An Assessment of the Iran Agreement One Year Later: A Conversation with Senator Chris Coons

Thursday, June 23, 2016
Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Christopher A. Coons

U.S. Senator (D-DE); Member, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

David R. Ignatius

Columnist and Associate Editor, Washington Post

U.S. Senator (D-DE) and Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Christopher Coons, offers his assessment of Iran’s nuclear program one year after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was reached. Senator Coons discusses the positive outcomes that have resulted from the JCPOA’s implementation as well as the challenges that exist in dealing with Iran outside of the context of its nuclear weapon’s program. Senator Coons also explains the benefits the JCPOA has had on Iran’s economy, the effect it might have in shaping Iran's future in the long-term, and the potential risks to global security if the JCPOA were to unravel.  

IGNATIUS: Ladies and gentlemen, if you could finish eating this delicious lunch that the Council has provided. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post. It’s my pleasure to introduce Senator Chris Coons, who’s going to offer an assessment of the Iran deal one year later. It’s amazing to me, when I think back a year ago we talked of almost nothing other than the Iran nuclear, this is a rare moment when we all get together and think about how it’s going.

Senator Coons, as I think everyone here understands, junior senator from Delaware, but someone who paid special attention to the issues in this negotiation, followed very closely, was skeptical. So when he announced his decision to support the agreement, that really was the decisive moment. He and Senator Casey together brought the vote total to what the president needed. I’m just going to read a quote from a Washington Post story the day we were reporting, September 1 last year, Senator Coons decision. “Disclosed in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, delivered a powerful blow to opponents of the plan because the Delaware Democrat had previously voiced some of the deepest skepticism about the controversial deal.” So I really do think that was a key moment a year ago. I’m especially interested to hear how Senator Coons evaluates things a year later. So, Senator. (Applause.)

COONS: Well, thank you, David. Thank you both for the kind introduction and for your willingness to moderate today’s conversation. And I’d like to also thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this discussion of the Iran nuclear agreement one year on.

Today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA, I will evaluation whether this deal has succeeded so far, and explain what I’ve done to honor my commitment to aggressively oversee its implementation and its enforcement. Last year, as David just mentioned, after closely scrutinizing the terms of the deal, I concluded that it represented the least-bad option for achieving one of America’s most important—(audio break)—from Iran from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon. Since implementation day of this agreement in January, we have seen real and meaningful progress toward that goal.

As I suspect everyone in this room knows, but is important to repeat, Iran has shipped 12 tons of enriched uranium—virtually its entire stockpile—out of the country. The Iranian regime has reduced by two thirds the number of its functioning uranium enrichment centrifuges. And it has permanently reengineered the Arak Heavy Water Reactor by filling its core with concrete. These three steps in combination cut off Iran’s most likely short-term pathways to a nuclear weapon with either uranium or plutonium.

Iran has also give the International Atomic Energy Agency, or the IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog, unprecedented 24/7 access to monitor all of its declared nuclear facilities. That access covers Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, from Iranian mines and mills to centrifuge production and enrichment facilities—every known nuclear site in Iran. These steps have, for now, frozen Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon. And as a result of Iran’s initial compliance with the agreement, the time for it to break out, to assemble enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon has extended significantly from just two or three months to now more than a year.

So measured by whether the agreement has prevented Iran from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon, this deal has, so far, been successful. I also, though, have long suspected Iran that would seek to push the boundaries of the deal in ways both minor or major, to test how the United States and our allies would respond. Earlier this week, I had an in-person meeting with Ambassador Steve Mull, the Obama administration’s lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation. And I heard what I hoped for, and what I expected, that the Departments of State, Treasury, Energy, and our intelligence community are working closely together to aggressively monitor and enforce the JCPOA.

American officials also are communicating regularly and closely with their Iranian counterparts, with the European Union, and the other key parties to the deal. And as I anticipated, there have been a handful of occasions in the past year in which the United States has had to mobilize our P5+1 partners to hold Iran closely to the parameters of the JCPOA. Here’s a public example. When Iran’s heavy water stockpile in February briefly reached 130.9 metric tons, exceeding the JCPOA limit of 130 metric tons, the IAEA quickly observed this anomaly, reported it to the partner countries, we took action, and Iran addressed it. There are several other incidents I can’t describe in public, but in each case the United States rallied our international partners to promptly address a discrepancy or disagreement and successfully enforce this direct interpretation of the deal.

In the years to come—in the many years to come—we have to focus on continuing aggressive enforcement, and congressional oversight will remain critical. But we also have to continue to push back on Iran’s destabilizing and provocative actions outside the four corners, the parameters of the nuclear agreement. From its repeated calls for the destruction of Israel, to its support for terrorism in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, to its ongoing illegal ballistic missile tests, and its human rights violations, Iran is not a responsible state seeking to rejoin the international community. These actions underscore an important point about the deal: The JCPOA was, is, and will mostly likely remain a transactional, not a transformational, agreement.

This deal seeks to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, not to bring Iran into the community of nations. Only a genuine change in direction by the Iranian regime can do that. Rather, though, than walking away from the deal, in my view the United States must remain engaged, and to lead the international community’s enforcement of the agreement. As I tell my Senate colleagues regularly, whether you opposed or supported the JCPOA last year, we have a shared interest in working together this year and in the future to make sure this deal succeeds.

With that said, let me briefly review broadly where we are today, nearly a year into the deal. Two things really haven’t changed at all. First, Iran remains untrustworthy. Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has pursued interests and advocated values that are completely opposed to those of the West. And its approach to regional crises has not changed. Second, Iran continues to exploit weak states and power vacuums. And we need to disrupt Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and to support our regional partners, most importantly by promptly concluding a strengthened 10-year memorandum of understanding on defense priorities with Israel.

