WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s budget proposal would cut $10 billion from the State Department. A House Democrat warned fellow lawmakers Wednesday that the 29 percent slash could interfere with the inspections that ensure Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.
Addressing a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Stephen Lynch noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency relies on the United States, as its largest contributor, for 25 percent of its funding. The State Department is responsible for this $200 million a year.
To continue monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, however, the Massachusetts Democrat quoted IAEA director general Yukiya Amano as saying that the agency needs about $400 million added to its 2018 operating budget.
Against this push, most of the five experts who testified before the Subcommittee on National Security had a dim view of the deal.
“Unfortunately, with the lifting of sanctions that accompanies the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran’s resourcing of its proxy forces has continued unrestricted,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero said.
With the world focused on the Islamic State group, Barbero warned that Iran has taken advantage of the nuclear agreement to have its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq create “a permanent zone of control that surrounds Israel with hostile forces.”
The general belongs to a camp that believes Iran is likely cheating on the nuclear agreement, empowering Iranian proxies to further destabilize the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq.
“The most aggressive and most effectively subversive forces in the region remain those controlled and resourced by the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Barbero said.
Jim Walsh, with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, downplayed these fears.
“Iran is not 10 feet tall,” he said. “It’s not the Soviet Union, it’s not even the most powerful country in its own region. By my estimation, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia are all far stronger by GDP, military expenditures, quality of weapons – if it’s fourth, it’s lucky.”
Walsh said Iran is in compliance with the deal, and has been for all three years of its implementation.
Among the diverse governments and international observers that support this conclusion are the IAEA, the U.S. intelligence community, the Israeli military and U.S. partners in the deal – Britain, France, Germany and the EU.
“Moreover, no party to the agreement has gone to the UNSC or even threatened to go to the UN to claim that Iran is in material breach of its obligations,” he added.
“Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, not yet and won’t for 15 years,” Walsh said. “I frankly think it’s going to be a lot longer than that.”
Others had a less optimistic view on the deal’s long-term promise.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the deal provides “patient pathways” for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Dubowitz is particularly concerned for when the agreement’s sunset clause kicks in, lifting many of the restrictions on the program by 2030.
He said Iran effectively gave up a quick path to creating one bomb in exchange for the ability to create an industrialized nuclear program capable of producing dozens of nuclear weapons later on.
By retaining the ability to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile program, Dubowitz added, Iran will emerge from the deal with a powerful economy that will be resistant to peaceful pressure.
“The whole Iranian game plan here was very smart because they imagined multiple pathways – nuclear, missiles, conventional arms, regional dominance and economic dominance – and moving along those patient pathways,” he said during an interview after the hearing.
“As a result, the bedeviling paradox for this administration and the next one, is that the more you enforce the deal the more you play into the hands of Iran,” he added.
Dubowitz noted that all the restrictions now in place will disappear as long as Iran remains in compliance and does not challenge the IAEA.
“They can emerge with this legal, internationally legitimized, industrial-sized nuclear program,” Dubowitz said. After which they will be days away from “dashing out” with nuclear weapons, he said.
Lynch, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, countered this by bringing up the IAEA’s conclusion that “Iran has already permanently disabled the core of the heavy water reactor at its water plant in Arak.
Filled with concrete, the Arak water reactor can no longer be used for any future nuclear activities.
“In addition, all existing uranium pellets and fuel assemblies related to the original design of the Arak reactor remain under continuous IAEA supervision,” Lynch added.
Lynch also quoted the IAEA’s finding that Iran is not “producing or retaining uranium enriched at a level greater than 3.67 percent for 15 years.”
This is “far less than the approximately 90 percent enrichment level of weapons-grade uranium, and the 20 percent level of the uranium that Iran had previously stockpiled,” Lynch added.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, was less optimistic of Iran’s continued compliance, saying the country has been “flirting” with violations.
“The deal’s implementation under the Obama administration was too permissive and tolerant of Iran’s violations of the deal, its exploitation of loopholes, and its avoidance of critical verification requirements,” Albright said.
Accusing the IAEA of underreporting the real situation on the ground, Albright said his institute and others have not been able to assess Iran’s true compliance.
Laying out the loopholes he perceives in the agreement in 12 pages of written testimony, Albright said Iran has received 149 metric tons of natural uranium in exchange for cash payment for a cache of heavy water in Oman. Had the deal been strictly enforced, that water should have been blended down, he added.
“These 149 metric tonnes, if enriched to weapon-grade uranium, would be enough for over 15 nuclear weapons,” his written testimony states.
At least twice, Albright said that Iran sought sensitive nuclear materials as a test. Under the deal, Iran can ask other countries for nuclear goods without informing the Joint Commission – it is then up to those governments to approve or deny the request.
Though the governments in the two examples Albright cited both denied the requests, Albright said that Iran could try again.
“In this way, this loophole lays the basis for Iran to find less scrupulous suppliers and countries that will eventually make unauthorized sales,” he said.
Albright also said that Iran is not in compliance with the arms and ballistic-missile provisions of the deal, noting that it had tested ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
After putting Iran on notice over the infraction, the Trump administration slapped Iran with new sanctions for the test in early February.
Trump was outspoke against the Iran nuclear deal throughout his campaign. He reiterated this view Wednesday, calling it is the worst deal he has ever seen. “I will do what I have to do with respect to the Iran deal,” Trump said during a news conference with King Abdullah of Jordan.
Some experts meanwhile have called out Trump for his empty threats.
“Trump came in making a big fuss about the agreement being a very bad deal but has done nothing to scrap it,” said Farideh Farhi, a graduate professor at the University of Hawaii.
Farhi, who sits on the advisory board of the National Iranian American Council, said Trump could be holding back because there is a consensus by those involved in the negotiations, including among European allies, that the deal is working.
“It would be a truly monumental mistake to mess up something that is working right now for the sake of hyperventilation regarding something that might happen 10 years from now,” she said.