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The Iran Deal: Not Trusting, Verifying

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyaju of Israel complained of Iran's uranium-enrichment program before the UN General Assembly in 2012. (Photo: UN Photo)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyaju of Israel complained of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program before the UN General Assembly in 2012. (Photo: UN Photo)

There has been considerable opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called Iran Deal. One of the most curious assertions being made, however, is that we cannot negotiate with the Iranians because they cannot be trusted. This simply defies logic. If we trusted them, we would not need to negotiate an agreement. The JCPOA is all about verification, through which we will know what they are doing with their nuclear program. The verification regime, in turn, is vilified as well. Opponents declare that its provisions fall short of the declared goal of “anytime, anywhere” inspections, not that the term has ever actually been defined. They also seek to create the impression that all inspections will be delayed by 24 days. This last distortion has been described as the “death panels” of the Iran Deal. In general, the discussion has focused not on the most essential aspects of the agreement, but rather on those that appear weak or can be made to appear weak.

Uranium Production and the Verification Regime

It is important to remember is that this agreement, or any agreement, will not prevent every objectionable activity Iran might engage in. Separate issues will have to be dealt with separately. This agreement focuses on the activity that has been at the core of key allegations against Iran, the production of nuclear fuel, which Iran says it wants for peaceful purposes and is entitled to under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). (The NPT grants countries a right to a nuclear industry, but not specifically to the indigenous production of fuel.) When processing uranium with centrifuges, the process is the same whether you want to produce reactor fuel to generate electricity or bomb-grade fuel for a nuclear weapon. The essential difference is in how long you do it, or rather, how many times you run uranium gas through a cascade of centrifuges. Natural uranium consists primarily of two isotopes: it is about 0.7 percent U-235 and 99.3 U-238. Most reactor fuel is enriched to the level of about 3.5 percent U-235; Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor takes a fuel that is just below 20 percent U-235; bomb-grade is in excess of 90 percent U-235. Unfortunately, the process gets easier the further it goes, so that when you have reached 20 percent (or even 3.5 percent), you have actually gone most of the way toward reaching 90 percent. The technical ease with which one might glide from civilian production to military production is at the center of the suspicions directed at Iran. Thus the monitoring of uranium production is at the heart of the Iran deal.

Iran, of course, does not trust the United States, either, and does not want the United States poking around its facilities, regardless of whether they concern nuclear or conventional military technologies. Thus verification is to be carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a neutral third party. For decades, the IAEA has inspected nuclear facilities around the world under the NPT for the purpose of “verifying that such material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It has not always been successful, but it has learned from its failures and strengthened its capacities over time.

Under the JCPOA, Iran reaffirms its denunciation of nuclear weapons and acceptance of standard inspections under its NPT Safeguard Agreement; agrees to additional challenge inspections, granting access to nuclear facilities within 24 hours (2 hours if inspectors are already on site), under an NPT Additional Protocol; and is obliged to give prior notification of the construction or modification of nuclear facilities under what is known as modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements to the Safeguards Agreement (or simply, modified Code 3.1). Furthermore, Iran forswears any research-and-development activities applicable to the development of a nuclear weapon, including dual-purpose activities. These obligations do not expire, ever. In addition, Iran agrees to added measures and restrictions beyond those for a limited time period, with the duration varying from 10 to 25 years, depending on the specific measure. While nothing in life is guaranteed and the situations are not perfect parallels, it is worth noting that inspectors successfully disarmed Iraq in the 1990s without these additional measures.

When it comes to Iran’s uranium-conversion and uranium-enrichment facilities, monitoring by remote-controlled cameras and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology will be permanent and continuous, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, under Iran’s Safeguard Agreement. In addition, for 15 years Iran will permit direct access by IAEA inspectors on demand up to once a day. In an unprecedented arrangement, Iran’s uranium mines and mills will be under continuous monitoring for 25 years. In another unprecedented arrangement, Iran’s centrifuge production facilities will be under continuous monitoring for 20 years. The import of dual-use materials will be monitored for 10 years. The idea here is to keep track of Iran’s uranium-related resources. If inspectors can keep track of how much uranium Iran has and where it is—how much enters each facility, how much leaves, and where it goes—then they should be able to detect if uranium is diverted for unapproved purposes. Without the fuel, you cannot make a bomb.

Not Anytime, Anywhere?

As a precaution going beyond the continuous monitoring of declared nuclear sites, the JCPOA permits inspectors to investigate other sites, military or civilian, if they suspect that illicit activity related to nuclear weapons is being undertaken there. This alone is the subject of the “anytime, anywhere” controversy. The compromise reached allows Iran to challenge the accusation and to give reasons why the accusation is not true. The delay, however, is limited to a maximum of 24 days. It is important to understand that this is a limit on Iran’s ability to stall. Of the 121 countries in the world that adhere to an Additional Protocol, only Iran faces this restriction.