But two additional points I think are worth emphasizing. Broadly, the last year has shown that international agreement and multilateral diplomacy can be effective, even with rogue states like Iran. There is value in talking with our enemies. Second, we’re today engaged in a public disagreement with Iran about whether it is, in fact, seeing the benefits of the deal. When Valiollah Seif, the governor of Iran’s Central Bank, spoke here at the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year in April, he argued that the United States and our European allies had not honored our JCPOA obligations, because Iran hasn’t been able to access the global financial system, and hasn’t realized the economic benefits they foresaw from this deal.

But here’s how I see it. The United States has upheld our end of the bargain. We have not prevented Iran from receiving economic benefits associated with the deal. In fact, their recent activity, significant increases in oil exports, billions of dollars in recent deals, and projected economic growth of 3 to 5 percent casts real doubt on Iran’s claims. In my view, Iran alone is responsible for making its market an attractive and safe place in which to do business. And for many corporations and individuals, Iran is neither attractive, nor safe. And I am concerned that by entertaining Iranian complaints of inadequate sanctions relief we risk giving these claims legitimacy.

If Iran is unhappy with the level of economic benefits its received since the JCPOA, it has only itself and its own actions to blame. Today, as we look beyond year one of the JCPOA and look ahead to five, 10, or 15 years from now, one thing is clear: If this agreement is to succeed long term, engaged congressional oversight remains essential. This oversight falls into two categories, starting with congressional pushback on Iran’s bad behavior outside the deal’s parameters.

That’s why I’ve continued to be outspoken on the floor of the Senate in calling for stronger efforts to interdict Iranian arms shipments to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in celebrating those interdictions that have occurred. I’ve also asked foreign leaders, including those from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, and Russian, about how to strengthen our efforts together to counter Iranian aggression. And I’ve urged Congress to provide this administration with unilateral authority to address Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile tests, given the inertia in the U.N. Security Council. I’ve called on the administration as well to levy additional sanctions against IRGC-affiliated entities, like Mahan Aar, which Treasury has done. And I’ve worked to secure increased funding for Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, which enforces these sanctions.

But Congress also has to remain engaged in overseeing the enforcement of the nuclear deal itself. In January, I joined a congressional delegation in visiting IAEA headquarters in Vienna, where we met with Director General Amano. The JCPOA allows hundreds of nuclear inspectors to oversee Iran’s nuclear program through both remote online enrichment monitoring and intrusive in-person inspections. These inspectors, trained in America’s unique national labs, are funded by the United States Congress, and utilize cutting-edge technology, largely developed by our scientists.

Because we are asking the IAEA to engage in an unprecedented level of oversight, Director General Amano has recently publicly raised concerns that his agency is stretched thin as it works to implement this deal. That’s why Congress must do our part to ensure the IAEA has reliable, long-term resources. This IAEA responsibility has taken on an even greater importance this week, given recent news that that agency has detected signs of North Korean plutonium reprocessing. The IAEA responsibilities remain global and important, and need to be effectively sustained.

I’ve also repeatedly called on Congress to take full advantage of the IAEA’s unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program, by increasing our voluntary contribution to the agency, which would encourage our international partners to do so as well. In addition, I’ve pressed for the confirmation of Laura Holgate as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. offices in Vienna, which includes the IAEA. And I’ve called for the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, so that we have a viable mechanism to snap back sanctions in Iran violations the JCPOA. I intend to uphold my commitment to oversee strict enforcement of this deal, regardless of who is elected president this fall.

As our moderator this afternoon recently wrote in a column: The Iran nuclear agreement deserves far more attention in this presidential campaign. And I couldn’t agree more. If we abandon the JCPOA, we don’t end up with a better agreement, nor do we end up with no agreement. Instead, our partners around the world will most likely develop a new strategy to deal with Iran without American leadership or input. If we abandon this agreement, we signal that we’re giving up on diplomacy. We could lose valuable intelligence. We would forego the support of our allies. And we would close vital communications channels to senior Iranian leaders that have helped to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Frankly, I think that’s exactly what the most conservative elements in Iran’s regime want.

But let me be clear about that. We can, and we should, distinguish between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people. The people of Iran continue to turn out at the polls to vote, even in elections that are not truly free nor fair. They have repeatedly demonstrated in the streets for democracy and engagement, risking their lives to do so. The Iranian people deserve our support in their struggle for human rights and democracy, especially during this sacred month of Ramadan, as Muslims around the world reflect on their hopes for peace. But the Iranian regime deserves condemnation for a decades-long pattern of human rights abuses, support for terrorism, and other bad behavior.

The government of Iran, the Iranian regime, remains a dangerous revolutionary government, and it will continue to present a potential nuclear threat for decades to come. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon will require steady leadership, an understanding of the complexities of international diplomacy, and constant scrutiny of Iran’s behavior. These tasks must be the responsibility not just of this president this year, but a top priority for the next president, the intelligence community, and members of Congress for many years to come. That’s why I intend to stay actively engaged in monitoring enforcement of the deal, in advocating for a strong foreign policy that supports our allies in the Middle East and promotes American interests and values around the world. Thank you. (Applause.)

