Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal should learn to trust the world’s most robust verification system.

Iranian flag. Credit: Flickr/adam jonesBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas

Is Iran meeting all of the terms of the nuclear deal it negotiated in 2015 with six major powers and the European Union? Most observers answer: yes, obviously. They point to nine quarterly reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the latest dated 13 November 2017, which attest that Iran’s nuclear programme remains fully within the limits set by the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This has been the case since the January 2016 implementation of the deal, except for two minor overages of heavy water production that year.

Yet some opponents of the JCPOA remain sceptical. United States Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, who may soon replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, reportedly told aides this past spring: ‘we know they’re cheating anyway we’re just not seeing it.’ The remark followed a detailed briefing to him by analysts who concluded that Iran appeared to be complying with the terms of the deal.

One reason for the scepticism is that Iranian leaders have recently insisted that they will not allow inspectors to visit military sites. How then can the IAEA know that prohibited nuclear activities are not taking place at any of them? After visiting IAEA headquarters in August, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley pressed the agency to seek access to Iranian military bases to ensure that no nuclear activity was being concealed. She may have had in mind how earlier this century Iraq sought to hide evidence of its banned nuclear and missile development, and how inspectors afterwards had ‘anywhere, anytime’ access rights in the country.

The access that inspectors had in Iraq was unique because in the aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime, the defeated state was forced to accept international demands. Some JCPOA critics similarly suggest military action as the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. This is nonsense, of course. The JCPOA stopped and rolled back Iran’s progress toward a nuclear-weapons capability, and the permanent verification measures it put in place can detect, and thereby deter, cheating.

The world’s most robust verification system

IAEA inspections in Iran follow the normal practice laid out in Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol, and the provisions of the JCPOA enable the scope of the IAEA’s verification practices to extend beyond the norm. In the words of the IAEA, the combination of its proven standard techniques and JCPOA requirements makes for ‘the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world’.

The verification system is backed up by intelligence support from the US and other member states. Intelligence tip-offs from member states are a critical backstop in the area of greatest challenge to the IAEA assuring the absence of undeclared secret activities. If the US or other supporters of strong verification collect credible information about renewed weapons work in Iran, they will almost certainly share it with the IAEA. The agency has a track record of acting on such information including in Iran.

Knowing that they are for political consumption, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano downplays the statements by Iranian officials about keeping military sites off limits. They have said this before, then allowed such visits nevertheless. Amano stresses that in Iran the agency has access to any location where needed, and that its right to access does not depend on whether a site is civilian or military. He himself visited the Parchin military base in September 2015, one of over two dozen IAEA visits to military sites in the past decade or so.

Under its rules of confidentiality, the IAEA typically does not disclose details of locations visited. Amano has acknowledged, however, that the IAEA has inspected undeclared facilities under the ‘complementary access’ provisions of the Additional Protocol after Iran began implementing its provisions pursuant to the JCPOA. Whether any of these are military sites is not known, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the IAEA states with no ambiguity that Iran has not denied any inspection access requests under the JCPOA, despite claims to the contrary.

Complementary access is requested in various situations, often when inspectors are at a declared facility and ask, for example, to see another building on the site that is not routinely visited by the IAEA. This right to quick expanded access to declared sites was woven into the Additional Protocol after revelations that work on Iraq’s pre-war nuclear-weapons programme was taking place at sites the IAEA visited, but at buildings inspectors did not frequent.  

Meanwhile, the IAEA is keeping watch remotely on all ‘locations of interest’ in Iran. This term does not mean places where there are credible indicators of undeclared nuclear activity, which would trigger an IAEA access request. It means, rather, places that could potentially be related to nuclear activity. The agency does not say how many of such locations there are. Nor does the IAEA say how it monitors them, but it does note that it collects and analyses several million pieces of open-source information each month. Much can be gleaned from scientific papers, import/export data, overhead imagery and media reporting.

Deadline aims to thwart ‘interminable foot-dragging’

When the IAEA develops or receives evidence that raises concerns about Iran or any other state’s nuclear activities, the required procedure is to first consult with the state in question to try to clarify the anomalies. If the state cannot satisfactorily do so without IAEA access, the agency then asks for a visit. Typically, the request is granted quickly, as specified for various forms of such access under the Additional Protocol.

In Iran’s case, the JCPOA adds an important new requirement to prevent interminable foot-dragging of the type Tehran displayed before the nuclear deal. Specifically, the JCPOA imposes a deadline of 24 days for resolving any dispute over access. This is a marked improvement over the pre-JCPOA situation when there was no specified deadline at all for granting visit requests. For example, the IAEA had been asking for three and a half years to visit Parchin before Amano went in 2015. His visit and the environmental sampling that the IAEA supervised there remotely that autumn contributed to his conclusion that Iran had engaged in activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.

Determining the IAEA’s ‘need’ for access can be subjective. Some non-governmental experts have claimed, for example, that to fully carry out its verification responsibilities for JCPOA Section T, which bans certain nuclear-weapons development activity, the IAEA must ask to check the status of dual-use equipment that Iran has imported in the past.

Although this is not a requirement of the JCPOA, verifying the peaceful use of such equipment would reinforce confidence that at least that particular equipment is not contributing to cheating. At least some such visits will probably be necessary for the IAEA in upcoming years, if the agency is to be able to assert confidence in any ‘broader conclusion’ under the Additional Protocol that all nuclear material in Iran remains for use in peaceful activities.

Even so, and as noted above, standard IAEA safeguards practice, as well as the JCPOA, require that the IAEA offer a credible justification for any specific access request. As desirable as it may be for confidence-building purposes, Iran is not obliged whether under standard safeguards or the JCPOA to allow the IAEA to conduct an extended tour of military facilities without such justification. Overreach by the IAEA in this regard would not only endanger the future of the JCPOA, but it would also undermine future access requests with perhaps a stronger case behind them and threaten the IAEA’s credibility worldwide as it pursues incisive global verification safeguards.

Questions over uranium particles at Parchin

Some analysts contend that the agency needs to return to Parchin, to seek clarity concerning two particles picked up by environmental sampling, which, according to a December 2015 IAEA report, appeared to be chemically man-modified particles of natural uranium, suggesting the presence of anthropogenic uranium. The report added: ‘This small number of particles with such elemental composition and morphology is not sufficient to indicate a connection with the use of nuclear material.’

Given the extensive refurbishing and landscaping carried out at the site since the IAEA first requested access, additional sampling would not likely shed any further clarity on the matter. In any case, backed by intelligence information from the US and other member states, the IAEA already has clear indicators of nuclear explosives work having taken place there and is in a position to verify that it is not taking place now. The results of the 2015 sample provide a baseline against which to compare any future sampling should the IAEA see any evidence that weapons activities have resumed at that location.  

In sum, the IAEA is doing its job. Its vigilant verification of the JCPOA is the best way to ensure that Iran stays clear of military nuclear activity. While JCPOA limits on enrichment will expire in about a decade, the enhanced verification measures are permanent. As Amano said at a speech at Harvard last month, ‘the sun does not set on IAEA safeguards’.

This article is part of a series of posts providing analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 8–10 December 2017. 

For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 website. For a flavour of the debate on social media, check out #IISSMD17.

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