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Senators discuss Iran deal first impressions, concerns

As the Obama administration winds up to defend the nuclear agreement with Iran, Judy Woodruff talks to two members of Congress, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., about how they’re reading the deal.

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    Attention does now shift to Congress, which will have 60 days, starting next week, to conduct its own review.

    Joining me now are two lawmakers who serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.

    And we welcome you both to the program.

    Senator Isakson, to you first.

    You had a chance to look at this agreement. What do you make of it so far? What do you think — what are you comfortable with? What are your concerns?

    SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), Georgia: Well, first of all, I'm on page three of 158 pages, so I have got a ways to go.

    I have been to a number of briefings. I listened to the president. I'm skeptical and concerned, particularly about a couple of factors. One is, after five years, we lift the conventional arms embargo on the Iranians. And they will be back in the arms shipping business in the Middle East, arms that will probably be used against Israelis and against Americans, peacekeepers.

    Secondly, the Fordow facility, the underground bunker facility that they have their most advanced facility, will be open to enrich uranium and weapons-grade materials after the 15th year, and the fact there are a number of thresholds from year 8.5 and year 10 and year 12 which continues to reduce the pressure on the Iranians, until they get to a point where they will have a bomb probably within 15 years.


    The president did address some of those points today. But I want to come — and I will come back to that in a minute.

    But, Senator Kaine, what about you? What do you make of this agreement at this point? SEN. TIM KAINE (D), Virginia: Well, Judy, what I'm trying to do is two things, to determine how the agreement matches with the April 2 framework, because I think if it matches the April 2 framework and there is a solid verification and inspection regime, I think it's going to be good for our national security.

    Just one point. This is a reduction of the uranium stockpile that Iran has by 98 percent. They have nearly 10,000 kilograms, more than that now. They would reduce it down to less than 300 and cap it.

    And I have heard nobody else offer a plan that would get Iran to give up 98 percent of their enriched uranium stockpile. That's a positive.

    Now, I do have some questions. Some sanctions are lifted that are nuclear in nature, but other sanctions not related to the nuclear program remain in place. Exactly how those interplay, I think that is a complicated question. And that's one of the reasons why we need to take the 60 days to ask the questions.

    But there are some positives in there about centrifuges and uranium and then some other questions I want to dig in to.


    Well, let me pick up with Senator Isakson on the positives you mentioned.

    Senator Isakson, we just heard Senator Kaine talk about the fact that the centrifuges are cut back in number, that the amount of enriched uranium that Iran would be able to hold on to is drastically reduced. Why is that not reassuring to you?


    It's reassuring that it slows down the process that they have made, but it also gives them incremental steps between year one and year 15 to be back where they were before.

    The best day of the treaty for the United States of America appears to be the first day, and the best day for the Iranians appears to be each day after that, because sanctions and other requirements are lifted. I again have to read all the details and go to all the briefings.

    But I'll tell you this. A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable to me. A nuclear proliferation race in the Middle East is unacceptable to me. And if we're making it easier for either one of those two things to happen, I am very reluctant to be supportive.


    Senator Kaine, what about this point again that Senator Isakson is raising, that at the end of this time period — I will just tell you, what the president said at his news conference today is that during this 10 — eight-, 10-, 15-year period, the U.S. is going to be monitoring very closely what Iran does, and that everything they do will be visible. Even if they try to do something in a covert manner, there will be an ability on the part of the U.S. and its partners to stop it.


    I think the senator's put his finger on a good point that I would turn around and argue as a positive.

    His concern is, would we get to the end of 15 years and Iran might be close to a nuclear weapon? They were months away from it in 2013. And the interim negotiation, which many said was a horrible mistake, a historic mistake, a big giveaway to Iran, has ended up slowing and even rolling back their program.

    Could you imagine a point at year 15 or 25 where they might do something bad? Yes, you could, and that's why the verification is important. But remember that we were at that point two years ago. So, I think even the critics sort of implicitly acknowledge their concern for 10 or 15 years down the road. This is something that has brought a significant amount of peace for the world.

    What we have got to do, we have got to look into it and ask these questions, especially about the verification, because that's going to have to satisfy me to go with this deal. But, if it does, you will see this rollback over a significant period of time, and that was dramatically better than the status quo ante, which is in the U.S.' interests and others as well.


