WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Tuesday at the University of Delaware that he will support the nuclear agreement reached between Iran, the United States, and our international partners known as the P5+1. The Senate vote to approve or disapprove the agreement is expected to take place in early September when the Senate returns to session.
Below are Coons' remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Thank you, Professor Begleiter, for that kind introduction. I’d also like to thank the University of Delaware for hosting this event and all of you for making time to be here.
“Today, I am here to discuss one of the greatest threats to America, to Israel and to global security – the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran – and our options for blocking those ambitions. On July 14th, the United States, along with Germany, France, the UK, China, and Russia, entered into an agreement with Iran that aims to prevent them from developing or procuring nuclear weapons. Our country and our partners in this agreement – collectively known as the P5+1 – dedicated years to this pursuit because we share the core belief that a nuclear armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the region, to our countries, and the world.
“The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly to negotiate this deal, and deserves credit for enforcing the tough sanctions enacted by Congress that initially brought Iran to the table and for negotiating a deal that holds out some real hope of freezing and deterring Iran's illicit nuclear program.
“When Congress returns to session next week, the Senate will complete our review of the terms of the agreement and vote to accept or reject it. After spending weeks reviewing the details of the agreement, talking with experts, listening to Delawareans, and consulting with colleagues, I want to share with you what I’ve learned about the deal and where that leads me.
“Throughout these negotiations and this congressional review period, I have done my best to immerse myself in the details of this deal. I have attended more than a dozen Foreign Relations Committee hearings and classified briefings, met with policy experts who both oppose and support the agreement, and read and re-read the dense text of the agreement itself. I spoke to members of the U.S. negotiating team, representatives of the other P5+1 countries, security and defense leaders, and ambassadors from Israel and other key allies. Finally, I spent time talking with nuclear scientists with expertise in nuclear energy, weaponization, and proliferation, because it is critically important to understand the mechanisms of inspections and proliferation.
“I have also heard from thousands of Delawareans through emails, letters and phone calls to my office, and I have met with and listened to many groups in person. While too often the debate about this agreement in Washington has struck a sharply partisan political tone, the conversation here in Delaware, while passionate, remained thoughtful, and anchored in our shared values. I have been reminded over the past few weeks that both opponents and supporters of the agreement alike come to their position because they want to live in a world without the threat of violence and of nuclear war, and where there is a prospect of greater security and peace. All of us want the same things – and the decision before us is whether this deal is our best option to achieve our shared goals.
“As I approached my decision, I asked myself a series of questions: what are the consequences of rejecting or approving this deal? Does this deal improve America’s security? What does this agreement mean for the security of Israel? What happens if Iran violates the agreement at any point? Can we rely on our P5+1 partners to fully implement the terms of the deal? What military options remain available if Iran pursues a weapon or otherwise violates the agreement? How will this agreement impact our partners in the Middle East five, ten, and twenty-five years from now? Does this agreement advance or roll back the prospects for nuclear proliferation in the region and beyond?
“I also thought hard about what will happen if Congress rejects the agreement. Will our international partners come back to the table with us for more talks with Iran, and would that lead to a stronger result? If we walk away from this deal, what options do we gain and which do we lose?
“The central questions, however, are whether the agreement negotiated by the P5+1 countries will increase American security by preventing or delaying the development of a nuclear weapon by Iran and whether there is a credible alternative that justifies the risks of rejecting this deal. Given the complexity and consequences of this agreement, and the many Delawareans and friends across the country who have passionately urged me to reject it and to support it, I believe I have an obligation to explain my thinking and to consider the path forward.
“As I learned in my previous career as an attorney, most deals remain tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until something goes wrong. That’s why we have to be clear-eyed and certain about the details of the deal now, before potential problems arise in the future, so I would like to address the serious concerns I still have with this deal.