IGNATIUS: Senator, thank you for that. It was excellent and raised all of the basic issues. I just want to dig on some of them. You can’t, in our business, let a news cycle pass without talking about Donald Trump, as we all know. (Laughter.) So I’m going to begin by just asking you about what the presumptive Republican nominee has said about the Iran nuclear deal. The most frequent comment has been it’s a bad deal and I would have negotiated a better deal. He implied in some comments that he would seek to reopen the negotiation and get that better deal that he thinks was possible. In other comments he’s implied, but I don’t want to push this too hard but certainly I came away with the sense, that he might repudiate the deal. It was badly negotiated in his judgement.

So I want to ask you directly, what would be the consequence of either seeking to reopen the negotiations if the next president concluded it was a bad deal, or in some way repudiating the deal? What would happen if that were done?

COONS: Well, I think without the strong and united support of our partners in the deal, seeking to reopen it and renegotiate it is a fool’s errand, and would simply lead to a mess, to a hash, to an apprehension on the part of our key allies that we were withdrawing. It would lead to more aggressive actions by the Iranians. I suspect it would lead them to take stronger steps that indicated a willingness to return to more active nuclear enrichment and more active nuclear research. Or, it might very well lead to a greater distance between the United States and our core European allies. It depends on what else the Donald sought to renegotiate, given his alarming and irresponsible statements about NATO, about the nuclear umbrella for South Korea and Japan, about a whole range of other topics in foreign policy.

My concern is that it wouldn’t be just this issue on the table, and if all those different things were afoot at the same time. One of the core principles of American leadership in foreign policy, which is to be predictable—particularly in your commitment to certain alliances and certain treaties and certain obligations—would be overthrown. And a lot of our vital allies would be puzzled and concerned, and particularly with regard to Iran, I think likely to renegotiate the deal around us for their economic and security benefit, and to rely far lesson American involvement. As I tried to reference in my remarks, we are absolutely essential to the successful implementation of this deal. America’s national labs, America’s contributions to the IAEA, the engagement of our intelligence community, our role in leading the Atlantic community I think are all essential to this deal being successfully implemented. I think an effort at renegotiating it, even a bluster, half-hearted attempt, would be unconstructive.

IGNATIUS: That’s very direct and helpful. I want to pursue one intriguing thing you said in your opening comments, where you made reference to certain discrepancies that have arisen. You said you couldn’t discuss the details of several of them. You know, we hear rumors about this, but obviously we don’t have access to the information that you do. I want to ask you, not for the details that you can’t share, but for your analytical judgement about what they tell us. In these discrepancies, do the Iranians seem to be pushing at the limits? Are there genuine differences in reading the language? Are they accidental? What’s going on in the cases that have arisen that you have been able to look at?

COONS: Well, a good friend of mine, who had long business dealings with Iranians in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, told me a story before the deal entered into effect. And it’s a long story, but the punchline was, after several years of painful, detailed negotiations at the signing day where they entered into a new business arrangement, his new Iranian partner said: All right, now the negotiations begin. I think they have a long demonstrated history of actively and aggressively litigating the boundaries of almost every arrangement they’ve been involved in. Part of that is cultural. Part of that is the real gulf between our values and priorities and our strategic interest and theirs.

I think there is an open question whether the excursions and challenges there have been are the result of internal miscommunication, whether they are intentional testing of the West’s resolve. But I think we are safest presuming the latter. And I think we are safest demonstrating a robust and sustained and close engagement, making sure that we are not over-litigating in response, but promptly and appropriately and thoroughly responding right up until the moment we get an action. One of the lessons we’ve learned this year is that the Iranians respond to pressure.

I think that was one of the lessons of the international sanctions campaign that brought them to the table. I think that’s one of the lessons of repeated efforts to identify and call out specific moments when they are outside the well-known boundaries of the JCPOA, even by a tiny amount, even by a footfall. And I think we see a division within the Iranian government and regime as to what their long-term prospects really are, whether they’re going to get significant economic benefit or whether they should, frankly, give up on that and turn inward and turn more to active—return to more active confrontation with the West, in part through a nuclear program.

IGNATIUS: Let me ask you to focus on that last issue, of what benefits Iran gets as a result of the agreement. It’s clear from comments that there is a genuine sense that the benefits we expected, the opening in terms of financial markets, opportunities, just haven’t arrived. You gave a good account of why that’s not our fault in our opening comments, but even so in terms of the durability of this agreement, an agreement that people—officials and the public in the effected country—don’t feel benefits them end up weaken the agreement. Secretary Lew at Treasury noted that sanctions lose their force if the removal of sanctions doesn’t bring benefits. I thought it was a powerful comment that he made a few months ago. So if you could address this. Not to argue the case for Iran, but isn’t it a fact that if they don’t get benefits from having made this deal, support for it and its integrity, its vitality will diminish?

COONS: Well, first, they are getting real and concrete economic benefits out of this deal. They are shipping and selling their oil on world markets at a level unseen in recent years. And they will eventually get all the economic benefit that comes from being able to sell their oil on global markets. I’ll remind you, the price of a barrel of oil has been cut more than half since they entered into the negotiations about this deal. And that’s just one way in which their expectations about how much benefit they would receive and how quickly have fallen far short of their expectations. So their economy is growing again. They are receiving access to global oil markets. They are signing lots of big agreements with international firms. But they are also, as I pointed out in detail, continuing to take actions that would make any rational corporation, individual, and global banking entity question whether this was a good economy in which to invest.

