FPI Bulletin: Verification of Iran Deal at Risk

March 14, 2016

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) failure to report key details about Iran’s nuclear program undermines President Obama’s claim that the July 2015 nuclear deal offers “the most comprehensive and intrusive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated.” On the contrary, the U.N. watchdog’s first report on Iranian implementation indicates that the international community now possesses even less information about Iran’s nuclear activities than it did before the agreement. In response, the Obama administration should make clear that it will consider the Islamist regime in violation of the deal so long as Washington lacks the necessary data to verify Iranian compliance.

Unlike previous IAEA reports, the February 26 document — among other omissions — fails to specify the quantity of low-enriched uranium in Iran’s possession. It neglects to fully clarify the status of Tehran’s production, and research and development, of advanced centrifuges. And it contains no information about inspections of uranium mines and uranium concentration plants.

The absence of such data undermines the core rationale for the nuclear agreement. After all, the Obama administration has repeatedly argued that the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), relies not on trust but on verification. “Verification,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared on January 16, “remains, as it always has been, the backbone of this agreement.” The agreement’s inspections regime, President Obama asserted on July 15, 2015, is “unprecedented.” “The bottom line,” he said on August 5, “is, if Iran cheats, we can catch them — and we will.”

The JCPOA’s transparency measures, the administration contended, ensure that the United States can duly punish Iran for any violation, thereby incentivizing compliance. “If Iran fails to comply with the terms of our agreement,” said Secretary Kerry on July 28, “our intel community, our Energy Department which is responsible for nuclear weaponry, are absolutely clear that we will quickly know it and we will be able to respond accordingly with every option available to us today.”

The latest IAEA report suggests otherwise. Perhaps most crucially, the IAEA report supplies insufficient information to determine Iran’s breakout time — that is, the amount of time Iran would require to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. This elision makes it impossible to verify President Obama’s repeated claim that the JCPOA extends Iran’s breakout time to one year.

Leading nuclear experts have criticized the IAEA report. An analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security stated that the agency “risks undermining public transparency and confidence in the agreement.” “The bottom line,” it noted, “remains that the IAEA cannot determine that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful.” Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, echoed these sentiments. The report, he wrote, “fails to provide the transparency required for the JCPOA’s verification. Over the longer term, this will only hamper efforts to reach a ‘broader conclusion’ that all nuclear material and activities are accounted for and for peaceful use.”

While the Obama administration initially denied that the report contains any shortcomings, it has, to its credit, shifted course, and called on the IAEA to provide further details about Iran’s nuclear activities. It also has rejected the IAEA’s misleading argument that the nuclear agreement reduced the reporting requirements by terminating previous U.N. Security Council resolutions that formed the basis for earlier, more detailed accounts of Iran’s nuclear activities. “The enhanced transparency and verification measures contained in the JCPOA supplement, but do not supersede, the Agency’s existing authorities under Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol,” said U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Henry S. Ensher on March 9. “Any new credible concerns of undeclared or proscribed nuclear activities can and must be pursued by the IAEA.”

The United States must now increase the pressure. In particular, it should state that if Iran has truly abandoned its covert nuclear program, the regime ought to have no objection to a more detailed IAEA report that demonstrates full and unequivocal compliance with the JCPOA. If Tehran refuses, the United States should declare that the regime is in material breach of the agreement, and impose new sanctions. In the absence of such steps, the Obama administration should not be surprised if the gaps in the IAEA report become a self-fulfilling prophecy of Iranian violations to come.

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