Why Schumer Is 'Technically' Wrong About the Iran Deal


On Thursday, Aug. 6, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) came out against the negotiated nuclear agreement between the United States, other world powers, and Iran. If implemented, the deal will block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons for well over a decade and put in place more intrusive monitoring to guard against covert activity permanently. In his statement, Schumer said he would vote in favor of a resolution disapproving the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that was negotiated on July 14.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund hosted Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), vice chair of the Senate Democratic Conference and chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, on March 9, 2011.

In an Aug. 6 post, Schumer explained his decision, which he said came from a careful reading of the agreement, supporting documents, and conversations with experts.

Yet, Schumer missed the forest for the trees in his examination of the Iran deal. He misinterpreted some of the technical points of the agreement, and chose to ignore many of the longer-term restrictions under the agreement that extend well beyond 10 years.  His choice to disapprove the agreement based on selective criteria, threatens the best chance the international community has had in over a decade to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. 

Not All Inspections Are 24 Days Away

Schumer says “in the first ten years of the deal, there are serious weaknesses in the agreement. First, inspections are not ‘anywhere, anytime'; the 24-day delay before we can inspect is troubling.”   

This line obfuscates inspector access to declared sites with inspector access to undeclared sites. In addition to continuous surveillance at areas like Iran’s centrifuge-production areas and uranium mines and mills, inspectors will have short-notice access to all Iranian declared nuclear sites. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be able to access any declared site within 24 hours, and sometimes, in as little as two hours. This ensures that any attempt to move toward nuclear weapons using Iran’s declared facilities would be quickly detected. Iran would need to replicate its entire nuclear supply chain—from obtaining the uranium ore to enrichment—covertly if it chose to violate the deal and pursue nuclear weapons.

The 24-day clock only kicks in when inspectors want access to undeclared sites in the event that there is evidence of illicit Iranian nuclear activity. And 24 days is the worse case scenario if Iran and the IAEA cannot come to an agreement on access and the Joint Commission (created as part of the negotiated agreement) makes a ruling on inspector access. No other country is subject to such a time bound process for inspections.

Also, the international community is hardly going to sit around twiddling its thumbs for the 24-day period. It is likely that the IAEA will obtain satellite imagery to keep any site under surveillance during that time period, along with the many state intelligence services that will be continuously looking in at Iran’s program. Iran would have to answer for any changes.

While he does acknowledge that certain activities involving uranium would be extremely difficult for Iran to cover up, Schumer states that “even when we detect radioactivity at a site where Iran is illicitly advancing its bomb-making capability, the 24-day delay would hinder our ability to determine precisely what was being done at that site.” 

Yet, at this point, any such activity would be a clear violation of the deal and there would not need to be a determination that Tehran violated the accord.

Many Restrictions Last Beyond 10 Years

Schumer’s assertion that the United States will be worse off in ten years under the deal than it is today is factually inaccurate. The provisions in the deal ensure that Iran will not be able to go off a “cliff” in 10 years and end up just weeks away from enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Between years 11-13, Iran’s enrichment capacity will remain constant, although it will be able to swap in advanced centrifuge machines. These steps ensure that the breakout time, or the time required to amass about 25 kilograms of uranium-235 enriched to greater than 90 percent, remains at around 12 months.

Through year 15, Iran will remain limited to 3.67 percent enrichment and its stockpile will remain at 300 kilograms. While its enrichment capacity might increase, these limits on uranium enrichment ensure that Iran cannot move quickly toward a nuclear weapon without detection. 

Schumer also fails to take into account the numerous monitoring and verification provisions that Iran will be subject to that extend beyond 15 years.

Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing facilities will be under continuous surveillance for 20 years and its uranium mines and mills will be under continuous surveillance for 25 years. The combined accountancy of these programs will give the international community sufficient warning if Iran is aiming to ramp up its enrichment capacity.

Additionally, within the first eight years of the deal, Iran will need to take steps to ratify its additional protocol. Once ratified, the additional protocol gives the IAEA expanded access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and sites, and allows for the agency to request access to suspect sites on a permanent basis. This measure alone ensures that Iran’s nuclear program will remain under a microscope long after the restrictions expire.

If there is no deal, Iran will be able to ramp up its nuclear program quickly. Right now, Iran has enough low-enriched material in gas form for about six nuclear weapons. It could double its enrichment capacity by bringing online about 9,000 additional centrifuges, including 1,000 more advanced IR-2Ms. Iran’s breakout time would shrink dramatically. 

And while Iran was ramping up its program, the international community would have an incomplete picture of Iran’s activities. No deal means less monitoring at declared nuclear sites and no guaranteed access to suspect sites. That puts the international community in a far worse situation than 15 years of successful deal implementation.

After 15 Years, Nukes Are Still Prohibited

Schumer suggests, “After ten years, [Iran] can be very close to achieving that goal, and, unlike its current unsanctioned pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear program will be codified in an agreement signed by the United States and other nations.” 

It is only Iran’s peaceful nuclear program that has been “codified,” by the agreement. Under the deal, Iran is actually required to make more stringent commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons, or related technologies, than is required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—which Iran has ratified. Under JCPOA, Iran further committed not to pursue activities relevant to a nuclear explosive device, even for non-nuclear purposes. And at that point, 15 years down the road, if Iran choses to pursue nuclear weapons against its treaty commitments, it is far more likely that the international community will rally behind attempts to oppose its nuclear weapons ambitions.

To say, as Schumer does, “after ten years, if Iran is the same nation as it is today, we will be worse off with this agreement than without it” is irresponsible. Such a statement ignores the many restrictions, some of which are permanent, that extend beyond ten years. 

Additionally, if the United States is seen as walking away from this deal when Iran was willing to play ball, it will be far more difficult to keep up international support for sanctions and provide an inducement for Iran to return to the negotiating table.

Congress gave itself the power to review this agreement—but with that power comes responsibility. Members of Congress should review the deal on the merits, consider all of the elements of the agreement, evaluate it against realistic alternatives, and decide whether to case a vote to disapprove the deal. 

Schumer also fails to present a viable alternative to the good deal at hand. Schumer says, "Better to keep U.S. sanctions in place, strengthen them, enforce secondary sanctions on other nations, and pursue the hard-trodden path of diplomacy once more, difficult as it may be.”

This view, however, does not represent a serious alternative. If the United States rejects an agreement that has been supported and endorsed by the international community it would cause support for Iran-related sanctions to erode, invite Iran  to expand its enrichment capacity, and eliminate the opportunity for enhanced transparency and monitoring. Rejection also risks alienating our Euoprean allies, who support the deal, and sending the broader message that the United States does not negotiate in good faith. Taken together, this decreases the pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program and the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran would significantly increase.