Lots of economic players in the region moved on during the years when sanctions really cut off the Iranian market. And here are plenty of other places of opportunity that are less risky. And their economy remains opaque. The IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, has a significant role throughout the economy. And it’s important to remember the Iran is not monolithic. The IRGC has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of sanctions. And so for sanctions and their impact, the sort of stasis it’s imposed on their economy to unwind, a lot of the economic position of the IRGC is at risk. So in order for them to completely open up their market and be transparent so that Western entities can assess the risk they’re taking in doing transactions, the IRGC’s role has to change. It is a corrupt, opaque, militarily controlled economy. And if I were sitting in a board room trying to predict which country we ought to next try and move into, this wouldn’t be on my top ten. But that’s not a result of American intransigence or a refusal by the West to grant them access to the benefits of the deal.

IGNATIUS: President Obama, certainly the last year of the Iran nuclear debate, I think tried to lowball expectations about the transforming power. As you said in your remarks, it was transactional not transformative. Even so, I think anybody who looks at Iran has an idea that this might be a process of gradual political change, in which more moderate forces— a Zarif, Rouhani who supported the deal, were empowered. Over time, you had movement to a different leadership. Some people see the elections for the Iranian parliament as reinforcing that idea. So I want to ask you, without—I’m not asking for the starry-eyed, gee-whiz, but what do you think of the prospects for gradual evolution of Iran as it rejoins the global economy? Are we going to see a different country, in your judgement, over the next five to 10 years?

COONS: Over the next five years, I wouldn’t expect that. Over the next 10 to 20, I think it is possible. Part of what I tried to convey was a respect for the depth, complexity, sophistication of the Persian people, of the culture of Iran. They are an incredibly educated, sophisticated people, with a lot of resources and a lot of capabilities. But the orientation, the ideology of the current regime in any—in any reasonable prediction of how they’re likely to behave in the next couple of years, given the region, given their current engagements, given their actions in Iraq, and Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, I think only suggests a hardening of the position of the regime in the short term.

Given the election in the Majlis, given some of the demographic dynamics, given the underlying culture, I think it’s entirely possible. And we should remain hopeful that there are prospects for democratization, for opening to the West. But there’s several critical timelines at work here. The strictures of the JCPOA become less tight in seven to 10 years. That is exactly the timeline on which I am most concerned that American leadership will drift, that our focus, the priority attention to this will begin to wander off. And that’s the moment at which there will be a greater temptation on the part of the Iranian regime if it is, at that point, undergoing some challenge or some transition domestically to return to a nuclear program as a way of strengthening its nationalist credentials and strengthening its regional security profile.

That’s exactly when I think we will be at the moment of greatest risk. So it’s my hope that our actions over the next five years will convince the Iranian regime that a return to a nuclear program is profoundly foolish, that further integration into the regional economy and the global economy is in their best interest. And they can only accomplish that by moderating their behavior.

IGNATIUS: So I see the warning, insistence that they abide by the terms of the agreement. But I’m still curious about what you think the United States should do, if anything, to encourage a gradual process of political and cultural change in Iran over the time period of this agreement.

COONS: I think we should be open to and actively encouraging progress in terms of cultural exchanges and engagement with the outside world, and remain hopeful about the possibility of political change. But that’s got to rest on a bedrock of distrust and a clear-eyed assessment of their current actions. Their support for the Houthis, the Hezbollah, for Hamas, their actions in Iraq and Syria strongly suggest a country that is not ready to rejoin the international community. They’ve got problems in accessing the world economy, in part, because they arbitrarily arrest and detain Iranian-American businessmen who have gone to Iran to try and seek economic opportunities.

They are ratcheting up the number of youth that they’re executing, the number of journalists that they’re imprisoning. Their human rights—recent human rights behavior is atrocious. Now, to launch ballistic missiles that at least notionally say on the side of them, you know, death to Israel, and then express surprise that the Western world doesn’t think you’re really ready to be part of the global community just belies credibility. So I think we should remain clear-eyed and active and engaged in pushing back on their bad behavior. And I think that’s the best path, frankly, towards keeping open the hope or the possibility of some reconciliation regionally.

IGNATIUS: Let me ask a final question from up here, and then we’re going to turn to the audience. So please be thinking of your questions for Senator Coons.

I’d like to ask you to think with us about Iran’s regional behavior. It was often said by commentators that the issue wasn’t so much the agreement, which was pretty solid, but Iran’s bad behavior, Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, which the nuclear agreement wouldn’t address. As an observer, I would make the following contrarian observation, that today compared to a year ago Iran seems, to me, to be a little bit on its back foot in the region. The Yemen War, which looked to everyone like a disaster from the standpoint of the Saudis and others, seems to be now meandering towards a diplomatic resolution. There are talks going on in Kuwait between Houthis and others. And there are other quiet talks that are taking place elsewhere, sponsored, I gather, by the United States that are also showing some real prospects of success. A senior Saudi said to me recently: Iran has turned out to be a paper tiger in Yemen. That’s one.

Second, Iran’s having a lot of trouble in Iraq. I mean, Iran has having as much trouble being a hegemon as we did. The Shia coalition in Iraq is just fractured. The Dawa Party’s split in two. And Iran doesn’t quite seem to know what to do about it. Syria, Iran continues to be trying to help Bashar al-Assad gain ground, but from what we read the Iranians are pretty nervous about taking casualties in that fight. They don’t like it. And the ayatollah has, from what we hear, on several occasions tried to reduce his exposure, make sure there are fewer coffins coming back to Tehran, not more.

So taking those three areas, and I do mean to ask this as a contrarian question, is it possible that Iran is, in fact, losing a little bit of ground in this regional battlefield? And if so, why? Why is that happening?

COONS: Well, I think you put them in the right order. They have failed to be more successful at projecting force and engagement in Yemen. They have failed to be as effective a troublemaker as they intended to be with the Houthis in Yemen, in large part because of the distraction, the expense, the cost in lives and money of their venture in Syria.

