May 25, 2022 | Senate Foreign Relations Committee
The JCPOA Negotiations and United States’ Policy on Iran Moving Forward
May 25, 2022 | Senate Foreign Relations Committee
The JCPOA Negotiations and United States’ Policy on Iran Moving Forward
Mark presents his testimony
May 25, 2022
Of full written testimony
Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch, members of the committee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am honored to present my analysis and recommendations and those of my colleagues from FDD’s Iran team.
After a year of talks in Vienna, the negotiations between the Biden administration and the regime in Iran have stalled over an Iranian demand that Washington remove Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. If the talks get back on track and an agreement emerges, President Joe Biden will have fulfilled his campaign promise to take America back into a new version of the 2015 nuclear deal — albeit a shorter and weaker version of the already fatally flawed accord negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration and abandoned in 2018 by President Donald Trump. The new deal aims to place Iran’s nuclear program “back in the box it was in,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it on March 27.
However, if the new accord resembles the July 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it will achieve precisely the opposite result: Iran’s nuclear program will leap forward like a jack-in-the-box. The new agreement will create patient pathways to nuclear weapons as key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program sunset and the program reaches a near-zero breakout time — that is, the amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a single atomic bomb. Thus, merely by complying with the deal, Iran can receive hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and achieve a threshold nuclear capability — that is, the point at which it could dash for a bomb without any country capable of stopping it.
Specifically, according to estimates by FDD’s Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert on the Iranian economy, Tehran will receive a financial package worth up to $275 billion within a 12-month period. Over the next five years, Iran could receive as much as $800 billion in sanctions relief.
Advocates for the agreement argue that it would increase Iran’s breakout time from three weeks — where it is today — to up to six months. (Israeli intelligence estimates that the breakout time will be between four and six months.) But the breakout time drops precipitously over the duration of the deal as Iran is able to manufacture and install advanced centrifuges. Tehran’s breakout time will plummet to near zero by 2029, as even Obama himself has acknowledged. By “year 13, 14, 15” of the JCPOA, Iran will “have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that time the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” he said in April 2015. By 2031, a ban on Iran’s production of weapons-grade uranium will be gone.
As a result, for an increase in breakout time that lasts only a few years, the United States will pay a high price that will have severe consequences.
As a precondition to concluding the deal, Tehran is demanding the delisting of the IRGC as an FTO. Some 70 terrorist groups are currently on the FTO list, including al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Iranian proxies Hizballah and Hamas. There is a reason that Iranian negotiators were so adamant about having this terror designation removed. The designation imposes severe penalties on anyone, including those outside the United States, who provide material support to an FTO, with the scope of criminal and civil liabilities much greater than those imposed by other sanctions, including those already on the IRGC. The FTO designation also makes it much easier for victims of current and future Iranian terrorism, including the thousands of Americans murdered and maimed by the IRGC, to recover the more than $50 billion currently owed to them due to court judgments.
The IRGC will be the beneficiary of hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, further financing the IRGC’s regional aggression. Indeed, as U.S. negotiators were offering proposals in Vienna, the IRGC and Iran-backed proxies stepped up their attacks against U.S. partners in the region and against the U.S. regional force presence in Iraq and Syria. In Iran’s fifth major military operation using ballistic missiles from its own territory, the IRGC in March launched about a dozen ballistic missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan near the U.S. consulate in Erbil, allegedly targeting an Israeli facility.
Elsewhere in the region, the IRGC-backed Houthi terrorists in Yemen — whom the Biden administration removed from the FTO list in February 2021 in the hope that they would deescalate their aggression — replied to Washington’s unilateral delisting by escalating their attacks on civilian population centers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Earlier this year, a Houthi assault employing ballistic missiles — made possible by Iranian material and technical support — attempted to target the United Arab Emirates and a facility used by U.S. servicemembers.
The Iranian strategy in Vienna may succeed: Wield the threat of nuclear and regional escalation to extort hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and win tacit permission to forge ahead with nuclear weapons research and development. Russia, a key broker of the agreement, has acknowledged that Iran received unanticipated concessions from the United States. “Iran got much more than it could expect,” said Vladimir Putin’s man in Vienna, Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov, on March 5.
This should not be surprising. During the 2020 election, then-candidate Biden promised to abandon his predecessor’s pressure campaign against Iran. In response, Tehran massively expanded its nuclear capabilities. Most of the regime’s escalation — including the most dangerous steps of enriching uranium to 20 percent purity and then to 60 percent — occurred after President Biden’s election and the abandonment of his predecessor’s maximum pressure campaign. (See Exhibit A.) The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) has documented a measurable 100 percent increase in Iran’s malign acts since President Biden took office compared to the two-year period after President Trump left the JCPOA.
This is worth emphasizing: Iran significantly escalated its nuclear program and regional aggression after President Biden made it clear he would stop applying American pressure on the regime.
