Is President Barack Obama right that the so-called framework nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) announced on April 2, will “cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon”? Some will assess the truth of his statement by crunching the centrifuge and uranium stockpile numbers. However vital such analysis will be, it is important not to lose sight of the nuke for the centrifuges. For integral to Obama’s argument is his claim that this deal “provides the best possible defense against Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon in secret…If Iran cheats, the world will know,” and “If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it.” But the promised inspections regime will not be intrusive enough to detect Iranian cheating or to thwart any breakout attempts in time.
Iran has a long and proud history of cheating on its international nuclear agreements. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who once monitored Iran’s nuclear program, observed in 2013: “If there is no undeclared installation today…it will be the first time in 20 years that Iran doesn’t have one.” Indeed, Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz was a covert facility that was only discovered in 2002, by the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. A year later, the European Union struck a deal with Iran to prevent it from spinning its centrifuges and beginning to enrich uranium. Yet for much of the deal, Iran was busy mastering its uranium supply chain. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran,” wrote Iran’s nuclear negotiator and now president Hassan Rouhani, “we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility at Isfahan…In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” In 2009, the world learned of yet another clandestine enrichment plant, under a mountain at Fordow, that Iran was trying to construct.
Now, however, President Obama would have us believe that Iran is a changed country. Pushing back against “skeptics [who] argued that Iran would cheat, that we could not verify their compliance, and the interim agreement would fail,” the president insisted on April 2 that “Iran has met all of its obligations.” This is demonstrably false.
In the past year alone Iran has violated its international agreements at least three times. First, even though the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) prohibited Iran from enriching uranium in any centrifuges that were not in use at the time the deal went into effect in January 2014, last November the IAEA caught Iran operating a new centrifuge-worse still, it was an advanced IR-5 model. Second, the JPOA required Iran to process any low-enriched uranium it produced during the deal’s term from the gaseous form used for enrichment into a solid that can be used as reactor fuel, so that it would not be readily available for further enrichment and potential breakout. As of February 2015, Iran had an excess of some 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, in violation of the deal’s terms. Third, in parallel to the JPOA, the IAEA and Iran signed a Framework for Cooperation under which Iran agreed to answer outstanding IAEA concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. Iran answered only one question to the IAEA’s satisfaction and, for the past six months, has been stonewalling on the rest. This recent record of cheating, while Iran was negotiating a comprehensive arrangement and thus incentivized to be good, bodes poorly for the future under a new accord.
Obama claims, “International inspectors will have unprecedented access not only to Iranian nuclear facilities, but to the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program-from uranium mills that provide the raw materials, to the centrifuge production and storage facilities that support the program.” He added, “With this deal, Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world.”
Heretofore, the largest and most intrusive monitoring effort ever set up was the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) created after that 1990-91 Gulf war to verify the dismantlement of Iraq’s WMD program. It had dedicated personnel based in Baghdad with their own helicopters and even a U-2 spy plane and with authority granted by the U.N. Security Council and backed by the U.S. military to go anywhere at any time to inspect anything. And yet it failed to gather an accurate understanding of the capabilities that Saddam Hussein did or did not have. As Charles Duelfer, who served as UNSCOM’s deputy executive chairman, recently wrote, “UNSCOM and the IAEA after more than seven years of operations inside Iraq could not verify that Saddam had completely disarmed.”
The inspections regime contemplated in the JCPOA seems woeful in comparison. Its central component is an understanding that Iran will “implement the Additional Protocol of the IAEA.” Every signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including Iran, is legally obligated to sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Recognizing that the original agreement, which dates to the 1970s, was insufficient to monitor modern nuclear programs, the IAEA developed added measures in the 1990s, known as the Additional Protocol. Applying these to Iran would represent a major advance beyond the current, inadequate inspections regime. But there are problems.
First, there is no such thing as the Additional Protocol. There is a model Additional Protocol that the IAEA uses as a basis for negotiating a specific agreement with each individual country tailored to its situation. Indeed, this provision opens the door to yet another round of haggling with Iran, making it impossible to know what exact measures Iran will end up being bound by.
But we do know, and this is the second concern, that no Additional Protocol contains the sort of “anytime, anywhere” inspections that UNSCOM provided for and that experts agree is necessary to police Iran’s program. What an Additional Protocol would likely contain, according to the framework agreement, is an expansion of the number of facilities subject to inspections-to include Iran’s uranium mines and centrifuge factories-and stricter requirements for advance notice of any nuclear facilities Iran plans to construct.
If Iran decides to sprint for a nuke, however, it won’t do so in a uranium mine; it will do it at one of its enrichment plants, most likely a clandestine plant, potentially hidden on a military base. It is precisely such sites that the IAEA has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get access to for years. Of particular concern has been the Parchin military complex, where the IAEA suspects Iran tested high-explosives for a nuclear weapon. Yet inspectors have never been allowed to set foot on the site, watching instead as satellite imagery showed Iran demolishing the suspected site and paving it over to conceal any evidence of its cheating. The Additional Protocol will be no more successful in getting Iran to open up its facilities to inspectors. Obama claims that “Iran’s past efforts to weaponize its program will be addressed,” but that is so vague as to be meaningless. In fact, Iran claims the JCPOA does not require inspections of military facilities and such access will not be granted, with the defense minister calling it a “red line.” Without full knowledge about possible military dimensions of Iran’s program and access to all of its facilities, whether they are declared nuclear sites or not, it will be impossible to conduct proper verification.
Third, there is the ambiguity of the term “implement.” Iran has previously “implemented” an Additional Protocol. In 2003, about the same time it was cheating on its agreement with the Europeans, Iranian leaders signed an Additional Protocol with the IAEA. Indeed, for the next two years they actually observed it. But in early 2006, Iran announced that it would no longer abide by the Additional Protocol and curtailed inspectors’ access. They could well try to pull the same stunt again. And according to a “fact sheet” released by the Iranian foreign ministry, Iran believes it has only committed “to implement the Additional Protocol on a voluntary and temporary basis for the sake of transparency and confidence building.”
U.S. intelligence services have a dismal track record of detecting clandestine nuclear efforts and predicting breakout-in North Korea, Pakistan, and India, for example. Israeli security officials have admitted in private that they too have significant gaps in their knowledge about Iran’s facilities. This is not an indictment of American or Israeli intelligence capabilities; it is simply very challenging to detect covert nuclear activities. Permitting Iran to keep its vast nuclear infrastructure largely intact, as the JCPOA does, only compounds the challenges the United States and the world will have in detecting Iranian cheating.
An intrusive inspections and verification regime is the sine qua non of any arms agreement, especially with a congenital cheater like the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unfortunately, the JCPOA fails on this crucial issue, by not demanding complete information about the extent of Iran’s past nuclear weapons research and eschewing “anytime, anywhere” inspections of all facilities. In other words, it is currently worth no more than the paper it might have been written on.
Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on April 20, 2015