Verifying the Iran Nuclear Deal

Verification has rightly become a key focus in assessments of the Iran nuclear deal – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Thus, verification became the primary theme when US Administration officials defended the deal before primarily Republican critics at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[i] The central tactic of the critics is to focus on the exceptional provisions related to inspections of Iranian military sites (sites without any declared nuclear materials present), and then to imply that those provisions characterize the entire verification package.

Verification is indeed the critical element of the JCPOA, so it’s important understand what it involves. In a recent Globe and Mail commentary, two seasoned Canadian commentators, former diplomat Derek Burney and Professor Fen Osler Hampson,[ii] offered the blanket claim that the “verification provisions are clouded by time delays and a tier of review procedures that smack of obfuscation.” It’s a characterization that distorts the process for even that small minority of cases involving sought access to military sites, and it becomes an egregious misrepresentation when they go on to imply that the core verification regime of the JCPOA involves delays and complex procedures by which inspectors gain access to relevant sites.

In fact, verification at all Iran’s nuclear sites (that is, sites where nuclear materials and technologies are present and where the need to verify non-diversion is most acute) is immediate, ongoing, and comprehensive. The means by which inspectors ensure that nuclear materials and technology are not diverted for weapons purposes are defined by a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The arrangement guarantees IAEA an ongoing presence and working space at all nuclear and related sites. Constant monitoring of sites includes sealed electronic sensing and video devices, and inspections will now follow the enhanced monitoring regime under the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which includes short notice inspections (in some cases less than two hours) of suspected nuclear sites for the purposes of environmental sampling.[iii] The IAEA’s staff complement devoted to Iran inspections will be raised to 130-150, a virtual tripling of its capacity.[iv] All nuclear facilities, beginning at the uranium ore production stage, are immediately accessible and will be continuously monitored. Through forensic accounting, the IAEA will verify that no nuclear material is diverted. There are no delays built in, and no negotiations are required to gain access.

Negotiations would be necessary for access to conventional military sites, should the IAEA decide that it needed such access to confirm that nuclear materials or research are not present. No sovereign state is inclined to allow unencumbered access to its restricted military sites, so access will be negotiated “without prejudice to the safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol thereto” (JCPOA Para 74).[v]  In these extraordinary cases involving military sites where access is negotiated, Iran can in the end still be over-ruled by the 8-member commission – “in the absence of an agreement, the members of the Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns” (JCPOA Para 78). In other words, the US, France, UK, Germany, and the EU could carry the day, even if Russia and China were to side with Iran (the other three members of the commission).

This arrangement is less than ideal inasmuch as the process can take up to 24 days and experts are somewhat divided on just how much evidence could be removed or covered up by Iran in the meantime if it were in fact intent on cheating. The consensus, so far, is nevertheless quite clear. Given the sophistication of contemporary sensing devices, it would be virtually impossible to scrub a site so clean as to remove all traces of nuclear materials, if any had been present. Furthermore, any nuclear related activity of significant magnitude, even without the presence of nuclear materials, could not be covered up in the space of 24 days. However, very small experiments or operations not involving nuclear materials might be successfully covered up during that time. In other words, it’s an arrangement that is not absolutely ideal, but, in combination with strict and unimpeded monitoring of all nuclear materials beginning at the uranium mining stage, it is realistic and effective and does not give Iran any breakout advantage.[vi]

One particular charge levelled by Mr. Burney and Prof. Hampson is simply mistaken. They say that “snapback provisions,” the term used for sanctions automatically resuming in the event of Iran’s breach of the agreement, “are subject to UN Security Council approval” and suggest such approval would unlikely to be forthcoming because Russia and China wouldn’t support it. As they put it: “So-called snapback provisions in the event of any breach are subject to UN Security Council approval where continued support from Russia and China is anything but assured.” The reverse is actually the case. In the event of a breach of the agreement, the sanctions do automatically kick in, unless the Security Council takes action to prevent the snapback. That is, the Security Council does not need to approve the re-imposition of sanctions – that happens automatically in the event of a breach. The agreement does give the Security Council the opportunity to intervene to block the resumption of sanctions – something that could happen only with the agreement of all of its five permanent members, meaning that even if Russia and China, for example, were to propose Security Council action to block the resumption of the sanctions in spite of a breach, the US, France and the UK would be able to block such a move through the use of their veto.[vii] Special Security Council Action is indeed required, not to re-impose sanctions, but to prevent the re-imposition of sanctions.

American Republican critics of the deal also generally describe it as retreating from the firm objective of preventing Iran from acquiring the “capability” of building a nuclear weapon. Mr. Burney and Prof. Hampson characterize the original US objective as being to “stop Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions” – which would take some doing, constraining not only a state’s actions but also its intentions. The George W. Bush Administration did always declare its objective to be, not to change Iran’s intentions, but to prevent Iran from acquiring or retaining any nuclear technologies that could be adapted to build a nuclear weapon (notably uranium enrichment, which can be used both for civilian power production and weapons production). But such an outcome – denying Iran access to enrichment technology – was never available. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not prohibit enrichment by any state for peaceful purposes, and furthermore, Iran has an advanced university and scientific community which has the means of developing or acquiring such technology and thereby of acquiring the “capacity” to enrich uranium and thus ultimately to build a bomb. But Iran can be stopped from using that capacity to actually build a bomb, and that has been the objective adopted by the Barack Obama Administration. And the negotiated deal achieves exactly that – if it is implemented (and the deal certainly gives the international community a formidable capacity to ensure that it is implemented).

In a curious line of argument, Mr. Burney and Prof. Hampson declare that “the best available deal,” which is how the White House characterizes it, “falls short of a standard worthy of a superpower.” Which begs the question: In what diplomatic universe do you get to negotiate a deal that is better than the one available? Do they really want a world in which superpowers simply get to sit at negotiating tables and dictate outcomes? To be sure, superpowers do try from time to time to enforce their will without any negotiations – leading invariably to the kinds of disastrous consequences that are on display in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. In the case of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiations produced not only the best available outcome, but also a major victory for nuclear non-proliferation.

End Notes

[i] Jonathan Wiesman and Michael R. Gordon, “Kerry Defends Iran Nuclear Deal Before Skeptical Senate,” New York Times, 23 July 2015.

[ii] Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson, “Wanted: Strong Leadership,” Globe and Mail, 20 July 2015.

[iii] Model Protocol Additional to the Agreement(S) Between State(S) and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards, International Atomic Energy Agency (notably Articles 4.b.11 and 5.c.).

[iv] William J. Broad, “Iran Accord’s Complexity Shows Impact of Bipartisan Letter,” New York Times, 14 July 2015.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Vienna, 14 July 2015. (Annex A to UN Security Council Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015), Para 67.3.

[v] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Vienna, 14 July 2015. (Annex A to UN Security Council Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015).

[vi] Michael R. Gordon, “Verification Process in Iran Deal is Questioned by Some Experts,” New York Times, 22 Jukt 2015.

Jonathan Wiesman and Michael R. Gordon, “Kerry Defends Iran Nuclear Deal Before Skeptical Senate,” New York Times, 23 July 2015.

[vii] UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (Paras 11 and 12), 20 July 2015, and JCPOA Para 37.

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