Report

Driving Iran From the Shadows

How much access will inspectors really have to Iran’s nuclear program?

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In August 2003, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Tehran to take environmental samples at the Kalaye Electric Company, a reported site of illicit Iranian nuclear activity. They made a disturbing discovery.

The workshop the inspectors wanted to examine had been completely renovated, the floorboards stripped out, and the walls freshly painted. The workshop reportedly had served as a center for the production of centrifuge parts, and while Iran claimed that no nuclear material had ever been introduced into the centrifuges there, the extensive renovations to the facility naturally raised questions about what Tehran was trying to cover up at Kalaye.

The inspectors nevertheless went about their work, taking swipe samples throughout the facility. It’s a technique that involves taking specially treated pieces of cloth and running them across a surface that may have once been exposed to nuclear activities. The samples are then sent to labs, which examine them for trace nuclear material. Even after the centrifuges have been pulled out, the equipment dismantled, the floorboards removed, and the walls repainted, the dusty nooks and crannies of nuclear facilities can still yield evidence of nuclear material.

In spite of Iran’s attempts to conceal its activities at Kalaye, one sample from the workshop revealed the presence of both low and highly enriched uranium — and provided evidence that Iran had lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its work there.

Now, as negotiators race to complete a nuclear agreement with Iran that would dismantle sanctions against the country in exchange for intense restrictions on its nuclear program, Tehran’s history of deception at sites like Kalaye have raised concerns that negotiators are being duped by their Iranian counterparts. As a result, the credibility of any deal hinges in large part on the ability of international inspectors and Western intelligence agencies to verify through inspections and surveillance that Iran is holding up its end of the bargain and not clandestinely building a bomb.

With that in mind, there’s another way of looking at what happened at Kalaye. Despite Iran’s best efforts to conceal its activities, the international community eventually learned of what happened there. And though nuclear inspections work is a fraught business, marked by brinkmanship and deceit, there is at least some reason to believe that if Iran decides to build a bomb, the international community will find out about it before it goes off. “No state has ever produced nuclear material secretly and gone on to build a weapon without at least one other state knowing about it,” said James Acton, the co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As best as U.S. spies can tell, Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear bomb but wants to retain the infrastructure and the know-how to quickly develop one if it decides to do so. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate in February that Iran “wants to preserve options across the capabilities it would take to build [a nuclear weapon], but right now they don’t have one and have not made that decision.”

If, in the aftermath of a deal’s signing, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides to build a bomb, he will likely do so in secret, outside the country’s monitored nuclear facilities. In such a scenario, an aggressive inspections regime is one lever in world powers’ tool kit to influence Khamenei’s thinking. In short, aggressive inspections exist to make Khamenei believe that if he decides to build a bomb, he will be caught.

To be sure, Iran could also decide to withdraw from all its nuclear commitments and pursue a crash program to build a bomb. But that course of action would present Iran with the possibility of military retaliation from the United States — what President Barack Obama likely means when he says that “all options are on the table” when dealing with an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Indeed, the White House frequently invokes the argument that the presence of inspectors inside Iran will allow much greater, though not perfect, insight into Iranian nuclear activities, even if they don’t get access to every Iranian military base in the country.

But the extent of inspectors’ access remains a key sticking point in the final sprint toward a deal. Last week, Khamenei delivered a hard-line speech in which he demanded that the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy be lifted immediately — before the IAEA verifies that Tehran has fulfilled its obligations under a deal. Moreover, Khamenei denounced as unacceptable what he called “unconventional inspections” and “interrogating certain Iranian individuals and inspecting military sites.” Statements such as these could be an indication that the talks have foundered or that Iranian officials are posturing in order to secure last-minute concessions — though the smart money is probably on the latter interpretation.

Access to military sites appears to be one of the key points of dispute between Iran and its interlocutors. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who has participated in the technical aspects of the negotiations, in April called for “anywhere, anytime access” after a senior Iranian said that inspectors “will not even be permitted to inspect the most normal military site in their dreams.”

And why would a sovereign state provide unfettered access to military sites? “No state that isn’t either occupied or facing a mortal threat would agree to it, especially after Iraq’s experience with UNSCOM inspections that included security people who could report back to the CIA about possible targets for attack,” Hans Blix, the former head of the IAEA, wrote in an email, referring to the U.N. inspections efforts in Iraq.

Yet there’s reason to believe that Iran is set to agree to what amounts to a fairly intrusive inspections regime. The U.S. fact sheet released in April describing the framework for an agreement included extensive access for inspectors to Iran’s nuclear supply chain, including its uranium mines and mills, its centrifuge production sites, and its enrichment sites.

Yukiya Amano, the current head of the IAEA, has said that inspections will need to continue for “years and years” and called on Iran to improve its cooperation with his agency. “We will continue these activities for quite a prolonged period of time, and then, after making our efforts, we come to the point when we can provide credible assurance that there is no indication of activities other than peaceful activities,” Amano told reporters at a news conference. “This is a long process, and full cooperation from the country is needed.”

But American claims that Iran has agreed to allow access to all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle is one reason analysts are generally optimistic about the inspections regime being drawn up. Access to uranium mines allows inspectors to consider whether raw uranium is being diverted away from Iran’s declared facilities into a secret program. Access to centrifuge production facilities provides insight into the availability of enrichment tools. A so-called “dedicated procurement channel” gives the international community an overview of the material and technology Iran is purchasing for its nuclear program.

