Feinstein on Iran: Give Diplomacy a Chance, Oppose Additional Sanctions

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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VOF : Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke Tuesday night on the Senate floor in support of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and in opposition to new sanctions against the country.

“I come to the floor this evening to discuss an issue of national security, and that is how to prevent a nuclear armed Iran.

I was thinking about our troubled history with Iran and whether more sanctions at this time makes sense for our national security interests, and I asked myself these questions:

Can, in fact, a country like Iran change?

Is it possible for an isolated regime to rejoin the community of nations and change its behavior after several decades?

Must a country and its people be held captive because of the behavior of previous leaders in earlier times?

So I thought back in history. I was a young girl during World War II. I remember when Imperial Japan killed millions in Southeast Asia, and particularly in China, during its brutal wars of expansion. Today, Japan is a peaceful democracy and one of this Nation’s strongest allies in Asia.

I remember when Hitler and the German Third Reich committed unspeakable atrocities across Europe, including the murder of 6 million Jewish citizens.

Germany is now a close ally, a leader in the European Union, an institution created to ensure a war never again occurs in Europe.

I remember General Franco’s Spain, which was so diplomatically and economically isolated that it was actually barred from the United Nations until 1955. Spain is now a close partner of the United States and a fully democratic member of the European Union.

The former Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and South Africa have all experienced tremendous change in recent decades. Independent states have emerged from the painful dissolution of Yugoslavia. Vietnam has opened itself to the international community but still has much progress to make. South Africa has shed apartheid and has emerged as an increasingly stable nation on a much divided continent.

So I believe countries can change. This capacity to change also applies to the pursuit of nuclear weapons. At one time, Sweden, South Korea, and Argentina each pursued nuclear weapons.

Following World War II, Sweden pursued nuclear weapons to deter foreign attack. It mastered nuclear technology and built and tested components for a nuclear weapon. It may have even obtained enough nuclear material to build a bomb. But in 1970, it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and it ended its nuclear weapon program.

In the early 1970s, South Korea actively sought a nuclear device. The United States heavily pressured South Korea not to go nuclear, and in April 1975, South Korea signed the nonproliferation treaty and halted its nuclear weapons activity.

Throughout the 1980s, when it was ruled by a military junta with an egregious human rights record, Argentina had a covert nuclear weapons program. It built uranium production, enrichment, and reprocessing facilities, and it attempted to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles before abandoning its nuclear weapons program and ratifying the NPT in 1995.

So the question comes, is Iran willing to change its past behavior and abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon? It may well be, and it is the job of diplomacy to push for that change.

I believe there are positive signs that Iran is interested in such a change, and I would like to explain my reasons.

The election of Hassan Rouhani was a surprise to many long-time observers of Iran because he campaigned in support of repairing Iran’s relationship with the West.

Since his inauguration he has tried to do exactly that. For the first time since the Iranian revolution, the leaders of our countries have been in direct communication with each other. Where once direct contact even between senior officials was rare, now Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman are in near constant contact with their Iranian counterparts. Those conversations produced the historic Geneva agreement which goes into effect in 6 days, on January 20.

Candidate Rouhani also promised to increase nuclear transparency, and he has delivered on that as well. Even before the Geneva interim agreement was reached, Iran slowed uranium enrichment and construction for the Arak heavy water reactor–maybe for technical reasons, maybe not, but it slowed. Iran has also reengaged with the IAEA to resolve questions surrounding its nuclear activities.

So what has been achieved in Geneva? The interim 6-month agreement reached between the P5+1 countries, the United States, China, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, freezes Iran’s nuclear program in place while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated in the next 6 months. This agreement caps Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium at 5 percent. It stops the production of 20 percent enriched uranium. It requires the neutralization of Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium. It prevents Iran from installing additional centrifuges or operating its most advanced centrifuges. It prohibits it from stockpiling excess centrifuges. It halts all significant work at the Arak heavy water reactor and prevents Iran from constructing a plutonium reprocessing facility.

Most importantly, the interim agreement imposes the most intrusive international inspection regime ever. International inspectors will independently verify whether Iran is complying with the interim agreement.

For the first time, the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will have uninterrupted access to Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, centrifuge production plants, centrifuge assembly facilities, and Iran’s uranium mines and mills. Finally, Iran is required to declare all planned new nuclear facilities.

In exchange, the P5+1 negotiators offered sanctions relief limited to $7 billion, an aspect of the interim agreement that has been criticized and I wish to talk about it for a moment.

Here are the facts on that sanctions relief which, in my view, does not materially alter the biting sanctions which have devastated Iran’s economy.

