A vote to block President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal failed on Thursday with both of Minnesota’s senators siding with the president. Senators voted 58-42 to bring to the floor a resolution disapproving the deal. That was two votes short of the 60 votes Republican leaders needed to advance the bill.
The deal will take effect unless both the House and Senate vote for a resolution of disapproval by Sept. 17.
“This agreement is, in my opinion, the most effective, realistic option available to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon anytime in the next 15 years and beyond,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) said. “Iran must never, ever have a nuclear weapon. And after 15 years, we will still have every option we currently have, up to and including the use of military force, to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. Moreover, while critics have eagerly pointed out what they see as flaws in the deal, I have heard no persuasive arguments that there is a better alternative.”
Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) both voted against the resolution and in support of the Iran nuclear agreement.
After the vote, President Obama released a statement saying “this vote is a victory for diplomacy, for American national security, and for the safety and security of the world.”
Obama said he was “heartened that so many Senators judged this deal on the merits, and am gratified by the strong support of lawmakers and citizens alike.”
Full text of Senator Franken’s floor speech supporting the Iran nuclear deal
(as prepared for delivery)
M. President, I rise today to express strong support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the diplomatic agreement that the United States and our international partners reached with Iran in July. I urge my colleagues to support the agreement and reject the resolution of disapproval.
This is not a conclusion I came to lightly. Since the agreement was announced, I have consulted with nuclear and sanctions experts inside and outside government; Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; ambassadors from the other countries that negotiated alongside us; our intelligence community; advocates for Israel on both sides of the issue; my constituents in Minnesota; and, of course, my colleagues in the Senate.
Many have expressed reservations about the agreement, and I share some of those reservations. It is not a perfect agreement. But it is a strong one. As many people have said, no deal is better than a bad deal. But that doesn’t mean that the only deal we can agree to is a perfect deal. The last perfect deal we got was on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri – and what a cost we had to pay for that, including the only use of a nuclear weapon in war – two nuclear weapons.
This agreement is, in my opinion, the most effective, realistic option available to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon anytime in the next 15 years and beyond. Iran must never, ever have a nuclear weapon. And after 15 years, we will still have every option we currently have, up to and including the use of military force, to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. Moreover, while critics have eagerly pointed out what they see as flaws in the deal, I have heard no persuasive arguments that there is a better alternative.
The agreement imposes a series of physical limits on Iran’s nuclear program, especially its production of the fissile material it would require to make a bomb. And the agreement’s verification provisions are extremely strong: 24/7 monitoring of, and unfettered access to, Iran’s nuclear sites and ongoing surveillance of Iran’s nuclear supply chain. Let me briefly review the central limits on its nuclear program that Iran has agreed to and the verification provisions. Together they are designed to prevent Iran from trying to get a nuclear weapon and to detect them if they do with enough time to respond forcefully and effectively.
The agreement will prevent Iran from using weapons-grade plutonium as the fissile material for a nuclear weapon by requiring Iran to redesign and rebuild the Arak nuclear reactor, which if completed as planned, could have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for one or two bombs each year. Under the agreement, it won’t be able to do that. Iran has to pull out the core of the reactor and fill it with concrete to destroy it. And Iran can’t get any sanctions relief until it does that.
The agreement also very significantly reduces and limits Iran’s production of uranium, which, in its highly enriched form, can also be used in a bomb. Iran currently has about 19,500 centrifuges capable of enriching uranium. And it has stockpiled about 10 tons of low-enriched uranium. Under the agreement, Iran has to go down to about 5,000 first-generation centrifuges enriching uranium and down to 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium – a 98 percent reduction. And Iran doesn’t get any sanctions relief until it does that.
Right now, it would take Iran about 2-3 months to get one weapon’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. That is called the breakout time. The longer the breakout time, the better. And this agreement will increase the breakout time to one year for the first decade. And because of the inspections included in the agreement, if Iran tried to cheat at their nuclear facilities and dash for a bomb, we would catch them almost instantaneously and have more than enough time to respond effectively. Iran’s nuclear facilities will be subject to 24/7 monitoring and unfettered access by the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA. The limitations on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the strict verification make it impossible for Iran to dash for a bomb at its known nuclear facilities for the next fifteen years.