“Frankly, this is not the agreement I hoped for. I am troubled that the parties to this agreement – particularly Iran – have differing interpretations of key terms, and I remain deeply concerned about our ability to hold Iran to the terms of this agreement as we understand them. Under this agreement, Iran retains a civilian nuclear enrichment program that grows steadily in scope, and the hardened underground nuclear facility at Fordow continues to exist filled with centrifuges which, while sidelined from enrichment for fifteen years, are not permanently shelved. Once Iran verifiably meets its obligations, it will gain access to tens of billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen by our sanctions. We should expect that Iran will use some of those funds to support and arm its proxies in the region - terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah that threaten and attack Israel, or to support the murderous regime of Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. Five years after the agreement, the UN’s embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran will end, and eight years after the agreement, the UN embargo on ballistic missile technology will end.
“I have a number of serious concerns based on Iran’s past behavior of cheating on nuclear agreements and our experiences trying to block other countries from developing nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic of Iran has long threatened the United States and Israel in both fiery speeches and terrorist acts, and it continues to support terrorist groups across the region. Even as the P5+1 representatives were meeting to finalize this agreement, Iran tried an American Washington Post reporter for spying and other Americans remained jailed on trumped up charges in a notorious Iranian prison. So let’s be clear - no one should mistake Iran for a friend of the United States.
“One of the most important aspects of the agreement is the enforcement mechanisms. Here, too, this is not the agreement I would have preferred. We cannot trust the Iranians, and from the requirements and scope of snapping back sanctions to the timing and mechanisms of inspections, I found several areas in the text of the agreement where I would prefer the terms of enforcement to be clearer and stronger. I also stand with my colleagues who have raised real questions about the details of the IAEA’s agreement with Iran over the assessment of past nuclear weaponization activities at Parchin and the integrity of future inspections and enforcement as a result.
“I have deep concern about the scope and implications of Iran’s permitted centrifuge development program after ten years and its nuclear enrichment capacity after fifteen years. Even if the Iranians comply with the letter and spirit of the agreement as negotiators for the United States understand it, a stronger, financially stable, and economically interconnected Iran will develop an expanded nuclear enrichment program after a decade which – if it then chooses to violate the agreement – would allow it to quickly develop enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. This agreement – at best – freezes Iran’s nuclear enrichment program - it does not dismantle or destroy it as I hoped it would.
“Beyond the terms of the agreement, opponents decry the singular focus of the negotiations on the nuclear program to the exclusion of human rights issues and Iranian support for terrorism. I share their frustration. Iran’s record of arming terrorist organizations, imprisoning people of faith, accusing Americans of spying during visits to see their family, and stifling all forms of civil society, is well known and among the worst in the world. We cannot begin to consider a constructive dialogue with Iran until these issues are addressed. Frankly, I do not share the optimism of those who believe Iran is on the verge of truly opening to the West or of becoming a moderating force in the region. While we can hope and pray that someday the people of Iran will push their extreme leaders to moderation, we cannot count on that happening and we have to consider our path forward with a deserved and deep distrust of Iran's intentions.
“So, given all of these concerns, I certainly understand why Delawareans would ask how I could possibly not oppose this agreement. If it has flaws and weaknesses and foreseeable bad consequences, why not heed the vocal opposition of many of my neighbors and friends and join a majority of my Senate colleagues who will oppose it?
“The answer to that question isn’t easy, and it’s not one I have come to lightly. If Congress rejects this agreement, removing the U.S. from the P5+1 process, the path forward is even less clear than it is with the deal. Rejecting this deal brings with it a host of new, increasingly difficult questions. Could the strength of the U.S. banking system and U.S. bilateral sanctions alone force a new round of negotiations? Would we actually be willing to sanction the central banks of vital European and Asian allies? Would another round of negotiations produce a stronger result or merely additional months or years of uncertainty and instability? Would Iran, as some have suggested, race towards a nuclear weapon unrestrained by the JCPOA or instead join with the remaining partners to move ahead with implementing the agreement without the U.S.?