And they’ve chosen to prioritize bolstering Assad by shouldering a great deal of the fighting burden. Assad was in a very different place in the battlefield a year, year and a half ago. And IRGC troops, Shia militias, Shia fighters from the whole region, from as far as Afghanistan, who had been equipped, trained, and deployed into the Syrian conflict by the Iranians have allowed—obviously with active Russian military help—has allowed Assad to really push back, regain a fair amount of ground, and end up in a quite different place, where today Assad can credibly be talking about retaking significant swaths of Syria.

So I think their failure to play a decisive role in Yemen is really because of their distraction in both Iraq and Syria. To your point, they’re discovering that Iraq is every bit as difficult and demanding a swamp as we found it to be. I wish for them all the joys of entanglement and the cost that that can bring. But it doesn’t show any change in their basic orientation. They’ve got a significant body of research scientists that they’re not working on developing a nuclear weapon, so they’re working on developing ballistic missiles. I’m not happy about either of these projects.

And they have a dramatic shortfall in terms of what they need to deliver in economic support for Rouhani’s administration to move forward, and for them to do anything positive domestically. They’re pouring a fair amount of the money they’re getting into fixing things domestically, but the trajectory of their ballistic missile program shows, I think, a continued hostile intent and a continued desire to play bigger role as a security threat to the region. And I just view this was a temporary challenge, because of the price of oil, because of the difficulty accessing global markets, because they haven’t had the trajectory they hoped for economically. But they are making clear signs—they are demonstrating that they have no less intent of spreading a revolutionary message in the region and of continuing to be a real hostile, difficult force in the region.

IGNATIUS: Just to follow up on that, and then go to the—to the audience. It was a common line in criticizing the agreement that freeing up these Iranian assets that were frozen and allowing revenue to come back into Iran would simply allow Iran to fund its adventurism in the region more. It was sort of like, well, the IRGC will get more money to destabilize the region. Do you see any—from what you just said about where the money is going, it doesn’t sound like that’s, in fact, happening. But I wanted to ask you that directly.

COONS: A couple things. Several of the presidential candidates in the other party have repeatedly misstated a basic fact. Those frozen assets were not U.S. taxpayer dollars. And I found that profoundly irritating, the frequency with which folks who know better, who have been in the briefings, would say billions of U.S. dollars are going to go to Iran. That was never the case. These are billions of dollars that were frozen in accounts around the world, in part through American leadership.

There were significant disagreements about how much the Iranians might ever get access to, and how quickly, and from what holdings. They have received far less than they had hoped. It is taking much longer than they had expected. Secretary Lew and others have addressed that dynamic in public remarks. I’m going to be cautious in how much more I say. But I do think that has been an unexpected dynamic for the Iranians. It has been much harder for them to access their frozen assets around the world than they had expected. But terrorism is cheap. Frankly, the difference between whether they got $1, $3, $10 or $50 billion is mostly going to determine how much they have available to invest in restoring the infrastructure and the economy within Iran.

The terrorist actions that they have historically supported are not that expensive, and they continue to support them. Obviously, they’ve continued to prioritize funding their war efforts in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, over restoring basic services to their people. What I am very pleasantly surprised with is they haven’t significantly increased that. I think that’s partly because of American efforts to interdict weapon shipments, to sanction entities, to keep our allies engaged in pushing back. And it’s partly a choice by the Iranian regime to pursue economic improvements domestically and to focus on the conflict in Syria and Iraq at the level that they can sustain, rather than making it a higher priority.

IGNATIUS: That’s helpful. This image of a windfall for terrorism is not supported by the facts.

COONS: Not so far.

IGNATIUS: OK. Yes, please. And please identify yourselves and, yes.

Q: Thanks, David. I’m Barbara Slavin. I run a program on Iran at the Atlantic Council.

Senator, I wanted to ask a couple questions. Do you see any responsibility on the part of the Saudis for the increase in fighting that’s been going on in the region? You spoke of Iran as trying to export its revolution, but in fact it’s trying to shore up a dictatorial regime in Syria. That’s not very revolutionary, in my view. What do you think of the Boeing deal? Is that good? Is that something we should encourage? Should Congress try to block it? And finally, how do we institutionalize the contacts that we have with the Iranians through the JCPOA? Should there be an effort to try to send Americans to staff an intersection? Should there be some way of doing more than having occasional meetings in Vienna? Thanks.

COONS: Those are three great questions. Let me work through them backwards, if I might.

The importance of the personal relationships that both Secretary Moniz and Secretary Kerry enjoyed, you know, with Rouhani and Zarif and Salehi, have been central, I think, to the effective implementation of the deal so far. If Secretary Moniz is made aware of a technical issue that pushes the boundaries or the definitions or challenges some of the operation of this deal, he’s able to pick up the phone and directly speak to someone he’s known for decades, and where they are both highly technically competent themselves. They are not relying on, you know, some series of staffers to get them up to speed on exactly how a centrifuge works and exactly what a rotary means, and so forth.

We have to sustain that. We have to invest, to your point about how important are the institutional relationships. Whoever the next president is, whoever the next secretary of state and secretary of energy is, assuming that they have the wisdom to try and sustain the JCPOA, I think they have to invest in those direct relationships and those direct channels communication. And I think that is going to be critical. I am pleased that Ambassador Mull has a competent multiagency team that is deeply experienced and is staying on this.