But the verification provisions are also important for another reason – they make it much more difficult for Iran to be able to go for a bomb in secret as well. Beyond the 24/7 monitoring of, and unfettered access to, Iran’s nuclear sites, international inspectors will also be guaranteed access to any site in Iran that they have suspicions about, including military sites.
Now, a lot has been made about a provision in the agreement for resolving disputes when the IAEA seeks access to suspicious sites in Iran. That process can take up to 24 days. A lot of confused and misleading things have been said about this. First of all, it’s important to emphasize again that there is continuous monitoring at Iran’s declared nuclear sites, and unique safeguards on Iran’s nuclear supply chain. That is not what the 24 days controversy is really about.
Where the 24 days comes in is in those cases where Iran disputes the IAEA’s demand for access to a suspicious, undeclared site. People have expressed concerns that 24 days is too long. Prime Minister Netanyahu has likened this to giving a drug dealer 24 days’ notice before you check his premises, saying that gives a lot of time to flush a lot of drugs down the toilet.
But here’s the problem for Iran, and the problem with this criticism. You can’t hide radioactive material like uranium – it leaves behind traces that you can detect for far, far longer than 24 days. As one nuclear expert has said, “If Iran were to flush the evidence down the toilet, they’d have a radioactive toilet. And if they were to rip out the toilet, they’d have a radioactive hole in the ground.” Uranium-235 has a half life of over 700 million years. The IAEA will catch Iran after 24 days.
Now, it’s true that there are some activities – related to weapons design, for example – that don’t use nuclear materials and that are much easier to hide. That is a genuine challenge that inspectors and our intelligence efforts will face. But the fact is that you can move a computer that you’re doing design work on in 24 seconds, or erase stuff in 24 milliseconds. And I’m sure a lot faster than that. But Iran is still not allowed to conduct those activities under the agreement, and will face severe consequences if they get caught.
So the bottom line is that IAEA’s guaranteed access to suspicious sites will help support the verification of the agreement.
Perhaps more importantly, we will also have ongoing surveillance of Iran’s nuclear supply chain. That means that in order to make a nuclear weapon in the next 15 years and even beyond, Iran would have to reconstruct every individual piece of the chain — the mining, the milling, the production of centrifuges, and more — separately and in secret. And it would have to make sure it didn’t get caught at any step. This agreement – plus our own comprehensive intelligence efforts – would make it exceedingly unlikely that Iran would be able to get away with any of that. And Iran would therefore risk losing everything it gained from the deal, and the re-imposition of sanctions, to say nothing of a military attack.
You don’t have to trust the regime’s intentions to understand the reality it would face: Attempting to cheat on this agreement would carry an overwhelming likelihood of getting caught — and serious consequences if it does.
In short, it will be very difficult for Iran to attempt to get a bomb for the next fifteen years without getting caught and facing severe consequences.
We’ll still have work to do to diminish the threat Iran poses to our national security and the safety of our allies in the Middle East, beginning with Israel. As sanctions are lifted, the non-nuclear threat to the region may grow, and we’ll need to bolster our support to regional counterweights such as Saudi Arabia. And, of course, we’ll need to maintain our terrorism-related sanctions, which are unaffected by the deal.
We will also need to work very closely with Israel, our greatest friend in the region, in order to assure its security. As a Jew, I feel a deep bond with Israel. As senator, I have worked very hard to strengthen our country’s bond with that nation and to bolster its security, and I will continue to do that. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a truly grave threat to Israel, and so I believe this agreement will contribute to the security of Israel because it is the most effective available means of preventing Iran from becoming nuclear-armed. So do a number of very senior Israeli security experts, including some of the former heads of Israel’s security services.
There is no doubt in my mind that this deal represents a significant step forward for our own national security.
One concern that has been raised is about what happens after year 15, when many of the restrictions in the deal expire.
