Discussions in Vienna this week confirmed for me two things concerning verification of Iran’s nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Firstly, no deal can be acceptable that would preclude the agency’s future access to military sites or nuclear scientists. Demands by the Iranian parliament, the Supreme Leader and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders to prohibit such access must be rejected. Secondly, Iranian failure to account fully for past nuclear work of a possible military dimension (PMD) should not preclude a deal as long as future nuclear activity can be verified. Both of these conclusions revolve around the agency’s Additional Protocol (AP). In force now in 126 states, it is the global norm for nuclear safeguards. Under the comprehensive agreement currently in final stages of negotiation with the six major powers, Iran has agreed to accept the AP international norm. As Iran’s negotiators know, the AP allows for access anywhere in the country where the IAEA has legitimate questions to pursue; there is no exception for military sites, although the access can be 'managed'.
Over the past several years, the agency has visited military sites a dozen or so times in countries that have adopted the AP. Access to scientists is even more common. Iran cannot be given special status that would undermine this key safeguards tool, setting a negative precedent for other states to also demand. As IAEA officials put it privately, while it would be good to have an ‘Additional Protocol plus’ (provisions that go beyond the AP), an ‘Additional Protocol minus’ could cause wider problems.
And by the way, once accepted by a state, the AP in all of its provisions becomes a legal requirement. Iran’s negotiators have maintained that because they cannot presume to speak for their parliament in its ratification role, AP acceptance would be voluntary and provisional. Until it is ratified, therefore, Iran should not enjoy the full fruits of sanctions relief.
Some sanctions should also continue to apply until the IAEA is able to draw the so-called ‘broader conclusion’ under the Additional Protocol that all nuclear material in the country remains in peaceful activities. Given Iran’s many past safeguards infractions and incomplete cooperation in addressing agency questions, drawing this conclusion will take some time. It can be done if Iran is forthright, but it won’t be done if there remain legitimate reasons for doubt.
This relates to the issue of Iran’s past PMD activities and the degree to which they need to be clarified. I say ‘past’ because there is no solid evidence that weaponisation work continues in the present. Most of the suspicious activity stopped in 2003. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in 2011 that Iranian activities related to PMD seem to have ‘continued until quite recently’. When the agency in its November 2011 report detailed the PMD concerns, only four of 65 paragraphs mentioned indications of development of nuclear explosive devices after 2003 and the last such indication was in 2009.
IAEA officials rightly remain frustrated that Iran has stonewalled them for many years in addressing the alleged past weaponisation work. The agency’s November 2011 report listed details of 12 kinds of work relevant to weaponisation, for which it had credible indications. To date, Iran has partially addressed only one and a half of those allegations, claiming that the activities in question were for civilian purposes. It continues to claim that most of the allegations are based on forged documents.
Obviously there is no prospect of Iran clearing up the allegations before the 30 June deadline for an agreement, nor if the deadline is extended for a few days or weeks. This should not preclude a comprehensive deal being reached, as long as Iran agrees to allow access to sites such as the Parchin military base and to some of the individuals who are implicated in the PMD-related evidence. Allowing such access regarding PMD sets the proper precedent for future IAEA access rights. Over the initial implementation period of the deal, which will take at least six months, Iran would be tasked with providing this access and reasonable answers regarding the alleged activities in question.
There is no reason for optimism that Iran will satisfy IAEA concerns during the implementation period. Nevertheless, even if Iran continues to stonewall, the IAEA should make an assessment based on the totality of the evidence available by the end of the initial implementation period. As in the case of Syria, the agency may conclude that Iran probably engaged in clandestine nuclear-weapons-related activity in the past, noting as well that this activity appears to have stopped.
Drawing such a conclusion about past work would not preclude the agency in the future from drawing positive conclusions about ongoing nuclear activity. If and when the agency can draw the broader conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, then remaining UN sanctions should be lifted. If in the latter years of a deal it becomes apparent that the IAEA is not making progress toward being able to draw the broader conclusion, then previously suspended sanctions should be reapplied.
When I came back from Vienna late in the evening of 23 June and read about Supreme Leader Khamenei’s speech of the same day making even more unacceptable demands, I questioned whether he truly wanted a deal. I know Western leaders do, although not so much as to bend to unreasonable demands. A deal must accord verification its rightful place: maintaining IAEA rights and keeping an eye to the future.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme.