On April 27, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman discussed ongoing nuclear talks with Iran at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Biennial Leadership Policy Conference. “We believe that the parameters, announced two weeks ago in Lausanne, offer the best chance at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” she said. The following are excerpts from her keynote address.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: We will be working nonstop between now and the end of June to see if we can resolve this most pressing national security challenge peacefully, which will make Israel, the region, the United States, and, indeed, the world safer.
I know that in the Jewish community here in America, a community I’m proud to be part of, there’s been a lot of discussion during the past few weeks about our relationship with Israel, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, and a lot of interest and concern about our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Given the importance of these issues, I’m going to spend just a few minutes talking to you about them today, and then I’d be happy to take your questions.
Every time I hear President Obama talk about issues that matter to American Jews, and some of you have heard directly, I’m always struck about how personally he feels about those issues and how personally he feels about his connection to the Jewish people and to Israel. This deep-seated feeling is what drives his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and his desire to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.
It’s also what drives this Administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear threat. We understand that Israel is in a tough neighborhood. That’s why we have given Israel more security assistance than any other Administration in history. And that’s why we’re doing everything we can to ensure that that neighborhood doesn’t become even tougher with a nuclear-armed Iran. We believe that the parameters, announced two weeks ago in Lausanne, offer the best chance at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and just as importantly, that the alternatives fall far short of what we’ll have if we’re able to turn the political framework into a comprehensive agreement.
Without such an agreement, Iran’s breakout time to get enough nuclear material for a weapon is two or three months – what it is right now. With this agreement it will be one year, up to six times as long as it is now, for at least 10 years. Without this agreement, Iran would expand its enrichment program to 100,000 centrifuges in the next few years. With this agreement, we will have limited Iran to operating about 5,000 centrifuges for at least the next decade. Without this agreement, Iran could produce two weapons’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium every single year. With this agreement, Iran is going to have zero weapons-grade plutonium, and not just for 10 years, but for the lifetime of the reactor.
Without this agreement, Iran would be able to expand its stockpile of currently 10 tons of enriched uranium. With this agreement, that stockpile will be reduced by 98 percent to only three kilograms of a working stockpile. And without this agreement, the international community through the International Atomic Energy Agency would only have its pre-joint plan of action – the first step – insight and inspection into Iran’s declared nuclear program and no ability to look for undeclared nuclear activities.
But with this agreement, we will have the most extensive system of monitoring and verification we have ever negotiated for any country anywhere in the world. We will have eyes into every part of Iran’s nuclear program from cradle to grave. And if we detect Iran is trying to break its commitments or violating the agreement, we will have every single option on the table to respond to them that we have today. So when you look at the comparison between the agreement we are negotiating and the chance that we would succeed, the better course of action is abundantly clear.
I could go on, but I want to have time to take your questions, and here’s the key point: Our shared values have provided a basis for partnership on critical domestic and foreign policy priorities over the past six-plus years, and they will continue to do so for the remainder of President Obama’s second term. We intend to use every single day of the rest of this Administration to work to make our country and the world a better and safer place, even when it’s hard to do. At the State Department, that means working as hard as we possibly can to achieve a good agreement with Iran that provides us and the world with the assurances that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Thank you. That was a wonderful presentation. Before the first Gulf war, President Bush the elder had sanctions in place, and they were working. And he ended the sanctions shortly after he said they’re working, and we ended up in war. I’m very concerned that we have sanctions working and that we’ll end them too soon and we won’t get the deal and we won’t get the enforcement and we’ll end up in war and in an even more dangerous situation.
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you. It’s a very good question. The sanctions that we have on Iran – which are U.S. sanctions, EU sanctions, UN Security Council sanctions – are quite vast and quite effective. But they are not effective at preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon. Sanctions have helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table, but just a few years ago Iran had only 164 centrifuges. As the sanctions came on and as they got more profound, Iran went to the state where they are today, which is to have 19,000 centrifuges, because Iran is in a resistance economy and a resistance culture, and they believed that if the world was going to put sanctions on them, they were going to keep marching forward with their program in the way that they felt they needed to. The only thing that has stopped Iran’s program – and, in fact, rolled it back – is what’s called the JPOA, the Joint Plan of Action, which was the first agreement that we reached, the first step, the interim agreement. That agreement stopped Iran’s program where it is so that we would have time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, and it got rid of its entire 20 percent stockpile of enriched material. And that’s critical because you go from small enrichment – 3.5 percent, 5 percent – then you go to 20 percent, and then you go to 90 percent and highly enriched uranium, which is fissile material for a nuclear weapon. So the only thing – the only thing – that has stopped Iran’s nuclear program at all has been that first step negotiated agreement to provide time and space to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.
And secondly, it’s very important to understand that the reason we were able to keep sanctions together was because we were committed to trying to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution. So countries around the world, even good allies like Japan and South Korea, were willing to limit the amount of oil they imported from Iran because they believed we were working towards a peaceful solution. If they feel we aren’t working towards a peaceful solution, they are likely to break ranks and we won’t be able to keep the sanctions together anyway.
And then finally, many people say – and I understand the impulse, because you get frustrated and there’s so much going on in the region that is it not good – that people say, “Take military action against Iran.” Actually, our intelligence community has assessed and said publicly that if we took military action against Iran, it would only take away their program for maybe two years. They have mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle, and you can’t bomb away knowledge. So even if we destroyed their facilities, they could recreate it.
So the really durable solution here is getting an agreement with enough transparency, monitoring, and verification to understand what is going on.
QUESTION: Does the Administration have a plan in place to prevent the undermining of the agreement that you’re negotiating by the Congress? Because the Congress seems to be intent to do it. Would you perhaps consider having President Obama oppose the agreement, so that the Republicans could find a way to support it?
UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: We’re working very hard with Congress. Senator Cardin, who is obviously my senator – and I’ve known Ben most of my life – worked very hard with Senator Corker to fashion a piece of legislation that gave the Congress a procedural way to look at this agreement without getting into the substance, per se. We’re very grateful, and grateful that Senator Corker and Senator Cardin were able to reach an agreement. This legislation will be on the floor of the Senate this week. There will be a lot of pretty awful amendments, quite frankly, and we’ll see where we end up.
The President has said that if the Corker-Cardin legislation stays where it is, he will not veto it; if it becomes something else, then he’ll have to consider his options.