And I think we have to sustain that as well. I also think it’s important to sustain congressional familiarity with the technical details and engagement, a better, broader understanding of the region. Look, I’ve only been to Saudi Arabia once myself, to Turkey once, I’ve never been to Iran—surprise. I do think that making sure that members of Congress, both houses, both parties, know the context, know the region, are engaged, is also going to be critically important.

I don’t know what to say about the Boeing deal. Their argument is, where Airbus goes, we go. Why would we deny opportunity to American workers and machinists to be able to manufacture and sell world-class airline—air frames? And it is specifically called out in the JCPOA as a specific market segment that we’re to try and participate in. I leave it to Boeing to assess the risk to them, whether or not the Iranians really are credit worthy, whether or not this is an economic engagement they really want to get more closely involved in.

But it is a sign of American economic interest moving up a step. And I think it is a sign to the Iranians that it is potentially possible to do business with one of America’s premier manufacturing companies. It’s also a reminder that countries around the world, even rogue states like Iran, prefer American products and services, which I’ll just say with a small boosterism smile on my face. But I do think it—

IGNATIUS: What about Barbara’s question about a U.S. intersection?

COONS: My hope is that that’s something we could move towards. Their behavior is among the worst in the world when it comes to their treatment of—number of executions, and treatment of journalists, detention of Americans, and failure to account for Americans who we know have disappeared into their custody. Look, we’ve recently reopened relations with Cuba, in a robust way, for the first time in decades. If we can move in a positive direction that sustains those open channels of communication, I think that’s well worth doing.

Q: (Off mic.)

COONS: You know, that’s a complex relationship that’s become more urgent, I think, on both sides. There is new leadership in the kingdom. And I’m hoping that there will be a real reexamination of our long and close alliance. I think the challenges—the security challenges that they faced in Yemen has renewed a focus on the competency and the engagement of their military at all levels. I think they’ve seen the United States come to their support in a prompt and thorough and meaningful way in the conflict in Yemen.

I think that has reassured them that we are their allies, and we intend to work closely with them and stand by them. But there is an enduring question about their role and their relationship with elements within the Muslim world that have preached a version of Islam that may have led, in some parts of the world, to some more extreme views and some more aggressive actions. That’s a delicate conversation and a difficult one to have, but an important one to continue having between friends.

IGNATIUS: The gentleman here. Yes, please.

Q: As you well know, most of the region’s critics of the agreement are indifferent to its details and to even the efficacy of the agreement. They put it in the context of a United States that providentially shows up. When Iran is in trouble with Saddam, the Americans end up destroying Saddam. When the Taliban are on the verge of war with Iran, the Americans come in and destroy the narrative. There is this narrative. Of course, it construes much more to these events than they really carry.

But in that context, I believe that the evaluation of the agreement is much influenced by our current behavior in responding to the Iranian provocation that you presented. Even the little boat episode, which is here forgotten—the boat episode was played up hugely on the media. There, they showed the American woman sailor, officer, being forced to wear, they repeated these scenes of humiliation. And no American response. The Americans don’t respond. Then there is, of course, on the ballistic missiles, and you—well, again, you very carefully observed there was no American response to that, even though it appeared to be a very deliberate provocation because of the proximity in date to the signature to the launch and so on.

Finally, even in countries whose human rights situation is appalling, they do keep saying the Americans make no effort to advance human rights or to do—the typical American things when America wants to interfere in a country’s internal arrangement the Americans don’t do in Iran, and some people connect it to the failure to even mention the Green Revolution on the part of the White House. And as you know, there’s a whole polemic with that. So I believe that, going forward, the actual—

IGNATIUS: Let’s get this as a question—

Q: That is the question. Do you believe that, going forward, it is possible to uphold, as it were, the validity of the agreement by changing the tone of U.S. responses to Iran, or whether that would cause the unraveling of the agreement? Because you—


Q: That is the answer? That you—

COONS: I’m sorry. I do think—you pointed to a very wide range of conspiracy theories, incidents of provocation—let me try to answer. You’ve pointed to a whole series of conspiracy theories, incidents that happened without aggressive response from the United States, and then other episodes that have gotten a response from the United States, and then some of the ongoing challenges, the tension between our putting human rights at the top of our agenda or putting security at the top of our agenda. That’s a very broad range of topics.

Briefly put, I do think we have to be measured in our response to provocations by Iran, but I think we have to be firm and prompt and act in concert with our allies. I may disagree or quibble over specific incidents and how the administration responded and why. I may not have full information about what the factors were they were weighing at the time. All I know is that going forward I think the next administration has to place the effective implementation and enforcement of this deal high on their list of priorities at a time when it’s going to be hard to do that.

There’s lots of other distractions in the world, whether it’s North Korea or Russia, whether it’s the South China Sea or the status of NATO, there’s a lot of other things we can and should be worrying about. But we can’t ignore the ways in which this deal and our relationship with Iran influence and centrally effect the outcome in Syria and Iraq, influence and centrally affect our relationship with Russia, influence and centrally affect the strength and importance of NATO and the EU. These are all tied together.

My concern, centrally—the point of my remarks today—is a concern that this will drop from view, as it largely has in the debates of this presidential campaign. My view is that it has to be higher in priority and we have to be consistent in how we respond, whether to provocations or to developments in the region.

IGNATIUS: So I’m going to recognize people in the order in which I’ve seen them. The woman here at the front table, and then you, sir.

Q: Louise Shelley, George Mason University.

