Responding to the Cotton Letter

by Diplomacy Works

[Four GOP senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week urging him not to certify that Iran is in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has been one of the most vocal opponent of the agreement. The other signatories are Ted Cruz (R-TX), David Perdue (R-GA), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). This analysis comes from Diplomacy Works, an organization devoted to a diplomacy-first approach to foreign policy.]

Iran is in full compliance with the JCPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Obama Administration AND the Trump Administration have certified this.

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran is in compliance in every one of its reports for the past two years. The U.S. president is required to submit a report to Congress every 90 days regarding Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA in every single one of their reports.
  • The JCPOA is clearly working. The JCPOA successfully defanged Iran’s nuclear program, severely constrains Iran’s nuclear program today and for years into the future, and includes the most stringent inspection and monitoring regime ever negotiated as part of a nuclear agreement.
  • Under the JCPOA Iran also reaffirmed its commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it will never become a nuclear weapons state.

Reports of Iran cheating are blatantly false. The Cotton letter claiming that Iran is not in compliance is a combination of exaggerations and outright falsehoods.

  • We know the JCPOA is working. But some hardline policymakers still argue that the JCPOA is a “bad deal” and that the U.S. should refuse to certify that Iran is in compliance — directly contradicting the evidence obtained by nuclear inspectors monitoring Iran’s program.
  • Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), David Perdue (R-Georgia), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him not to certify Iran’s compliance.

Iran deal opponents are playing politics with national security. The consequences of the U.S. breaking the deal, when Iran is complying, would be devastating.

  • The Cotton letter comes as no surprise. The signers are long-time vocal opponents of the deal who have repeatedly rejected the facts presented by the IAEA, the United States Government under both Presidents Obama and Trump, our European allies, and the U.S. and Israeli defense and intelligence communities. Senator Cotton was the leader of the controversial letter to the Iranian regime and made clear he wanted to sabotage the nuclear negotiations.
  • The letter totally ignores the national security implications of an Iran no longer constrained by the JCPOA. If we abandon the deal and Iran chooses to pursue nuclear weapons there would be swift and severe consequences for our national security, potentially including:
    • A nuclear arms race in the Middle East;
    • Loss of the unprecedented visibility into the Iranian program which we gained under the JCPOA;
    • Repercussions for American troops in the Middle East, many of whom — like those in Iraq countering ISIS — are operating near and even alongside Iranian IRGC forces;
    • American leadership on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues would be all but erased;
    • And ultimately we might be drawn into another messy Middle Eastern war.
  • These are the risks we run by putting our national security second to politics. It’s time to put militaristic rhetoric behind us and focus on what actually delivers results: diplomacy and engagement.

The Facts Versus the Cotton Letter

The Cotton letter asserts Iran has “engaged in persistent violations” of the JCPOA’s requirements, but presents weak, flawed or nonexistent evidence to support the argument.

CLAIM: “Iran is currently operating more advanced nuclear centrifuges than it is permitted under the JCPOA…”

FACT: It is not true that Iran is operating more advanced centrifuges than permitted. The IAEA has consistently reported Iranian compliance with this requirement.

The parties have recognized that there is some ambiguity about interpretation of deal terms in this area and have referred the matter to the Joint Commission that clarifies interpretation of the agreement. Far from constituting a violation of the deal, it is an example of the deal working as intended.

CLAIM: Iran “…maintains more advanced centrifuges than required for its permitted enrichment activities…”

FACT: The Cotton letter suggests Iran may have more advanced centrifuges than they need. That is not a violation. If we have concerns with Iran’s centrifuge capacity as allowed under the deal, the JCPOA provides unprecedented access to monitor that capacity. And the JCPOA places severe restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activity.

CLAIM: Iran “…has announced the capability to initiate mass production of more advanced centrifuges.”

FACT: Iran had the capability to mass produce more advanced centrifuges before the JCPOA. The fact that Iran has this capability is (a) not new information and (b) does not violate the JCPOA.