A current television ad attacking the JCPOA claims that the agreement gives Iran “24 days to remove evidence of nuclear activity.” Note the careful wording. The ad makes no explicit claim that it is possible to remove evidence of nuclear activity within 24 days, probably because its producers are fully aware that it is not. Inspectors can detect the presence of nuclear materials years after it has been removed, and efforts to scrub a site leave evidence both of its presence and of the attempt to hide it.

Is it possible, within 24 days, to remove evidence of nonnuclear activity related to the development of nuclear weapons? It is certainly conceivable. Relevant computer simulations could be undertaken without detection under virtually any inspection regime, but by themselves they are not going to give you a bomb. Generally speaking, the easier it is to hide, the less likely it is to produce a breakthrough. Since no inspection regime can guarantee that cheating will never happen, a high likelihood that any possible cheating would be caught or ultimately be irrelevant is an acceptable standard. More importantly, the agreement’s opponents offer no superior solution.

Potential Military Dimensions and Parchin

Finally, considerable attention has been devoted to the uncovering of Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s past research, including possible activities in a particular building at the Parchin military facility. Iran has been accused of doing research on nonnuclear aspects of weapons design, such as testing the reactions of certain materials to high stress and experimenting with conventional explosives that could be used to trigger a nuclear device. The CIA and other sources believe that this activity was halted in 2003, but many people want it investigated. Iran is loath to admit that it engaged in research dedicated to developing a nuclear weapon (the Ayatollah has said publicly that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic) and is reluctant to invite outsiders to inspect its military facilities, but an arrangement has been worked out. The IAEA will investigate the issue and keep the results to itself. Since this concerns past activity, this will involve a one-time investigation rather than ongoing monitoring. Most of the investigation will entail a review of documents, but there will also be some physical inspections of relevant sites. The IAEA will write up its conclusions before the main Iran deal goes into effect. The conclusions will not be shared with the P5+1 countries but will be available to the inspectors. Iran will not have to admit publicly to past misconduct, but the purpose of the JCPOA is to prevent nuclear proliferation, not to elicit public confessions. The IAEA reports that the Iranians have been cooperative so far.

There are reasons for wanting to examine PMD, but that is not the same as saying it is central to the overall agreement. Investigating the PMD allegations potentially serves two purposes. First, if IAEA inspectors can determine how far Iran has progressed toward developing the nonnuclear aspects of a nuclear weapon, then they might be better able to calculate how long it would take Iran to build a bomb if it did indeed break out of the verification regime. (Remember, the much-discussed “breakout time” is not how long it would take them to build a bomb, but rather how long it would take them to produce enough bomb-grade uranium to build a bomb. Building the actual bomb is a separate process.)

The second purpose could actually benefit Iran, depending on the circumstances. If inspectors at some point in the future find evidence of work on bomb components, then a thorough understanding of the work completed in the past will help them determine whether the new find is the product of recent clandestine work or simply a relic of previous efforts. Thus it would help prove that a discovery is evidence of a violation or that accusations of a violation are unfounded. This supports the overall mission. It would certainly be useful in settling disputes, and disputes are sure to arise. Still, it is not essential to the purpose of preventing the diversion of nuclear material for unauthorized purposes.

Parchin is one subset of the PMD investigation. The issue here concerns allegations that Iran may have used a building at the Parchin site for nonnuclear tests related to the development of a nuclear weapon. Since the allegation concerns activity that ended a dozen years ago, since the building may never have contained nuclear material, and since the building may have been used for other purposes since then, the prospects of finding conclusive evidence of anything are slim.

In fact, IAEA inspectors already visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing suspicious. By agreement with Iran, the inspectors were free to pick any quadrant of the Parchin site and examine buildings of their choosing in that quadrant. They did not have to identify the buildings they had chosen prior to their arrival. As it happens, they did not choose to visit the building that they plan to visit now, although it was available to them.

An Effective Agreement

When a politician says “I’ll eat my hat” if X, Y, or Z doesn’t happen, no one really expects him to do it. Yet political discourse in the United States seems to have settled at the level of denouncing public officials for not eating their hats, without concern for what purpose would actually be served by doing so. In this case, “anytime, anywhere” inspections are an admirable goal and a fine starting point for negotiations (although, as far as I know, the term has never been operationally defined), but real-life negotiations do not end up squarely at one side’s starting point. Moreover, repeated accusations that the agreement did not produce “anytime, anywhere” inspections ignore (or purposefully draw attention away from) the fact that the agreement actually produced 24/7 monitoring of the essential aspects of the issue and that the arrangements for challenge inspections of undeclared sites (the aspect that allegedly falls short of “anytime, anywhere”) are perfectly adequate, indeed, an unprecedented achievement in themselves. There is no reason to believe the JCPOA will not be effective. The greatest threat to it are the hard-liners in the United States and Iran, but they would equally be threats to any agreement produced by negotiations.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.