You haven’t talked about Turkey. And I just came back from weeks in Turkey where everybody is talking about the case of Reza, who helped move millions or billions of Iranian money through Turkey. And Turks are still concerned, either positively or negatively, that either that they should be helping their neighbor Iran in the time of economic difficulties and provide them access to the financial system, or rather that this is fostering corruption in Turkey. And how do you perceive this issue of Turkey being—you know, having facilitated so much of Iran’s money movements, as Turkey is a NATO member and an ally of ours?

COONS: Well, our relationship with Turkey is complex, difficult, and also an urgent priority. Our differences over how to respond to ISIS and Assad, our differences in how we view the Peshmerga, the Kurdish question have been a source of real tension and challenge. And how they’re responding to security challenges, how they’re continuing to develop their democracy, and some of the challenges within the governing party, I think are all sources of legitimate concern in the United States.

We need and want a closer, stronger, more reliable partnership with Turkey. I don’t know enough about the details of how money was moved, how much money was moved, and what the corruption consequences might be or the security considerations might be. But we’re going to face comparable challenges with countries all around Iran, as the Iranians seek more and more avenues to access the global markets. There are billions of dollars that are or will be moving that have been frozen in banks or that are waiting to reach the global markets. And we still have sanctions on the books. And we are going to continue to enforce those sanctions.

And that means there will be unexpected and perhaps unwelcome pathways of leakage in and out of the Iranian economy. So I simply point to this—thank you for raising it—and I’ll point to it as just another source of playing in the joints or strain on our vital regional alliances. My hope is that we don’t overemphasize it in a relationship with Turkey where we have so many other issues going on that are short term, pressing, and tactically vital.

IGNATIUS: Mr. Cunningham.

Q: Thank you. Nelson Cunningham, McLarty Associates.

First of all, I’m sure everyone comes away from this wishing that every actor in our political space brought as much intellect and, frankly, painstaking care as you bring to an important issue like this one.

In the course of the last several months I spent an hour and a half with President Rouhani, along with a group of American business people. And in February, a similar amount of time with Foreign Minister Zarif. You’ve made it clear that from your perspective this is a transactional—a transaction not a transformation. I took from their comments that they believe this is potentially transformational. And in fact, Rouhani and Zarif both made fairly impassioned pleas to the members of the European and the American business community to help give them the economic benefits that they believe they had promised the Iranian people so that they could achieve their wish of making this transformational.

But it’s also plain that within the Iranian government there are those who have different views. Rouhani and Zarif do not control the entire government. The Revolutionary Guard, as you pointed out, takes a very different perspective. To re-ask a question that David Ignatius asked before, isn’t there the possibility that by helping to bring more commercial engagement from the U.S. we could, indeed, be helping an important internal conversation in Iran between those like Rouhani and Zarif, who perhaps share our values more, against those within the government who do not?

COONS: I think there is that possibility, yes. And I think, as I tried to say before but perhaps was unartful in how I conveyed it, I think we have to remain hopeful, optimistic, open to the possibility of the Iranian regime reforming and changing, and to the possibility that economic liberalization and opening to the West will lead to that. We are an optimistic people. And we have to conduct foreign policy with a priority on hope, informed by a clear-eyed, skeptical, deep distrust of a regime whose current actions demonstrate not just a disinterest in rejoining the world community, but an active disregard for it.

Now, obviously, it’s not a monolithic regime. There are internal tensions. There are elements within the regime that may be carrying out things like capturing American sailors, or launching ballistic missiles, or refusing to share internally what they know about an American who’s been missing for years that’s in their custody. I recognize that, you know, there is no more a unitary monolithic government within Iran than there is within the United States.

But we have to be clear-eyed about their current behavior, their past behavior, and its likely trajectory. I do think that—many of my colleagues have met with Rouhani and Zarif and come back and reported glowing things about their intentions and their values and their priorities. And all of that is good. But I’m simply trying to push back on an optimism that is not yet justified by actions. In terms of the transaction of freezing their progress towards enough fissile material for a weapon, this agreement has been a success so far. But as an avenue towards transformation, I think it will only be successful if we continue to insist on the transaction being successful first.

IGNATIUS: So the gentleman all the way in the back with—yes—his hand raised. Yes, sir.

Q: I’m Haik Gugarats with Argus Media.

Senator, is there room for one more transactional agreement? And what could Iran be asked to give up in such an agreement?

COONS: Interesting. There’s a number of things that are much smaller in scope than the nuclear program, but that I think are of real significance in priority. A ballistic missile program that is demonstrating a greater and greater sophistication and capability of delivering a nuclear weapon, should they ever return to a nuclear weapons program. Domestic enrichment capacity, which I understand the dynamic between sovereignty and being respected as a country with engineering capabilities and so forth. But I really question the legitimacy of an expressed need for an industrial-scale nuclear enrichment program.

There has been a fair amount of quibbling about was this a good deal, a weak deal, a terrible deal. Those who criticize the deal at its simplest level say: They’re allowed to retain a domestic enrichment capability. There is no need for that. They could continue to have nuclear reactors to do research, to do nuclear medicine, but have no enrichment and processing capability within the country. Some would argue that the IAEA inspections and the restrictions of the JCPOA largely deal with that, but I am concerned. I’m concerned about its path forward. I’m concerned about its trajectory more than 10 years from now.

So if there were two things that, to me, would be the lynchpins of a next-stage transactional deal, it would be Iran being willing to give up on the continued development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons regionally, and to give up on an ongoing nuclear enrichment capability. There should be significant further opportunities, further engagement with the economy and the world community were they to do that. But that would be the sort of stage two or JCPOA 2.0.