CLAIM: “Iran has repeatedly exceeded the limits the JCPOA places on its heavy water stocks.   Heavy water is key to Iran’s plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons. However, Iran has twice exceeded the JCPOA’s heavy-water cap and has claimed a right to produce unlimited amounts of heavy water and retain ownership of those stocks as long as it claims to be ‘seeking’ an international buyer. In doing so, Iran has effectively read the heavy-water limitation out the JCPOA.”

FACT: It is impossible for Iran to use heavy water to build a nuclear weapon. This would require both a heavy water reactor and a reprocessing facility for separating plutonium. Iran has neither. Under the JCPOA, Iran removed the core of its heavy water reactor and filled it with concrete, rendering it incapable of producing weapons grade plutonium. That was Iran’s only heavy water reactor. Iran does not have a plutonium processing facility.

The letter points to episodes in which Iran briefly exceeded the limitations in the JCPOA on heavy water stocks. But these are examples of how the JCPOA is working.The two incidents were caught by monitoring under the JCPOA. Iran moved quickly to resolve the issues. Both incidents happened prior to 2017 and, as far as has been reported, haven’t been repeated since.

CLAIM: “German intelligence agencies in 2015 and 2016 reported that Iran continued illicit attempts to procure nuclear and missile technology outside of JCPOA-approved channels.”

FACT: The 2015 report is about pre-JCPOA activities and thus not relevant to establishing compliance under the nuclear deal. A 2016 report of the national German intelligence agency pointedly underscored concern only about missile procurement activity, not nuclear activity.

While a review of intelligence reporting would be necessary to evaluate this claim, the bottom line is that the JCPOA includes procedures to raise, evaluate and review any concerns about procurement activities outside the JCPOA. If the U.S. has information suggesting such activities, we have channels available to address those concerns under the deal.

CLAIM: “Perhaps most concerning is Iran’s refusal to grant international inspectors access to nuclear-research and military facilities. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are entitled to visit any location in Iran to verify compliance with the JCPOA’s ban on nuclear weapons development. However, Iran’s refusal to grant inspectors physical access and other forms of access makes it possible – if not highly probable given Iran’s history of duplicity – that it is concealing additional violations of the JCPOA.”

FACT: There have been no reports by the IAEA of any problems making use of the inspection procedures under the JCPOA.

CLAIM: “it is highly questionable whether the United States can under current arrangements ever gain high confidence that Iran’s nuclear development has indeed ceased.”

FACT: The U.S. intelligence community has assessed for years that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon. So has Israel, the UK, and others. And quite apart from the severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities under the JCPOA, the deal provides us better access to information to continue to make this assessment.

Photo: Tom Cotton by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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  1. Tom Cotton,Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are all puppets of neocons and AEI.

  2. Since the Islamic revolution the political and religious leadership of Iran have been totally opposed to the development, possession and use of weapons of mass destruction – see webpage ‘the goldberg predilictions’. The “possible military dimension” of the Iranian nuclear program reported by the IAEA turned out to be an unauthorized project of research into some dual use technologies of possible relevance to nuclear weapons, which was closed down by Rouhani when he became nuclear policy chief in 2003.

  3. The whole idea of the USA, which ignores international law and attempts at democracy in so many countries while encouraging war and interference and letting its Homeland go to ruin,telling Iran it is not in compliance with a carefully devised and accepted agreement, shows the low level of these “elected Senators” to even bring up these objections.

  4. Actually the JCPOA does not impose any upper limit on the amount of heavy water that Iran can produce; it only requires Iran to export any amount over its *estimated* domestic needs, which Iran has done. Note that Iran had long been offering BETTER compromise deals that the US ignored or even killed-off, because the “Iranian nuclear threat” was always just a pretext for a policy of imposing regime-change there, just as “WMDs in Iraq” was a lie and pretext. There was never any evidence of a nuclear weapons program there, and nothing to “defang”

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