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Chairman Menendez’s Opening Remarks at Hearing on “Dismantling Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program: Next Steps To Achieve A Comprehensive Deal”

WASHINGTON, DC –  U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing titled “Dismantling Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program: Next Steps To Achieve A Comprehensive Deal.”

“This hearing will come to order. Today we have an expert panel to provide an assessment of the status of P5+1 talks and the likelihood of reaching a complete political framework for a comprehensive deal in the next 4 months. I am particularly interested in your views on whether reaching a deal is simply a matter of time – or if there has been a fundamental shift in Iranian thinking that makes a deal 4 months from now more likely than in the past 12.

“While I believe the Administration's diplomatic efforts to terminate Iran’s illicit nuclear program should be commended, I am concerned that Iran has not demonstrated a sincere interest in reaching agreement and has used these talks to chip away at our positions, beginning with the concessions on enrichment in the Joint Plan of Action.  

“Given continued Iranian intransigence in the talks, the failure to conclude a final deal by November 24th falls squarely on Iran. Yet, for over one year, we remain trapped in the same fruitless, cyclical narrative which has us conceding our positions -- transforming the Arak reactor rather than dismantling it; converting Fordow for some alternate use, rather than closing it; and disconnecting centrifuges, rather than destroying them. And – perhaps more significantly – Iran isn’t budging on full access to questionable sites and the duration of the agreement.

“I understand that the P5+1 members want to put a year on the break-out clock, but I am not convinced a year is enough if we leave the majority of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and give up the only leverage we have by providing sanctions relief. The one-year alarm will give us time to respond, but our only option at that point will be a military option. In my view, to suggest that we can quickly or easily rebuild the sanctions regime or replicate the economic pressure currently facing Iran – is a false narrative.

“For me, this equation is simple – Iran must make-up its mind about what is more important – its nuclear weapons program or the welfare of its people. Clearly, for the last year Iran has not felt a need to make that decision.

“Right now we are playing right into the Iranian narrative, so while they have maximized their demands at the negotiating table, we have minimized ours, with no consequences.  This is a worst case scenario, is extremely dangerous for global nonproliferation imperatives and for regional stability, and could leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state.

“At the end of the day, if no deal is reached by March 24, Congressional action to authorize prospective sanctions may provide the leverage we need to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.

“Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions - and its continued obfuscation at the negotiating table - have raised alarms throughout the Middle East and the international community. The risk of a nuclear arms race in the region is not hypothetical. We are seeing the repercussions of permitting Iran to retain an enrichment program resonate in the region – and in our 1-2-3 negotiations with other countries who are asking why they need to accept a no-enrichment standard when Iran will be allowed to enrich.

“For me, the time has come to ask whether repeated negotiation extensions coupled with sanctions relief will ever result in a comprehensive deal. Iran benefits from successive rounds of unfreezing of assets abroad, and has not felt the need to make any real concessions beyond the requirements of the interim agreement.

“The assumption seems to be that another extension will result in a good deal – and all we need to do is continue negotiating – put more time on the nuclear breakout clock. My own perspective is more time won’t make a difference. Tehran’s desire for a nuclear program has not changed – and it won’t change. Iran is only negotiating because it wants economic relief and is betting that more time on the clock benefits its position.

“What I would like to hear from our witnesses – as specifically and directly as possible – is how we change the environment surrounding the talks and increase pressure on Iran to compel them to get to a final deal?

“Bottom line: I continue to believe we have the leverage in this negotiation – and we should use it.

“With that, let me recognize Senator Corker for his opening remarks.”