Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday to answer senators' questions on the historic nuclear agreement reached with Iran last week.
Republican presidential candidate and US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) asked about a provision of the agreement that seems to obligate the US and its negotiating partners to help protect Iranian nuclear sites against potential outside attack.
According to Annex III, the agreement's section on "civil nuclear cooperation," the signatories commit to "co-operation through training and workshops to strengthen Iran’s ability to protect against, and respond to nuclear security threats, including sabotage, as well as to enable effective and sustainable nuclear security and physical protection systems.
This provision of the deal doesn't mention any countries by name. But Rubio wondered if this was included in the deal because of Iranian concerns related to a specific US ally.
"If Israel decides it doesn't like this deal and it wants to sabotage an Iranian nuke program or facility, does this deal that we have just signed d obligate us to help Iran defend itself against Israeli sabotage or for that matter the sabotage of any other country in the world?" Rubio asked.
Moniz replied that "all of our options and those of our allies and friends would remain in place" after the deal goes into effect.
Kerry then jumped in to explain the provision's specific purpose: "To be able to have longer-term guarantees as we enter a world in which cyberwarfare is increasingly a concern for everybody that if you are going to have a nuclear capacity, you clearly want to be able to make sure that those are adequately protected."
Of course, one of the most effective acts of geopolitical cyberwar in modern history was launched by Israel at the Iranian nuclear program. In 2010 the computer bug Stuxnet, which is believed to have been a US-Israeli creation, caused Iranian centrifuges to malfunction and slowed down the growth of Iran's uranium enrichment capacity. Stuxnet sewed confusion inside the Iranian nuclear program and arguably bought the US and its partners the critical time and political maneuverability needed to pressure Iran into a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue.
Israel is also believed to have some of the most advanced cyberwarfare capabilities of any country on earth, to the point where the National Security Agency reportedly considered Israel to be a potential electronic warfare proliferator.
(International Iran Photo Agency/Ebrahim Norouzi/AP)
"If Israel conducts a cyber attack against the Iranian nuclear program are we obligated to help them defend themselves against an Israel cyber attack?" Rubio asked Kerry.
Kerry didn't exactly say no. He was, however, confident that Israel wouldn't attempt a cyber attack on Iran without US help. By implication, relations between the US and Israel aren't so damaged that Israel would launch such an attack without US help, meaning that if Israel did attempt to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, it would be doing so in a world in which the nuclear agreement was no longer in effect.
"I don't see any way possible that we would be in conflict with Israel with respect to what we might want to do there and we just have to wait until we get until that point," Kerry said, cryptically — "that point" referring to a future time at which Israel believes it's necessary to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. It seems that at that juncture, the US would have to determine whose side to take.
Kerry's statement highlights some of the Iran deal's unknowns. The deal actually obligates the US to render various forms of assistance to Iran's nuclear program, as the signatories also committed to helping Iran construct a fuel fabrication facility that would let Iran convert enriched uranium into fuel assemblies for civilian nuclear reactors.
In the deal, the US and its partners actually agree to help build and protect the nuclear program of a country whose leaders openly talk about destroying a major US ally — and that represents a potential security threat to several other US regional partners as well.
The logic of the deal is that this assistance serves the critical goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Protecting against sabotage undercuts future Iranian accusations of bad faith that could potentially sink the fragile trust between the deal's signatories. And assistance on fuel fabrication could make it easier for the international community to monitor the entirety of an Iranian fuel cycle that they themselves helped build.
At the same time, it's unclear what happens to this cooperation if trust between the US and its allies begins to fray as the deal progresses: If Israel ever decided it was necessary to launch cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities at a time when the US considered Iran to be in compliance with the deal, would America be obligated to side with an enemy state against a longstanding friend? Kerry wasn't exactly sure — and the American public might only find out the answer to that question if the deal is ever tested in reality.
Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act signed into law in May, Congress has a 60-day period to review the nuclear deal, at which point it can choose to vote on a nonbinding resolution of approval, or on a resolution of disapproval that would prevent the president from suspending sanctions against Iran, effectively preventing the US from upholding its side of the accord.
President Barack Obama would veto a resolution of disapproval if passed, and the chances of deal opponents getting the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override are pretty slim. But the review process still allows deal opponents to lodge their objections, and it lets the American public see the most important US negotiators defend the agreement on its merits.
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