“Since July, I’ve done my best to answer theses questions as thoroughly as I can, and after talking with our allies, I am deeply skeptical that renewed negotiations would be possible or that they would be likely to produce a stronger, more robust agreement that addresses my concerns. The factors that brought Iran to the negotiating table – sustained, tough multilateral sanctions and international pressure – would be very difficult to reconstruct following a disapproval of the agreement by Congress. I have heard directly from the ambassadors of key European allies strong opposition to reopening negotiations, and some commentators convincingly argue that if Congress rejects the agreement, Iran and our P5+1 partners may well move ahead with implementing the deal, giving Iran much of the sanctions relief under the agreement but sidelining us from participation that could shape the inspections and enforcement regime.
“In addition, the most experienced enforcers of sanctions in our government, and other outside experts including former Federal Reserve Bank Chair Paul Volcker, and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argue that many of the other nations that were the largest customers for Iranian oil – such as China, Japan, India and South Korea - joined the sanctions regime reluctantly and on the expectation that we would deliver a diplomatic resolution to halting Iran’s nuclear program. The political and economic consequences of our sanctioning the major companies and central banks of key Asian and European allies would be dangerously unpredictable.
“Last, as I understand the structure of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, disapproval of the agreement by Congress would block the President’s ability to waive sanctions against Iran under statutes that originally gave him that authority. Some commentators convincingly argue that without that authority, the President will unlikely be able to entice or coerce Iran to return to negotiations. They argue that two other outcomes are more likely. Either implementation of the existing deal by Iran and the other P5+1 partners and the weakening of our leadership role in the coalition opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, or the strengthening of conservatives in Iran opposed to the deal and determined to resume Iran's march towards a weapon.
“Ultimately, after consulting with financial and policy experts, I'm convinced that the potential turmoil for our key alliances in Europe and Asia and the uncertainty of the outcome of forcing our reluctant allies back to the table are not worth the uncertain possibility that we could secure a stronger deal. Thus, in a very hard choice between either rejecting the agreement and taking on the uncertainty and risks of compelling a return to sanctions and negotiations or a path that accepts the positives of this deal and attempts to manage and minimize the short and long term consequences of its flaws, I choose the latter.
“I will support this agreement and vote against any measures to disapprove it in Congress.
“I will support this agreement because it puts us on a known path of limiting Iran’s nuclear program for the next fifteen years with the full support of the international community. The alternative, to me, is a scenario of uncertainty and isolation.
“Finally, I will support this agreement despite its flaws because it is the better strategy for the United States to lead a coalesced global community in containing the spread of nuclear weapons.
“I am also convinced of the real benefits of greater access to Iran's nuclear sites and infrastructure that comes from fully implementing the JCPOA. While we enjoy a robust intelligence capability to detect and deter Iranian efforts, all experts agree that the 24/7 on-site inspections of the entire Iranian nuclear fuel cycle agreed to under the JCPOA offers us extremely valuable insights into their program over decades to come. Should the Iranians violate the agreement and move forward with nuclear weapons development, we are far more likely to detect it and be in a position to take decisive action with this agreement than without it.
“Right now, we have an opportunity to lead our allies in containing a dangerous nation’s ability to secure a weapon of mass destruction. We can do this through a combination of diplomacy and deterrence that gives our allies in the region the support to defend themselves and the confidence that if diplomacy fails, we will invoke military options to achieve it.
“This agreement does achieve several critical goals that freeze or roll back different aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. To get any sanctions relief, Iran must give up 97% of its existing stockpile of enriched uranium from 11,000 kg (over 12 tons) to 300 kg (or less than 700 pounds). Iran must disable two thirds of their centrifuges from over 19,000 to merely 6,000, and permanently change its heavy water reactor at Arak so it no longer can produce weapons grade plutonium. Iran has agreed to thorough, intrusive, 24/7 inspections of all of its known nuclear sites – uranium mines, mills, centrifuge production and uranium enrichment facilities -- for fifteen years and more.
“This agreement reliably increases the time required for Iran to assemble the fissile material for a weapon from the current estimated time of two or three months to at least a year for the next decade or more. Together, these provisions significantly degrade Iran’s ability to convert a nuclear energy program to a nuclear weapons program, and they significantly improve our ability to track attempts to do so.
