One of the most vexing issues remaining to be negotiated between Iran and the six major powers regards future inspector access to military sites. From a Western perspective, it is a no-brainer that Iran should not be able to hide nuclear-weapons work at military bases. Iran, on the other hand, has a legitimate need to protect military secrets that are unrelated to illicit nuclear activity. No sovereign country, especially one under the repeated threat of airstrikes, would willingly expose its defences.

Iran’s case is dissimilar to that of Iraq, which had to accept unconditional UN inspection after it was soundly defeated in war. As much as one might aspire also to seeing ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections in Iran, unconditional demands are unrealistic.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei complicated the issue when he said in a 9 April speech that military bases will be off-limits to inspectors. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Crops commanders echoed his apparent edict.

Fortunately, Khamenei’s supposed red lines are often coloured in shades of pink. Last July, for example, he insisted that Iran needed the equivalent of about 120,000 first-generation centrifuges, but Iran later accepted just 5% of this level for 10–15 years. In February he was adamant that a comprehensive deal had to be done in one fell swoop, but his negotiators proceeded with the two-step process that had been agreed: a political framework in spring followed by a detailed agreement targeted for the end of June.

For Khamenei to rule out access to military bases is as unrealistic as the ‘anytime, anywhere’ mantra at the other end of the spectrum. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted on 27 May that France would not accept a deal that ruled out inspections of military sites. US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken similarly said on 8 June that the US would not accept a deal unless access is granted ‘to whatever Iranian sites are required to verify that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful—period.’

After all, the safeguards Additional Protocol, which Iran has agreed to implement, allows for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to take environmental samples anywhere in the country where there is reasonable suspicion of nuclear material- or nuclear fuel cycle-related activity taking place. Military sites are not excluded from the sweeping provision of ‘anywhere’. The Additional Protocol provides for what is called ‘complementary access’ by inspectors to sites in order to resolve questions relating to the correctness and completeness of a state’s nuclear declaration.

IAEA access rights were amplified in the framework struck by the parties in Lausanne on 2 April. As the US ‘parameters’ document puts it: ‘Iran will be required to grant access to the IAEA to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility, conversion facility, centrifuge production facility, or yellowcake production facility anywhere in the country.’

After Khamenei tried to walk back that provision of the Lausanne accord, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi explained that the IAEA would be allowed ‘managed access’. Although he said managed access does not mean inspection, both he and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told legislators that military facilities would not be excluded. Mehdi Khalaji from the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Studies, noted that they would not have said this without endorsement from Khamenei, who, as Khalaji explained, holds private views on nuclear compromise that are more flexible than his tough public posture.

President Hassan Rouhani is also walking a fine line. When asked at a press conference on 13 June if inspectors will be allowed access to military sites and nuclear scientists, tellingly he did not say no. He answered, rather, that Iran will never allow its state secrets to be accessed by foreigners under a pretext. This answer leaves a lot of room for negotiation.

The procedure of ‘managed access’ also comes from the Additional Protocol, which allows a state to ask for arrangements for managed access for various reasons, including in order to protect proprietary or commercially sensitive information. As explained to me by a former IAEA official, this is how it works:

The IAEA tells the state it wants access to a location to perform specific verification activities to determine whether a nuclear activity took place there. Following the defined procedure, the state can say no, that managed access must be applied, and it can propose an alternative that it says will provide IAEA the answer it is seeking. IAEA may accept this alternative, or it may propose another alternative, or it may stick to its original request.

An IAEA request may well result in a stalemate if the IAEA is not satisfied with what Iran is willing to allow. As former US State Department senior official Robert Einhorn argued, the notional managed access provisions that Araqchi described in a 25 May interview, involving inspector blindfolds and covered up equipment, is comically inadequate. A ‘joint commission’ with a majority of Western nations apparently will be established to adjudicate disputes, but ultimately such issues could go to the UN Security Council for resolution.

Iran has suggested that the IAEA could be allowed to take environmental samples near the desired location, while not being permitted to actually go to the location. This may be Iran’s alternative to an IAEA request for base access. Sampling close enough to the facility in question may allow officials to determine whether any activity took place using nuclear materials. If the activity in question did not actually involve nuclear material, however, but was related to weaponisation work, for example, environmental sampling would not be sufficient. Likewise if Iran had undertaken extensive clean-up work to remove uranium traces. In such cases, the IAEA would need to insist on physical entry.

The negotiation should result in access rights that go beyond the Additional Protocol. It won’t have the same ring as ‘anywhere, anytime’, but ‘access where needed, when needed’ is the answer.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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