said that the ballistic missile program would be rendered ineffective if the U.S. can successfully convince Iran to give up its nuclear program.
"If we are successful in assuring ourselves and the world community that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, then them not having a nuclear weapon makes delivery systems almost, not entirely, but almost irrelevant," she said.
Sherman went on during the hearing to explicitly lay out some of the concessions that the U.S. hopes to win in a final deal.
Iran, she said, does not need to continue its work at the highly fortified Fordow facility. It also has no need for the partially constructed heavy water reactor at Arak.
She also said there is "no doubt" that Iran will have to scale back the number of nuclear centrifuges it is operating.