“What will we do if we catch Iran cheating? First, the agreement ratified by the UN gives the United States the ability to not only reimpose our own sanctions, but to also unilaterally reimpose the UN sanctions that in combination helped bring Iran to the table in the first place.
“At the same time, U.S. military leaders confirm that we remain capable of using military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon at any time. Our ability to succeed in the use of force would only improve through regular, on the ground inspections of nuclear facilities and the information we would gain. Our use of military action following violations by Iran is also more likely to have the support of our allies and other P5+1 partners.
“Opponents of this deal appear increasingly unlikely to gather the votes necessary to override the President and disapprove it. That leaves supporters of the deal in a position to necessarily look forward to what else we can do to strictly enforce it, hold Iran accountable, and protect our national security and the security of Israel. Clearly, congressional approval is not the end of the process of deterring and containing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but rather a renewed beginning. Vigorous enforcement of the agreement is a process that everyone – the Administration, Congress, the IAEA, our P5+1 partners, our allies in the region, and the UN – must engage in now and consistently over the long term. I commit to help lead effective enforcement of this agreement and engagement to address the broader security concerns Iran poses to the United States, Israel and our other allies.
“To that end, I have spoken directly with President Obama, Vice President Biden and high ranking Administration officials over the past ten days to address directly several specific concerns I have about the agreement. In a formal letter, I have called on the Administration to take additional steps to strengthen this agreement, and they agreed to do that by:
Redoubling efforts to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge through intelligence sharing, military operations, investment in missile defense efforts, and access to the tools needed to maintain a credible conventional military deterrent to counter the very real threat Iran and its terrorist allies pose to the State of Israel every day;
Reconfirming the commitments made by P5+1 allies in Europe related to enforcement, sanctions, full implementation of the deal, and preservation of the military option should Iran violate the terms;
Certifying that the IAEA inspection process at Iran’s military base at Parchin will not negatively impact the inspections regime or serve as a precedent in the future.
Fully funding the IAEA and the Office of Foreign Assets Control – the branch of the Treasury Department responsible for sanctions enforcement;
Sharing with Congress strategies to combat Iranian supported terrorism and for ensuring the security of Israel and our other partners in the region; and
Explaining in detail the means by which the United States will deter Iran and hold it accountable for attacks by Iranian proxies against Israel and other American allies in the region;
“These concerns are not mine alone. Outside experts and other members of Congress share them. The success of our foreign policy in the Middle East requires a credible conventional military deterrent, and it requires the Administration to repeat its commitment to use all means -- including military force -- to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Going forward, the United States must renew promptly its memorandum of understanding negotiations with the government of Israel and push back against Iranian support for bad actors in the region with the same vigor that they pursued these negotiations.
“To that end, I will work with my colleagues in Congress to pursue legislation to address the deal’s shortcomings.
“I want to close my remarks today by addressing the supporters of Israel and my many friends in the Jewish community who have spoken with me directly about this deal – some in support, but many others in opposition. As a strong supporter of Israel, I know the risks Israelis and Israel face every day in a region surrounded by enemies. I am grateful for the friendship and trust placed in me by many who have welcomed me into their homes, shared their family stories with me, and travelled with me to Israel to see the dynamism of this only true democracy in the region and our closest ally. Please know I reached this decision after long study and that ultimately I became convinced that if we work together as supporters of Israel it is possible to implement and enforce this agreement in a way that will promote the security of our strong friend and ally.
“For more than six decades, the Jewish state of Israel has enjoyed wide bipartisan backing in the United States. The United States has an unbreakable historic bond with Israel, and I strongly support Israel’s right to self-defense. The U.S. government has increased security assistance to Israel every year since I took office, providing nearly $10 billion in aid — covering roughly a fifth of Israel’s defense budget — in the last three years. This assistance is part of a comprehensive package that underwrites Israel’s cutting edge multi-tiered missile defense. I have also consistently advocated for operational cooperation to improve Israel’s conventional military and counterterrorism capabilities, and providing Israel with advanced technology, such as Iron Dome and the fifth-generation stealth Joint Strike Fighter, to which no other state in the Middle East has access. I believe the best way to deter Iran includes ensuring Israel continues to have a credible conventional deterrent, including access to the latest, most capable ordnance and aircraft.