Well, there will still be major checks on Iran’s nuclear program after that date. Under the deal, Iran will be subject to permanent, specific prohibitions on several of the steps necessary to build a bomb. Iran’s nuclear program will still be subject to heightened monitoring by the IAEA, and Iran’s nuclear supply chain will still be subject to uniquely intrusive monitoring, which will limit Iran’s ability to divert nuclear materials and equipment to a secret program without being detected.
Iran must never, ever have a nuclear weapon — and we will still have every option we currently have, up to and including the use of military force, to prevent that from happening.
But we also must begin now to make the case to the world that the danger posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon will not expire in 15 years — and remind Iran that, should it begin to take worrisome steps, such as enrichment inconsistent with a peaceful program, we stand ready to intervene.
That said, we don’t know what the world will look like in 15 years. As long as this regime holds power, Iran will represent a dangerous threat to our security. But it’s possible that, by 2031, Iran may no longer be controlled by hard-liners determined to harm our interests. More than 60 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. These young Iranians are increasingly well-educated and pro-American.
We don’t know how this tension within Iran will work out. But I think if we reject the agreement, we will lose this opportunity with the people of Iran. If we back out of a deal we’ve agreed to, we will only embolden the hard-liners who insist that America cannot be trusted. And we will be doing self-inflicted damage to American global leadership and to the cause of international diplomacy.
What’s more, the alternatives that I have heard run the gamut from unrealistic to horrifying.
For example, some say that, should the Senate reject this agreement, we would be in position to negotiate a better one. But I’ve spoken to the ambassadors or deputy chiefs of mission each of the five nations that helped broker the deal, and they agree that this simply wouldn’t be the case. Instead, these diplomats have told me that we would not be able to come back to the bargaining table at all, and that the sanctions regime would likely erode or just fall apart, giving Iran’s leaders more money and more leverage — and diminishing both our moral authority throughout the world and our own leverage.
And, of course, Iran would be able to move forward on its nuclear program, endangering our interests in the region — especially Israel — and making it far more likely that we will find ourselves engaged in a military conflict there. If Iran cheats on the agreement and we are a part of it, we will have a say in the international response. If we are not a part of the agreement, we will not.
Now, most opponents of the agreement do not seek or want war with Iran, even if opposition to the agreement makes such a war more likely. But some of them do.
One of my colleagues suggested that we should simply attack Iran now, an exercise he believes would be quick and painless for the United States. In fact, he compared it to Operation Desert Fox, intimating that it would be over and done within a matter of days. But this is pure fantasy, at least according to what our security and intelligence experts tell us. And it’s certainly not the lesson anyone should have learned from the disastrous invasion of Iraq.
The Middle East is an unstable, unpredictable, largely unfriendly region. We know that military undertakings in the region are likely to bring very painful, unpredictable consequences. That is part of why we should really give diplomacy a chance.
And yet, a number of my colleagues and others were intent on opposing such a diplomatic solution even before the agreement was reached. In March, 47 of my Republican colleagues took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to Iran’s leaders just as these sensitive negotiations were nearing an accord. It was a clear attempt to undermine American diplomacy — and a signal that they would oppose any deal with Iran, no matter its terms.
It’s not surprising that these critics now oppose the finished deal. But it is disappointing that they refuse to acknowledge, let alone take responsibility for, the dire consequences that would almost certainly result from killing it. It’s possible that there would not be a war if we reject the agreement. But what seems undeniable is that, if we and we alone were to walk away from an agreement that we negotiated alongside our international partners, that would be a grievous blow to our standing and our leadership in the world.
Diplomacy requires cooperation and compromise. You don’t negotiate with your friends; you negotiate with your enemies. Indeed, no one who’s for this deal has any illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime, any more than American presidents who made nuclear arms agreements with the Soviet Union had illusions about the nature of the communist regime there.
For a long time, it looked like our only options when it came to Iran would be allowing it to have a nuclear weapon or having to bomb the country ourselves. This agreement represents a chance to break out of that no-win scenario.
And to take the extraordinary step of rejecting it — because of clearly unrealistic expectations, because of a hunger to send Americans into another war, or, worst of all, because of petty partisanship — would be a terrible mistake.
I therefore urge my colleagues to prevent this resolution of disapproval from moving forward and to vote in support of the agreement.