The vast majority of sanctions relief comes in the form of Iranian repatriation of $4.2 billion of its own money. Iran will continue to lose $4 billion to $5 billion a month in lost oil revenue from existing sanctions.

Iran will not have access to about $100 billion of its own reserves trapped by sanctions abroad.

For perspective, the total estimated sanctions relief is valued at approximately only 1 percent of the Iranian economy, hardly a significant amount.

I wish to take a moment to detail what is not in the interim agreement.

First, it does not grant Iran a right to enrich. The United States does not recognize such a right for the five nonnuclear weapons states that currently have enrichment programs, and we will make no exception for Iran. But Iran does have a right to peaceful nuclear energy if it fully abides by the terms of its safeguards agreement under the NPT.

Secondly, the agreement does not in any way unravel our core oil and financial sanctions. Others have argued the suspension of any sanctions against Iran will unravel the entire sanctions regime, and that is false.

The Obama administration has taken action to ensure that does not happen.

Two days after the interim agreement was reached, the United States settled with a Swiss Oil Services Company over sanctions violations. The settlement was more than $250 million. It was the largest against a foreign firm outside of the banking industry.

On December 12, the administration announced the expansion of Iranian entities subject to sanctions. These entities either helped Tehran evade sanctions or provided support to Iran’s nuclear program.

On January 7 of this year, the administration halted the transfer of two Boeing airplane engines from Turkey to Iran. Through these actions, the Obama administration has made it abundantly clear that the United States will continue to enforce our existing sanctions against Iran.

Third, the agreement does not codify the violation of U.N. security resolutions. Critics have attacked the interim agreement for its failure to completely halt all of Iran’s nuclear enrichment by noting that six U.N.

Security Council Resolutions have called on Tehran to do so and it has not done so.

The purpose of the U.N. Resolutions was not to suspend nuclear enrichment indefinitely. Instead, these resolutions were designed to freeze Iran’s nuclear activities until the IAEA could determine whether Iran’s activities were for exclusively peaceful purposes.

This is an important point. The interim agreement achieves what the six U.N.

Security Council Resolutions could not. It freezes Iran’s nuclear progress while a comprehensive, verifiable agreement is being negotiated over the next 6 months.

The interim agreement was only possible because a strong international sanctions regime has worked to convince rank-and-file Iranians, candidly, that enough is enough.

According to the State Department, as a result of the sanctions, Iran’s crude oil exports have plummeted from approximately 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011 to around 1 million barrels per day in recent months. This decline alone costs Iran $3 billion to $5 billion per month in lost revenue.

In total, 23 nations who import Iranian oil have eliminated or significantly reduced purchases from Iran. In fact, Iran currently has only six customers for its oil: China, India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

In the last year, Iran’s gross domestic product shrunk by 5.8 percent. Its GDP shrunk in 1 year by 5.8 percent, while inflation is estimated to be 50 percent or more.

Prices for food and consumer goods are doubling and tripling on an annual basis, and estimates put unemployment as high as 35 percent while underemployment is pervasive.

This is why Iran says enough is enough. The sanctions are biting and they are biting deeply, and there is no need to put additional sanctions on the table at this time.

This body may soon consider the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act; that is, a bill to do exactly the opposite, to impose additional sanctions against Iran, do it now, and hold it in abeyance.

Before casting a vote, Senators should ask themselves what would happen if the bill passes and a promised veto by the President is not sustained. I would like to give my view.

I sincerely believe the P5+1 negotiations with Iran would end and, with it, the best opportunity in more than 30 years to make a major change in Iranian behavior–a change that could not only open all kinds of economic opportunities for the Iranian people, but help change the course of a nation. Its destiny in fact could be changed.

Passing additional sanctions now would only play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see diplomacy fail. Iranian conservatives, hardliners, will attack President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif for seeking a nuclear compromise.

They will argue that Iran exchanged a freeze of its nuclear program for additional and harsh punitive sanctions. Think about that. They will say that Iran did not achieve anything with this agreement. All we got were more sanctions.

Second, if the United States cannot honor an interim agreement negotiated in Geneva by Russia, China, France, Germany, the UK and ourselves–we are not alone in this–it will never lift sanctions after a final agreement is reached.

Above all, they will argue that the United States is not interested in nuclear diplomacy–we are interested in regime change.

The bottom line: If this body passes S. 1881, diplomatic negotiations will collapse, and there will be no final agreement.

Some might want that result, but I do not.

Iran’s nuclear program would once again be unrestrained, and the only remaining option to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would be military action. I do not want that unless it is absolutely necessary.