“I understand that any nuclear agreement with Iran poses a great risk to Israel, and as long as I am a member of the U.S. Senate, I will do everything in my power to preserve the security of the State of Israel, including preventing Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. If Iran violates this agreement and moves closer to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, I will support all means of ending their nuclear ambition, including the use of military force. Our President has made a similar commitment to me and other members of Congress, but more importantly, it is a commitment you should expect from the next Administration and the ones that follow.
“Issues like stopping Iranian nuclear proliferation should be above politics, and there is no excuse for the sharply partisan attacks of both opponents and supporters of the deal. In difficult and uncertain situations like this, where we have a choice between two imperfect outcomes, partisanship and personal attacks do not lead to better policy nor advance U.S. interests. Only the most rigorous enforcement, monitoring, verification, interdiction, and deterrence will. Our country is at its best when both parties come together to find ways to advance our interests, and we cannot let U.S. support for Israel become a partisan issue. In this case, that means we need to work together to strengthen the implementation of this deal. Congress and the next President, Democrat or Republican, will have a key role to play in addressing the challenges with this deal.
“As I said at the outset, preventing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is one of the most important security challenges of our time. Iran represents an existential threat to American interests, to Israel and the security of our closest allies. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the P5+1 nations and Iran does not accomplish the goal of permanently eliminating Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapons capability, but it is the best option we credibly have for preventing Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon across all channels for the next 15 years or more. An agreement, however, is only paper without effective implementation and enforcement, and we must take both very seriously.
“The vote Congress will take to reject or accept the agreement is not the end of congressional responsibility in this process, but really the beginning of a critical next stage. Those who vote to reject it and those who vote to support it must come together to ensure that it is implemented fully by all sides and enforced in ways that allow full access to all known and potential sites, catch violations quickly, and bring the full weight of the United States government and the global community down on Iran if they try to violate the letter or spirit of the agreement. All options must remain on the table – including expanded comprehensive sanctions and the use of military force to prevent the development of a nuclear weapon.
“Moreover, we need to act quickly to redouble our commitment to peace and security by supporting our close ally Israel and our partners in the region, providing the tools for self-defense, containing and pushing back on Iran’s projection of power through terrorist groups, and demanding that Iran release American prisoners immediately. I am working with colleagues in the Senate on legislation that aims to address some of those issues and to strengthen the effective enforcement of the agreement. I also support efforts to move quickly to extend the Iran Sanctions Act to match the time frames set forth in the JCPOA, because snap back is meaningless if we fail to renew aggressive sanctions.
“There are few votes in the U.S. Senate that have as much consequence to the security of the United States and Israel as this vote on the nuclear agreement with Iran. I thank so many Delawareans for your thoughtful emails, calls, letters, and messages expressing your passionate, informed and personal views about the strengths and weaknesses of this agreement.
“I am voting to support this agreement not because I think it is perfect, or because I believe it is the mechanism to end nuclear proliferation in the region. I am voting for this agreement because it is our most credible opportunity to lead a global community in containing an existential threat while preserving America’s ability to use economic power and military might to successfully dismantle a nuclear program should diplomacy fail.
“Scripture offers us many stories from Genesis to Deuteronomy to Isaiah in which we are encouraged to pursue diplomacy before resorting to conflict. My support of this agreement heeds that advice. We cannot trust Iran, but this deal, based on distrust, verification, deterrence, and strong, principled multilateral diplomacy offers us our best opportunity to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. I support this deal with my eyes wide open, aware of the deal’s flaws as well as its potential, and I will remain committed as a Senator of this great state to minimize the negative consequences and ensure we reap the maximum benefits of this agreement. Thank you.”