IGNATIUS: That’s a fascinating answer to a fascinating question. And I want to just ask, would you—let’s imagine that Secretary Clinton is in the White House next January. Would you urge her to consider a new round of this engagement with Iran on key strategic issues, the two you mentioned, as a follow on?

COONS: I would.

IGNATIUS: Yes, at this second table, if you’re still on. Yes.

Q: Thank you. Amy Nelson with the Council on Foreign Relations.

I wanted to ask you about IAEA support and capacity, given that 20 percent of its existing resources are now devoted to the implementation of the JCPOA. And given the significant need—ongoing need for safeguards and their implementation and verification, it would seem the IAEA might be on the course to a crisis. What can and should the United States and the international community do to ensure that it doesn’t reach a crisis point?

And second, I wanted to ask you about your comments on disputes in the implementation of the JCPOA. Given that certain language in the deal was negotiated to be deliberately vague—for example, as safeguard technology evolves we need flexibility in terms of how its implemented. And if you can comment on this, to what extent were the disputes that we’ve experienced so far a function of either this vague language or sort of technical obstacles to implementation?

COONS: Good questions. On the second part of your question, I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point where some of the linguistic challenges you’re referring to have yet become operational. I think the boundary fights have been much more simple. But willful misunderstandings if fairly basic points that are relatively easy to say you say this, we say this, agreement says this, do this, so far. But I think as time goes on, there may be more challenges that are closer to the dynamic you describe, where there is the opportunity for litigating boundaries. If nothing else, the Iranians are spectacularly persistent at arguing lots of points. My concern is that we remain spectacularly engaged and determined and persistent around procurement channel questions and at elevating and resolving in favor of not providing access to more advanced technology, not providing more room for a robust program.

I’m sorry, the first part of your question was?

Q: Support for IAEA.

COONS: Support for IAEA, right. Look, we are asking the IAEA to do the biggest, broadest, toughest job it’s ever done. And as I pointed out to Amano, and many of colleagues have, this is an existential moment for them. This is the task that they will either truly succeed at, and reinforce their role as the world’s absolutely indisputable, necessary atomic watchdog, or where they will miss the reemergence and development of a clandestine program, and the consequences would be significant, but for their reputation and for global security.

I think we need to be demonstrating a long-term commitment to robust funding. And the IAEA being a member agency, an entity whose budget is made up of contributions of many member states, it’s concerned about not being overly funded by the United States, overly dependent on American financial and technical support. And I respect that.

And so I think we need to be finding ways to ensure that the voluntary contributions of all member states rise in accordance with the complexity and reach of the IAEA’s mission, which continues to be global in scope, where Iran is not the only or most difficult country it’s trying to monitor, but where the deployment of new cutting-edge, real-time enrichment monitoring capabilities of new real-time monitoring and remote-sensing capabilities really have the possibility to show what the IAEA can do in this century.

The United States should continue to increase funding for our domestic research into those technologies and capabilities. And our national labs should continue to provide the training and the support that makes cutting-edge nuclear inspectors that are well-trained and properly deployed possible. But more than anything, we have to show that we are a reliable funder, because if you are looking at ramping up the number of inspectors you can deploy by dozens or hundreds, you don’t just go on and hire a bunch of nuclear inspectors willing to go live, you know, in the Middle East on long stints at the drop of a hat. This requires a sustained, long-term investment, something for which I’m fighting in the Appropriations Committee, and that I expect will enjoy bipartisan support for a long time.

IGNATIUS: I’m going to recognize one more hand, that’s Ambassador Cutler. But I want to note we’ve come to the end of our time. So, Walt, please, a 30-second question and, Senator, a 35-second answer. (Laughter.)

Q: Very quickly, and I return to the initial question that Barbara posed, regarding support for our friends, our partners in the Middle East—here, I refer to the Gulf States particularly—who obviously recognize that Iran poses a continuing security threat, as you put it. And we’re being very supportive, I think. And the Congress, I think, is being terribly supportive, which is very good. Largest military sales, I think, in the history of our country to the Gulf States. But what do you say to those partners of ours who say, look, we should start planning our own nuclear capabilities?

COONS: That is one of the greatest potential risks of an unraveling of the JCPOA. So thank you for reminding me for failing to put on the agenda of things that would go badly quickly if a next American president were to walk away from the deal, or in a ham-fisted way attempt to renegotiate it and fail. The speed with which some of our Gulf allies would move towards the acquisition of a nuclear weapon or a development of a domestic enrichment program I think would be truly unsettling and could lead to a significant increase in regional tensions and risks.

So our best move is to continue to reinforce to regional partners and allies our commitment to their security, our determination to provide them with the conventional defense means they need, and to make it clear to them that we will be clear-eyed, persistent, engaged, enthusiastic about enforcement of the JCPOA, and the containment of any Iranian nuclear ambitions, to forestall any belief on their part that they need to have a fallback position and be prepared to develop their own nuclear weapons.

The development of a nuclear contest between Pakistan and India was one of the riskiest, most destabilizing developments of the last century. The nuclearized Korean Peninsula is showing us even today the very real threats to security posed by North Korea. To have a nuclear-armed Iran and then a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia, and a nuclear-armed Kuwait, and a nuclear-armed Qatar would be disastrous, and something we should work very hard to prevent.

IGNATIUS: So, with apologies to those I couldn’t call on, I’m going to bring this to a close. We’ll invite Senator Coons to come back a year from now, and we can look at two years on. (Laughter.)

Senator, just to echo what Nelson Cunningham said, it’s really a pleasure to have someone join us here at the Council who is so knowledgeable about his subject. We’ve all learned a lot. So thank you very much. (Applause.)


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