Nevertheless, there could be secret mines and mills, secret centrifuge production sites, and secret purchases of nuclear material. “There’s no silver bullet. Even with ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections, it’s still hard to find clandestine facilities because you can’t visit everywhere,” Acton, the Carnegie scholar, said. “You have to have some idea of where to look.”

And that’s where the worlds of inspections regimes and international espionage begin to overlap. When on Aug. 14, 2002, the Iranian dissident group the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed the clandestine Iranian nuclear program at Natanz, it wasn’t news to U.S. spies. They already knew about the facility and had been feeding some of their information to the IAEA prior to the dissidents’ revelations. Some speculate that U.S. spies may have leaked the material to the dissidents, in an effort to discredit Iran and score a PR win.

Now, as then, the IAEA won’t be the only organization closely examining the Iranian nuclear program after the signing of a nuclear agreement. The CIA, the NSA, and sundry other three-letter organizations that make up the top tier of the U.S. intelligence community have made the Iranian nuclear weapons program a key focus of their attention. U.S. officials argue that the inspections regime that negotiators are close to sealing will improve those monitoring efforts. “With this agreement, we will have the most extensive system of monitoring and verification we have ever negotiated for any country anywhere in the world,” the top U.S. negotiator, Wendy Sherman, said after reaching a framework agreement in April. “We will have eyes into every part of Iran’s nuclear program from cradle to grave.”

Veterans of the IAEA caution that one cannot put too much stock in the agency’s ability to spot a clandestine nuclear program. When, for example, Iraq threw open its doors in 1991 to international inspectors in the aftermath of its crushing defeat in the Gulf War, inspectors were shocked to find just how far along the country had come in developing a nuclear weapon. While Iraq was still far from obtaining a bomb, no one had been aware of just how far the country had come. Inspectors uncovered hundreds of tons of illicit nuclear material, and the experience helped convince some officials in George H.W. Bush’s administration — who would go on to serve in George W. Bush’s administration — that Saddam Hussein was an inveterate liar who had to be removed from power.

The Iraq experience is a fairly unique one — and Iran is never going to grant the same level of access that Saddam did after his humiliating defeat to the United States. “In Iraq, we could go anywhere,” said Robert Kelley, an expert on nuclear weapons who worked on the Iraq inspections program from 1991 to 1993. “We had sources telling us there was enriched uranium buried in a graveyard, and if we went there and digged up the graveyard we’d find enriched uranium.”

Kelley never did go dig up that graveyard, having concluded it was probably just a rumor in an investigation that would just get him in trouble with the locals. But the lesson he drew from it is an instructive one as one considers the terms of the agreement being drawn up with Iran: Just being in the country is hugely important for inspectors. “Now, they have a chance of someone sliding up to them at a bar at night, slipping them a piece of paper, and saying, ‘Hey, I want you to know this,’” Kelley said.

The frightening experience in the early 1990s with Iraq’s nuclear program contributed to the creation of the so-called Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a measure that increased reporting requirements for signatory states and broadened inspectors’ access to undeclared nuclear sites. According to the U.S. fact sheet, Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol, but given its history of deception, many want Tehran to go further.

“They have always said that the Additional Protocol was on the table but going beyond it would be a difficult question,” said Simond de Galbert, a French diplomat and a former member of his country’s nuclear negotiating team. “Parts of the U.S. fact sheet go a bit further, in terms of the verification of the entire fuel cycle and the supply chain of the nuclear program.”

De Galbert, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that there is no clarity on how inspectors will resolve disputes on access to sensitive sites. Recent reports have indicated that one proposal would provide 24 days for such disputes to be resolved, a time frame that de Galbert believes is far too long. “Iran has a past record of hampering the agency’s ability to conduct verification,” the diplomat said. “That should convince us of the necessity to have a short time period for a resolution mechanism.”

On this front, technical advances in the detection of very minute quantities of radioactive material give hope that it is now more difficult than ever for countries such as Iran to cover up clandestine nuclear activity. “These tools are getting better and better,” said Vitaly Fedchenko, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on nuclear forensics. “When I was studying nuclear engineering in 1998 or 2000, they would say to us in no uncertain terms that the isotope U-236 does not ever occur in nature,” he said, referring to the isotope found in spent nuclear fuel. “Now, with new accelerator mass spectrometry, it is possible to find extremely small amounts of that in nature.”

But even with accelerator mass spectrometry, the full attention of the CIA and the IAEA, and Iranian concessions on inspections, the case of North Korea hovers in the background as an example of how the international nonproliferation regime remains a shaky thing. Despite decades of international attention and inspections, North Korea was still able to develop a nuclear weapon, detonating its first such device on Oct. 9, 2006.

Experts argue that the case of North Korea has less to do with the failure of inspections; rather, it’s a cautionary tale in the limits that world powers have at their disposal to influence the actions of other countries, short of going to war with them. It was four years prior to its first nuclear test that North Korea broke the seals on its nuclear equipment and booted inspectors out of the country. That same year, in 2002, the CIA said publicly that North Korea “has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.” The following year, at the opening of the so-called six-party talks, the North Korean delegates threatened to test a nuclear weapon or “demonstrate the means that they would have to deliver” one, as a State Department official put it. On Feb. 10, 2005, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said the country had produced a nuclear weapon.

“North Korea first and foremost was a failure of response, not of verification,” Acton said.

In the case of North Korea, the red lights had been flashing for at least four years, warning that Pyongyang was about to go nuclear. An aggressive inspections regime can provide the same if Iran also decides to pursue a bomb. The question is what to do when those warnings arrive.

Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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