    Well, Senator Isakson, another point we heard the president make today is that to believe that Iran is prepared to give up its nuclear ambitions altogether is just — I'm not quoting him, but, in effect, he was saying it's wishful thinking, that this is a country that has come a long way in its nuclear program, and that what this agreement does is stop that in a significant way for a period of time that then gives Iran a chance to turn in other directions.


    Is that an argument that could be persuasive, do you think, to you and other Republicans? Well, going back to what Tim just said a minute ago, verification is going to be a huge issue to be able to support that the Iranians are doing what they're supposed to do.

    I was part of the New START treaty. Tim was, too. We have great verifications with the Russians in that. This deal is totally different. It's up to 23 to 24 days after notice before the Iranians have to let anybody in. That is a real problem for me.

    I want to trust, but I want to be able to verify and do so correctly. The Iranians haven't proven to be honest brokers in dealing with them for a long, long period of time. If we don't have good, tight protection, we're in trouble.

    And one other thing I want to mention. Within 90 days after this period starts, the next 90 days, the IAEA has to be satisfied that all their pending, outstanding arguments with the Iranians are satisfied. If they certify that they're satisfied, the U.N. and the E.U. immediately lift their sanctions against the Iranians, and President Obama is going to sign a national security waiver to lift ours.

    So, they're getting everything they want within 90 days of signing an agreement. We're talking about hoping to protract a problem for 15 years. That's not much of a deal.


    Senator Kaine, where do you come down on that point?


    Well, remember, here's where we were before the negotiations started November of 2013.

    They had 20,000 centrifuges and they had over 10,000 kilograms of enriched uranium, much of it near the 20 percent level that Prime Minister Netanyahu said was the red line. That's where they were and they were rocketing ahead.

    Our sanctions hurt them economically, but it didn't slow down their nuclear program. It accelerated their program. Now they have rolled that uranium back to less than 5 percent. They are going to cap it and give up 97 percent of their stockpile. They're going to give up two-thirds of their centrifuges and agree to inspections which we didn't have before.

    I want to have a credible military threat if they ever break toward a nuclear weapon. Part of a military threat is having inspections that give you intel about where their program is. We're getting all this that we didn't have before the negotiation. And, again, we have got to dig into the details. And I want to take the full 60 days.

    I was a co-author of the review bill with Senator Corker.




    We have got to dig in, but we have a lot under this that we didn't have before the diplomatic effort started.


    And, Senator Isakson, that is another point the president made today, that this inspections agreement gives the United States and other countries eyes into Iran that we do not — that the rest of the world doesn't have now.

    I finally want to ask you, though, about the president's point today that the alternative to a deal like this or to this deal is to increase the likelihood of war in the Middle East. Do you see that as the other option? What is the alternative if this deal is the wrong answer?


    You know, I was in business for a long, long period of time, and the best deals I ever made are the ones I walked away from and the other side came and asked me back.

    The fact that bothers me on this is how much we have given up of the sanctions at the beginning, how much we have given up in terms of our leverage and how little record there is of trustworthiness on the part of the Iranian government.

    You just made an interesting point. Yes, the sanctions have hurt the people of Iran, but while they have been hurt by the sanctions, the Iranian government has continued to enrich uranium, work on a bomb, work on the military's capability. That just shows you what their highest priority is. We have got to make sure that that bomb is thwarted in every way we possibly can.


    And, Judy, I think we have to look at alternatives. It's not just, well, I would have negotiated a better deal if I had been at the table. What are the alternatives?

    And they're not pretty. Senator Cotton said, hey, a war against Iran will only take a couple of days. OK, that's an alternative. But I think if you look at the alternatives on the table, inspections that we didn't have before, a dramatic rollback of their enriched uranium that we didn't have before, a reduction in centrifuges that we didn't have before, and a series of other provisions, if the analysis of the details bears that out, you know, I think it could be very, very good for America's national security.

    We have just got to make sure that the deal does what the talking point says it does.


    Well, Senator Tim Kaine, Senator Johnny Isakson, we know this is just the beginning of the examination of that deal.


    We thank you for talking with us. Thank you, Judy. SEN. TIM KAINE: Absolutely.

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