By Dylan Reffe
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Sept. 2, 2015)—Sen. Barbara Mikulski became the 34th senator to back President Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran on Wednesday, essentially ensuring that the controversial deal will not be stopped by the Senate.
The Maryland Democrat's backing means Congress will not have the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto of legislation opposing the Iran deal.
Until today, it was not guaranteed that the oft-debated deal would make it through the Senate. As of Wednesday afternoon, 56 senators—53 Republicans and three Democrats—were against the deal, while 34 senators—Mikulski, 31 other Democrats and two independents—were in favor of the deal, with 10 senators—including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin—still undecided.
"No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime," Mikulski said in a statement Wednesday morning. "I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb."
Mikulski announced her decision while Cardin was discussing the Iran nuclear agreement at a University of Maryland School of Public Policy roundtable with faculty and students.
Cardin has not yet indicated how he will vote. On Wednesday, the senator lauded Mikulski for taking the time to make an informed choice. "This is not an easy decision," he said.
"I will make a decision shortly, Congress returns on Tuesday," Cardin added. "It is unclear what's going to happen if we go forward and unclear what's going to happen if we don't go forward. It's important to acknowledge that."
Cardin is the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee and also has strong ties to both the Jewish community and Israel, one of the countries strongly opposing the Iran deal.
Although Obama now has enough votes to sustain a potential veto, each of the 10 undecided senators has the ability to influence the deal. If seven of the remaining 10 senators back the deal, senate rules would likely prevent legislation opposing the deal from passing, meaning Obama would not have to veto it.
MIKULSKI STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF JOINT COMPREHENSIVE PLAN OF ACTION TO PREVENT IRAN FROM DEVELOPING NUCLEAR WEAPONS
WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) today issued the following statement in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons:
"In accordance with the law, Congress has been reviewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for the past 45 days. I have spent countless hours reading, being briefed and pouring over the intelligence. I have diligently worked to make an informed decision, one that weighs risk and considers a future 10, 15, 25 years from now. Without question, this vote is among the most serious I've taken. This vote has monumental and enduring consequences.
"Throughout my review of this deal, my questions have been: How does this deal affect the safety and security of the United States? And how does this deal affect the safety, security and viability of Israel?
"For all my time in both the House and Senate, I have been an unabashed and unwavering supporter of Israel. I have persistently supported the sanctions that brought Iran to the table. I have been insistent on foreign aid and military assistance to Israel that maintains its qualitative military edge on missile defense. With the horrors of the Holocaust in mind, I have been deeply committed to the need for a Jewish homeland, the State of Israel, and its inherent ability to defend itself. And for the United States to be an unwavering partner in Israel's defense. I have been and always will be committed to those principles.
"I took an extensive review of this deal. I took a workman-like approach, covering every aspect of the deal: military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic. I actually read the deal, both the classified and the unclassified annex. I met the U.S. diplomats, nuclear experts and the national security staff who negotiated the deal. I actively participated in every classified and unclassified briefing available to me. I took the additional step of traveling to Vienna to meet with the Director General of the IAEA and his technical staff to evaluate for myself, first hand, the inspection and verification requirements. I have listened to my constituents, including leaders in the Jewish community. I did my homework.
"Throughout, I asked the tough questions. And I questioned the answers to those questions. These were my key questions:
1. Does this agreement block the four pathways to a nuclear bomb: Highly enriched uranium at Natanz, highly enriched uranium at Fordow, weapons grade plutonium, and covert attempts to produce fissile material?
2. Is it verifiable?
3. Do inspections work to detect overt and covert violations of the agreement?
4. What is the impact of a 24-day delay to get an inspection?
5. Does the IAEA have the capacity to implement the agreement?
6. What sanctions will be lifted, when and under what conditions?
7. Do snapback sanctions really have a snap?
8. If we reject this deal, what are the alternatives that would be effective and achievable?
"The answer to my first question - Does it block the four pathways to a nuclear bomb? - is yes. This deal sufficiently blocks the four pathways to get to a bomb. There is no shortcut to a nuclear bomb. This deal fundamentally addresses that fact.
"First, it blocks Iran's ability to have weapons-grade plutonium. The Arak reactor would be redesigned. Spent fuel would be sent out of Iran in perpetuity. Efforts to use Arak for weapons-grade plutonium would be detected.