Without U.S. pressure, and under the terms of any new deal, Iran will move forward aggressively to a lethal end state. While advocates for the deal argue that it is either this deal or war, the reality is that it will be this deal and war. And when that war comes, Iran will be a much more formidable enemy, with an industrial-size nuclear program and with nuclear facilities spread around the country in multiple locations, buried and hardened underground. It will have a near-zero nuclear breakout capability, a clandestine sneak-out capability enabled by advanced centrifuges, and nuclear warhead-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) holding American cities hostage.
With sanctions relief from the JCPOA, Iran’s economy will be increasingly fortified against sanctions, and the regime will have hundreds of billions of dollars to establish a lethal conventional military and an even more dangerous regional posture through well-funded proxies. The new agreement increases prospects for military conflict, since it weakens significant economic and political leverage that Washington could exercise to change Tehran’s behavior peacefully.
And it is an open question whether the United States or Israel after 2031, when most of the nuclear restrictions expire, will have the capability to deal with a breakout or sneak-out to the bomb once the Iranian program involves widely dispersed enrichment facilities, buried deep underground, and encased in thick concrete. At that point, American and Israeli weaponry may be unable to inflict sufficient damage, and Tehran will have achieved “threshold nuclear capability.”
 Matthew Lee, “Blinken reassures allies ahead of possible Iran deal,” Associated Press, March 27, 2022. (https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-iran-israel-antony-blinken-nuclear-weapons-921c10306aa4add89d137a896bfcd6e3)
 Andrea Stricker and Anthony Ruggiero, “Iran Approaches the Nuclear Threshold,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 3, 2022. (https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2022/03/03/iran-approaches-the-nuclear-threshold)
 Barak Ravid, “Israel puts Iran nuclear breakout time at 4–6 months with deal,” Axios, February 9, 2022. (https://www.axios.com/israel-iran-nuclear-breakout-time-vienna-talks-3a6835f7-842a-409b-adc7-cb6abdf20eb5.html)
 “Obama: Iran Will Face Longer ‘Breakout Time,’ Though Not Indefinitely,” National Public Radio, August 11, 2015. (https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/08/11/431652556/obama-iran-will-face-longer-breakout-time-though-not-indefinitely)
 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” accessed May 3, 2022. (https://www.state.gov/foreign-terrorist-organizations)
 Liz Sly, “Iran’s role in attack on U.S. troops in Syria signals new escalation,” The Washington Post, October 26, 2021. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/iran-militias-tanf-us-forces/2021/10/26/8c75ad98-35c1-11ec-9662-399cfa75efee_story.html); Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart, “U.S. troops come under fire in Syria after strikes against Iran-backed militias,” Reuters, June 28, 2021. (https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/us-says-its-strikes-iran-backed-militia-iraq-syria-were-necessary-2021-06-28); Jeff Seldin, “US-Led Coalition Responds to New Round of Attacks in Syria, Iraq,” Voice of America, January 25, 2022. (https://www.voanews.com/a/us-coalition-responds-to-new-round-of-attacks-in-syria-iraq/6384297.html)
 For an assessment of the strike in relation to Iranian security policy as well as possible Israeli angles, see: Behnam Ben Taleblu, “Strikes on Iraq Reveal Iran’s Embrace of Missile Operations,” The National Interest, March 27, 2022. (https://nationalinterest.org/feature/strikes-iraq-reveal-iran%E2%80%99s-embrace-missile-operations-201431); Jonathan Schanzer, “The Covert War Between Israel and Iran Rises to the Surface,” Mosaic, March 17, 2022. (https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/politics-current-affairs/2022/03/the-covert-war-between-israel-and-iran-rises-to-the-surface)
 For an assessment of Iran’s approach to nuclear and regional escalation, see: Behnam Ben Taleblu, “Making sense of Iranian escalation,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 20, 2019. (https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/05/making-sense-of-iranian-escalation.php); Behnam Ben Taleblu “Making sense of Iran’s nuclear moves,” The Hill, October 8, 2019. (https://thehill.com/opinion/international/464601-making-sense-of-irans-nuclear-moves); Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker, “From ‘Maximum Pressure’ to ‘Minimal Resistance,’” The Dispatch, December 8, 2021. (https://thedispatch.com/p/from-maximum-pressure-to-minimal)
 “Iran got much more than it could expect in Vienna talks: Russian negotiator,” Islamic Republic News Agency (Iran), March 5, 2022. (https://en.irna.ir/news/84672291/Iran-got-much-more-than-it-could-expect-in-Vienna-talks-Russian)
 Joe Biden, “There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran,” CNN, September 13, 2020. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html)
 Behnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker, “From ‘Maximum Pressure’ to ‘Minimal Resistance,’” The Dispatch, September 8, 2021. (https://thedispatch.com/p/from-maximum-pressure-to-minimal)
 @jinsadc, “When considering the full-range of Iran’s projectile strikes, naval harassment, cyber activity, kidnapping, and weapons tests, JINSA’s data shows that Iran’s aggression has increased by 100% since Biden took office, compared to the period after Trump left the JCPOA,” Twitter, April 28, 2022. (https://twitter.com/jinsadc/status/1519672759508418561); “Iran Projectile Tracker,” Jewish Institute for National Security of America, accessed May 3, 2022. (https://jinsa.org/iran-projectile-tracker)