To date, the prospect of just considering this bill has prompted Iranian legislators to consider retaliation. There is talk that the legislative branch, called the Majles, may move to increase nuclear enrichment far beyond the 5-percent limit in the interim agreement and much closer to, if not achieving, weapons-grade uranium.

So the authors of additional sanctions in this body and Iranian hardliners in the other body would actually combine to blow up the diplomatic effort of

6 major powers.

The bill’s sponsors have argued that sanctions would strengthen the United States’ hand in negotiations. They argue that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. They contend that additional sanctions would force Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

I could not disagree more.

Let me give the views of a few other people who are knowledgeable in the

arena: Dr. Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence official and current professor at Georgetown University recently argued:

It is the prospect of having U.S.-led sanctions removed that will convince Iran to accept severe restrictions on its nuclear program. Threatening Iran with additional sanctions now–after it has agreed to the interim agreement and an interim agreement is about to go into effect–will not convince Tehran to complete a final agreement.

I couldn’t agree more.

If this bill would help our negotiators, as its authors contend, they would say so.

I believe this bill is an egregious imposition on the Executive’s authority to conduct foreign affairs. In fact, our Secretary of State has formally asked this Congress to give our negotiators and our experts the time and space to do their jobs, including no new sanctions.

What does this body say, sitting here? We are not going to do that? This is a Secretary of State who is of this body, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has been absolutely prodigious in his efforts to get this interim agreement, has gotten it, and we are going to run the risk that it is going to break apart during the next 6 months when a final agreement might well be negotiated?

If the Senate imposes its will, if we override the President’s veto, and it blows up this very fragile process, some would say: Too bad, what a tragedy.

We know what the Iranian reaction will be. The Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, who I happen to have known for a substantial period of time, has clearly stated what the result will be in five words, and it is this: “The entire deal is dead.”

That is his direct quote. Why wouldn’t we take him at his word? So far he has been good to his word.

The ambassador of our staunchest ally, the UK, warned this body not to pass more sanctions. Sir Peter Westmacott recently wrote:

Further sanctions now would only hurt negotiations and risk eroding international support for the sanctions that have brought us this far. The time for additional measures will come if Iran reneges on the deal or negotiations fail. Now is not that time.

I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place.

It says to the UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany that our country cannot be trusted to stand behind our diplomatic commitments. That is a very big statement.

Our allies will question whether their compliance with sanctions and the economic sacrifices they have made are for naught.

Should these negotiations fall apart, the choices are few and the most likely result, in my view, is the eventual and inevitable use of military force.

So I ask this body, Is that the choice we want to make? In 6 days the tentative agreement will go into place. We want to pass this? We don’t even want to wait and see what happens?

We don’t even want to wait and see what the IAEA finds when they are in there 24-7, 365 days a year?

I think what we ought to do is concentrate on Iranian compliance with the interim agreement.

On January 20, 2014, this agreement comes into effect, 6 days from now, and over the next 6 months the international community will be able to verify whether or not Iran is keeping its commitments to freeze its nuclear progress.

If Iran fails to abide by the terms of the interim agreement, or if a final agreement cannot be negotiated, Congress can immediately consider additional sanctions.

I deeply believe that additional sanctions should only be considered once our diplomatic track has been given the opportunity to forge a final, comprehensive, and binding agreement.

This is what is most distressing. If we had not reached an agreement, with the cooperation and leadership of the big powers of this world, that would be one thing.

The fact is we have reached agreement and that action is just about to take place, and we are going to jaundice it, we are going to hurt it, and we are likely to collapse it by passing additional sanctions now which a President of the United States will veto with the aim of overriding that veto.

How does that make any kind of common sense? It defies logic, it threatens instant reverse, and it ends what has been unprecedented diplomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war.

As Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, I know the challenges Iran poses to the U.S. interests around the world. Its patronage of the terrorist group Hezbollah, its support for Syria’s Bashar Assad through the Revolutionary Guard Corps are two of the most troubling.

I would hope that as a follow through of diplomacy we might be able to quell some of these activities.

Let me acknowledge Israel’s real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence. I don’t disagree with that. I agree with it, but they are not there yet.

While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war. By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.

Let me conclude. The interim agreement with Iran is strong, it is tough, and it is realistic. It represents the first significant opportunity to change a three-decade course in Iran and an opening to improve one of our most poisonous bilateral relationships. It could open the door to a new future which not only considers Israel’s national security, but protects our own.

To preserve diplomacy, I strongly oppose the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.”

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