Outstanding Questions

Why the Iran deal could be a devastating blow to the nonproliferation regime.

IIPA via Getty Images
IIPA via Getty Images

The Geneva nuclear agreement, reached in November, is rightly being criticized for allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. But what makes the deal truly indefensible — and a potentially devastating blow to the nonproliferation regime — is how little transparency we will get in exchange about the nature and extent of Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, Iran could end up complying with the deal while leaving unresolved the most basic, but very grave, concerns raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for almost a decade.

Iran’s explanation of the peaceful purpose of its program has never made any sense. Its aggressive uranium-enrichment campaign is supposed to feed a single reactor at Bushehr, but the builder of that reactor (Russia) is also supplying all of the enriched uranium the reactor needs.  Iran claims that it wants energy self-sufficiency, but despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers, it doesn’t have enough refining capacity to meet more than 60 percent of domestic gasoline needs; if it really wanted energy self-sufficiency, it would have built oil refineries instead of nuclear-enrichment plants.

There is no reasonable doubt that Iran’s nuclear program has a military purpose. That’s why its key nuclear facilities were secret until they were discovered; that’s why they are defended like military targets; that’s why Iran has suffered through years of sanctions to keep expanding them; that’s why it insists on the "right" to enrich uranium, a right it doesn’t have.

Against this backdrop, the IAEA has long demanded more transparency from Iran. "Given Iran’s past concealment efforts over many years," the agency declared in 2005, "transparency measures should extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol and include access to individuals, documentation related to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military owned workshops and research and development locations." Since then, Iran’s nuclear activities have only raised more questions that the agreement does not address.

The country’s multiple failures to disclose new nuclear facilities, modifications to existing facilities, production of centrifuges, and other activities have kept it in continuous material breach of its basic Safeguards Agreement under the Nonproliferation Treaty. When combined with a failure to provide its Additional Protocol’s enhanced disclosures and access, and to comply with other IAEA requests, Iran has drastically limited the scope of information available to the IAEA. As a result, though the IAEA has been able to verify the "non-diversion of nuclear materials for weapons use" at facilities Iran has chosen to declare, the agency has never been able to verify the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

The Geneva agreement does little to change that. While the deal contains certain data and access requirements, it does not appear to apply to the locations and people most relevant to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Nor does it include demands for the additional transparency necessary for verification of the peaceful nature of the program. Using terms like "daily access" and "unannounced inspections," the deal creates the sense that Iran is going beyond its minimal obligations. But ultimately, the agreement skips over several important issues and, in a feat of contortion, even manages to constrain its own supposedly forceful positions.

The most glaring omission in the agreement is its failure even to mention the long-standing controversy over the Parchin military site. The IAEA has cited "credible" information that Iran had conducted extensive nuclear warhead development at Parchin and demanded access to the military facility. Iran refused, and then sanitized, paved over, and reconstructed the site. Despite new information cited by the IAEA that further corroborates its concerns, Iran continues to dismiss reports and criticisms as "unprofessional, unfair, illegal and politicized." Access to personnel who may have worked at Parchin is key, but the new deal doesn’t provide for any. They will be able to continue their suspected nuclear-weaponization work unimpeded in other locations.

Under the agreement, Iran also gets off the hook on Fordow, an enrichment facility buried deep beneath a mountain, which Tehran kept secret until 2009, in an obvious attempt to establish a secret nuclear weapons infrastructure. There, Iran has now spent months enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is most of the way to weapons-grade, while giving no less than four different explanations of the facility’s purpose to the IAEA. Iran has agreed to suspend enrichment beyond 5 percent for now, but the terms of the new deal constrain inspectors’ access to Fordow, as well as their access to Iran’s other enrichment facilities at Natanz.

That means the United States has now accepted both the existence and continued operation — subject only to minimal safeguards — of a formerly secret, and therefore illegal, enrichment facility that could only have had a military purpose.

Supporters counter that the deal permits verification work at Fordow and Natanz. But more frequent inspections could prove to be of little value because of another aspect the deal lacks: It does not allow for simultaneous inspections and material-verification activities, which would provide truly meaningful, intrusive work leading to the kind of transparency the IAEA has said it needs.

The agreement talks about the IAEA having "daily access" to the surveillance records at Iran’s enrichment plants. What it does not — but should — allow for is frequent access to all areas both inside and outside of Natanz and Fordow, including cascades housing centrifuges; the sealing of stocks of enriched product at Natanz, Fordow, and Isfahan; and, beyond just visual examinations, critical sampling of product and centrifuges for enrichment levels. Without further clarification on these matters in the technical agreements needed to implement the Geneva deal, daily access could ultimately amount to little more than site visits.

Likewise, the deal’s "unannounced inspections" are intended solely for obtaining recorded data at Fordow and Natanz, not for any other purpose. One would have hoped that such intrusive-sounding measures could be undertaken for any reason, at most any time. But sadly, they seem likely to amount to no more than reviewing surveillance records.

In addition, Iran is now entitled to restrict inspections to "managed access" at its centrifuge-assembly and component workshops, and at its uranium mines. Managed access, a technical nonproliferation term, is a restricted form of access used in normal circumstances — where there are not extraordinary concerns about noncompliance — in order to prevent the dissemination of proliferation-sensitive information, to meet safety requirements, or to protect proprietary or commercially sensitive information.

This privilege is wholly inappropriate, given that Iran is in material breach of even its basic Safeguards Agreement. Giving it the flexibility to limit verification falls far short of what should have been demanded in exchange for the relaxation of sanctions.

To make matters worse, on top of enriching uranium, Iran has been busy on a plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons. Once the heavy-water reactor at Arak is operational, it will produce spent fuel that can be quickly reprocessed to separate weapons-grade plutonium. Iran’s argument about this matter is circular: It simply denies it would reprocess at all because the reactor isn’t operational, even though it has to capacity to start working in the near future. Iran also waves away the IAEA’s insistence that "reprocessing" includes related research and development.

Under the new agreement, Iran promis
es not to "make any further advances" on Arak only for the next six months, and to provide design information it should have provided years ago. It is not required to provide crucial information about heavy-water production, despite years of IAEA requests, nor does the deal demand termination of these activities, which are not under international safeguards and have direct nuclear-weapons applications.  

Given the flaws of the Geneva agreement, the prospect of verifying the nature of Iran’s nuclear program is now as distant as ever. The agreement might require Iran to provide some of the information and access it’s required to disclose under its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, but it will not require Iran to provide anytime-anywhere inspections, even at the facilities where "managed" inspections are allowed. Moreover, in creating a new commission of the P5+1 and Iran "to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise," the deal creates a forum that Iran can use as counterweight to the IAEA, thus miring the many outstanding questions outlined here in even more debate. This, in turn, could further delay responses to any detected cheating by Tehran.

The allure of an agreement with Iran has distracted attention away from the information we have showing that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program, and it also takes the pressure off Iran to provide evidence to the contrary. By lending legitimacy to Iran’s continuing violations of the Nonproliferation Treaty, the Geneva agreement gravely weakens it. That could prove a devastating blow to the nonproliferation regime — and it will only help Iran get closer to nuclear weapons.

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