"Second, it drastically cuts Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities by reducing Iran's inventory of active centrifuges at Fordow and Natanz. The deal also monitors the uranium supply chain and procurement channel for 25 years.
"Third, it reduces Iran's uranium stockpile below levels needed to make a single bomb. It cuts the uranium stockpile by 98 percent, to 300 kilograms, for 15 years. It puts uranium enrichment of the remaining stockpile at 3.67 percent.
"Fourth, by blocking the pathways, it makes it very difficult for Iran to develop a separate covert program.
"In answering my second and third questions - Is it verifiable? Do inspections work to detect overt and covert violations of the agreement? - I have found that this deal provides sufficient verification and inspection mechanisms. The IAEA has extensive access to Iran's declared nuclear sites, making the detection of violations and a covert program more likely. The IAEA also has direct access to centrifuge manufacturing sites to conduct inspections on short notice. Under Iran's additional protocol, the verification and inspection process has also been scientifically reviewed and validated by the U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear scientists and endorsed by 29 of the nation's top scientists, including several Nobel prizewinners who described the inspection process as 'innovative and stringent.'
"In answer to my fourth question - What is the impact of a 24-day delay to get inspections? - The IAEA will have daily access to Iran's declared nuclear facilities: Natanz, Arak and Fordo. The 24-day process would apply to undeclared sites only. These would be sites where the IAEA suspects Iran is conducting covert nuclear activities.
"In answer to my fifth question - Does the IAEA have the capacity to implement the agreement? - I would say, yes. After visiting the IAEA in Vienna and delving into the organization, I believe that it has sufficient expertise to implement this deal. But all nations involved in its funding, including but not limited to the United States, have to be aggressively involved in monitoring the resources of the organization.
"In answer to my sixth question - What sanctions will be lifted, when and under what conditions? - The parts of the agreement that would lift sanctions are among its most complicated and controversial elements. I would have preferred a glidepath over a three-year period, or longer, for sanctions relief. Under the agreement, however, no sanctions will be lifted until Iran takes key steps: Limits its uranium enrichment program, resolves issues with possible military dimensions, converts the Arak facility, and allows for proper inspections. And these steps must be certified by the IAEA, which will deliver its key assessment of possible military dimensions on December 15.
"When these requirements are met, the U.S. will lift sanctions in key sectors: Oil and gas; banking and financial services; insurance-related; shipping, ship building and transport; gold and precious metals; software; and people, including international travel visas. That process will take six months to a year. The sanctions are lifted, not terminated, and can be snapped back, per the agreement.
"Which takes us to my seventh question - Do snapback sanctions really have a snap? Russia, China, India and our European partners were very active members of the negotiations with a common interest in Iran not having a nuclear weapon. I believe they would support a snapback in sanctions if a violation was identified and verified. But the snapback sanctions mechanism, while innovative, is untested.
"Finally, I've asked if we reject this deal, what the alternatives are that would be effective and achievable. I've considered the alternatives very closely. But in the end, they don't present a more viable option to this deal. The two alternatives are more sanctions, or military action.
"Some have suggested we reject this deal and impose unilateral sanctions to force Iran back to the table. But maintaining or stepping up sanctions will only work if the sanction coalition holds together. It's unclear if the European Union, Russia, China, India and others would continue sanctions if Congress rejects this deal. At best, sanctions would be porous, or limited to unilateral sanctions by the U.S. But these are the same reasons that the efficacy of the snapback provision is questioned. If you don't think snapback works, enhanced sanctions won't work either.
"There are also those who have proposed military action as an alternative to end Iran's nuclear program. But taking military air strikes against Iran would only set the program back for three years. It would not terminate the program. Iran would continue to possess the knowledge of how to build a bomb and could redouble its resolve to obtain a weapon, completely unchecked. Iran would almost certainly use Hizballah or other proxies to attack Israel or conduct terrorist- or cyber-attacks against U.S. interests. The military option is always on the table for the United States. We are not afraid to use it. But military action should be the last resort, since it will have only temporary effects versus the longer-term effects of this deal.
"No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime. I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb. For these reasons, I will vote in favor of this deal. However, Congress must also reaffirm our commitment to the safety and security of Israel."