Washington's confrontational approach could wreck the Iran nuclear deal and trigger war in the Middle East, Mark Fitzpatrick says. He calls for cooperation to replace unfounded assumptions, false claims and ideologically-driven judgements.  

Inspectors at the IAEA/UNMOVIC/Iraq talks, October 2002, Vienna. Credit: Flickr/Iaea_imagebank

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas

Where were you when the US invaded Iraq 15 years ago?  I was an acting Deputy Assistant Secretary at the State Department, with an inside view on the decision-making process. My colleagues in the department’s Intelligence and Research (INR) Bureau disputed supposed evidence about a reconstituted Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme that served as the justification for the invasion.  I was not forceful in siding with them, thinking the president and his senior advisors must have had some special compartmented information that guided their judgement.

As soon became clear, this was tragically wrong. The invasion was a political decision supported fragilely by cherry-picked intelligence from Iraqi defectors with their own agendas. The cost of the blunder included half a million or more Iraqi casualities, 5,000 American combat deaths, over $2 trillion in US treasure, and a region in turmoil, with Iran the only winner. It was a searing object lesson on why policy has to be based on an unbiased appraisal of the facts. Amazingly, many policymakers and pundits seem not to remember.

The US appears now to be heading toward an analogous situation regarding Iran. Unfounded assumptions, false claims and ideologically-tinged judgements are driving a confrontational approach that could well lead to another war in the Middle East, this time against a more cohesive adversary. In conservative political circles, I repeatedly hear claims, put forward as though undisputed truth, that Iran is violating the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and that unless forceful steps are taken it will before long become nuclear armed. The claims of violation are wrong, as I explained in two recent blog posts (here and here).

In the Iraqi case, international inspections offered a way to address the claims of WMD activity. On 7 March 2003, Hans Blix, head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNMOVIC), and Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to the Security Council that they had found no active programs for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and that continuing the inspection process, with which Saddam Hussein was reluctantly cooperating, soon would be able to thoroughly document the status of his related capabilities. The Bush administration rejected their findings and 12 days later initiated the pre-ordained invasion.

In the Iran case today, another pre-ordained decision is looming and it again involves inspections. The Trump administration reportedly wants the IAEA to demand access to Iranian military sites, and to use Iran’s likely refusal as a basis for finding it to be in non-compliance with the JCPOA.  It may be the route that White House political operatives suggest as a way to meet President Trump’s pre-determination not to again certify that Iran is in compliance, even when the facts clearly say otherwise. Deciding the finding in advance would be an outrageous cooking of the books and a false basis for then deciding to end US sanctions relief under the JCPOA. Attempting to kill the nuclear deal in this fashion would give Iran hardliners their own excuse to ramp uranium enrichment back up, recreating a crisis that could lead to war.  Seeing that this was Trump’s intent, allies would have little reason to join the US strategy.

If the US or any other state were to have intelligence information about Iranian violations at a military site, then it should be shared with the IAEA to help direct verification efforts.  If the alleged violation could not be addressed by other means, then the IAEA would have good reason to request an inspection. On the other hand, an inspection request designed simply to trap Iran into saying no would be a subversion of the process. The IAEA would never agree to such an unwarranted demand.

Although the JCPOA does not provide for the kind of ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections that Iraq had to accept after it lost the first Gulf War, it does provide for access as needed. This is through an expedited inspection request process for ‘complementary access’ to sites where the IAEA has legitimate questions about possible nuclear activity or anomalies in host state reporting. While JCPOA critics pilloried the agreement for allowing for up to 24 day for such requests to be met, without the accord there would be no deadline at all.

The JCPOA also added an important limitation that goes beyond all other non-proliferation agreements in that it rules out four types of research activities that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device. How the absence of these “section T’ activities (named for the section of Annex I of the JCPOA in which they are specified) were to be verified was left unstated, however. Some critics claim that unless Iran allows inspection of military sites, Part T cannot be verified.

To be sure, Iran military facilities should not be off-limits for the IAEA; in fact, inspectors have visited Iranian military sites over two dozen times. They have not done so in the past two years under the JCPOA, however. The agency has been able to meet its verification requirement through other means, but it is important not to allow the absence of such visits to set a norm. In any case, military site visits will be required for the IAEA to be able to reach the ‘broader conclusion’ under the Additional Protocol that all nuclear activities in Iran are for peaceful purposes. Because Iran wants the legitimacy that this conclusion would entail, it has a reason to cooperate with the IAEA in allowing military site visits. The key is to make such visits routine. Making inspection demands part of a pre-determined plan to find Iran in non-compliance is the exact opposite of the cooperative approach that is needed. 

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