Opinion writer

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (L) (R-Tenn.) confers with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) before an August 2015 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Government Accountability Office put out a preliminary report on Tuesday on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran:

GAO’s preliminary observations indicate that IAEA may face potential challenges in monitoring and verifying Iran’s implementation of certain nuclear-related commitments in the JCPOA. According to current and former IAEA and U.S. officials and experts, these potential challenges include (1) integrating JCPOA-related funding into its regular budget and managing human resources in the safeguards program, (2) access challenges depending on Iran’s cooperation and the untested JCPOA mechanism to resolve access requests, and (3) the inherent challenge of detecting undeclared nuclear materials and activities—such as potential weapons development activities that may not involve nuclear material. According to knowledgeable current and former U.S. government officials, detection of undeclared material and activities in Iran and worldwide is IAEA’s greatest challenge. According to IAEA documents, Iran has previously failed to declare activity to IAEA. However, according to a former IAEA official as well as current IAEA and U.S. government officials GAO interviewed, IAEA has improved its capabilities in detecting undeclared activity, such as by adapting its inspector training program.

Now, it would have been helpful for the Senate — before voting on the Iran nuclear deal — to have information like this. Nevertheless, it confirms once again how much the administration gave up to get its legacy deal.

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a staunch critic of the deal, read aloud more of the GAO’s findings. “Let me read some of them: ‘GOA’s preliminary observations point to directly to future problems with monitoring, verifying and meeting requirements of the JCPOA.’” said Menendez. “It talks about its limitation, ‘a limited budget from an irregular funding sources, human resource shortfall, important equipment operating at capacity already not being able to go beyond that, limited analytical capabilities that will all be tested by the new mandates of the JCPOA, a lack of authorities,’ obviously the IAEA activities will depend to a significant degree on the cooperation of the Iranian state.” He continued, “Thirdly, that while they have focused virtually all of their resources to pursue the JCPOA, they’re going to have very little resources. They turn away from other proliferators and potential proliferators. And, finally, among other items, the IAEA’s own estimates has identified the need for approximately $10 million per year for 15 years over and above its present budget. So, it is an agency that is understaffed for its purposes, losing technical assistance, people are leaving, has now a singular focus.”

Menendez wants Iran to pay for the needed upgrades to the IAEA, but the better question — which he has raised before — is how we could have given Iran billions up front with such an obviously deficient monitoring scheme in place. The incentive is on the administration to ignore violations (for fear of losing its deal), not on Iran, “flush with money,” as Menendez put it, to abide by its terms.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) also observed, “My biggest takeaway is lawmakers must come together in a bipartisan manner now to create an insurance policy for imposing crippling pressure if and when Iran once again cheats on nuclear inspections as it has so many times in the past.” He added, “The report also cites concerns the IAEA’s decision to end investigations into Iran’s past nuclear weapons activities that ‘could reduce the indicators at the IAEA’s disposal to detect undeclared activity.’  Indeed, GAO also warns the nuclear deal’s mechanism for IAEA inspectors to gain access to Iranian sites suspected of having undeclared nuclear activities remains ‘untested’ and cautions ‘it is too soon to tell whether it will improve access.’”

These are all fine ideas, but the Senate should be working on new sanctions now — to respond to Iran’s illegal missile tests, regional aggression and ongoing human rights violations. Just Sunday we learned, Iranian Revolutionary Guards had allegedly mounted a plot against a Saudi Arabian passenger plane in Southeast Asia. Reportedly, the plot “has reached an ‘advanced stage’ of implementation.”

Last week the administration warned that a sale of Russian advanced jets to Iran would violate the United Nations ban on such equipment. Sanctions guru Mark Dubowitz tells me, “Congress should draw up a list of Russian and Iranian entities to be sanctioned, give the administration 30 days to impose sanctions on these entities, and, if there’s no action, move ahead with statutory designations of these entities.”

That thinking needs to be applied across the board, taking into account all aspects of Iran’s behavior. Iran acts with impunity because it is convinced (rightly) the administration will do nothing. If the White House won’t, then Congress must act.