How Much Access Will the World’s Nuclear Watchdog Have in Iran?

In Vienna, Iran agreed to deep concessions on an inspections regime, but monitors won't have access "anywhere, anytime."

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General-Director Yukiya Amano addresses a press conference as part of the Board of Governors meeting at the UN atomic agency headquarters in Vienna on November 28, 2013. Amano said that Iran has invited the agency to visit the heavy water production plant at Arak on December 8, in what would be the first inspection there since August 2011. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN        (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General-Director Yukiya Amano addresses a press conference as part of the Board of Governors meeting at the UN atomic agency headquarters in Vienna on November 28, 2013. Amano said that Iran has invited the agency to visit the heavy water production plant at Arak on December 8, in what would be the first inspection there since August 2011. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the final stretch of negotiations ahead of Tuesday’s historic nuclear accord, both the United States and Iran made concessions on an inspection regime that promises to be an early warning system if Tehran makes a covert sprint to a nuclear weapon.

Earlier in the year, the two nations had drawn red lines on the issue of monitors having access to Iran’s military facilities. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said inspectors would have “anywhere, anytime access” to Iran’s most sensitive locations. Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said the country would never submit to inspections at its military bases — a major obstacle to ensuring compliance with a deal. In the end, both sides had to compromise.

For many members of Congress in both parties, the details of that compromise will determine whether they vote to approve or reject a final deal. “Whether I can support the agreement will hinge on our ability to verify that Iran is complying, and whether we have timely access to any site of Iran’s potential nuclear development activities,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday.

The terms of the deal signed by the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Iran on Tuesday, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, makes plain the strengths and weaknesses of the agreed upon inspection regime.

The job of monitoring Iran’s compliance falls to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will be given extensive access to Tehran’s nuclear sites for the next 25 years. Nonproliferation advocates take comfort that the newly agreed upon system gives the IAEA access to any location in Iran in order to ensure the country’s compliance, including military facilities. But critics worry that the dispute settlement process allows Iran to delay requested inspections for 24 days, which could be exploited to scrub evidence of illicit nuclear activities.

Under the terms of the deal, the monitoring agency will be permitted daily access to Iran’s main nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordow and the use of modern technology to monitor uranium mines, mills, storage facilities, and centrifuge production. This will include access to Iran’s supply chain, which supports its nuclear program.

Iran has also agreed to submit to the IAEA’s “additional protocol” — a set of inspection standards that more than 100 other countries already adhere to — that will allow the IAEA to request access to locations that are outside Iran’s declared nuclear program to verify that no illicit nuclear activity is being undertaken.

Speaking to reporters in Vienna after the deal was announced, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said the nuclear accord “paves the way for the peaceful resolution of a controversy which has lasted for more than a decade.” Amano welcomed Iran’s decision to submit to the additional protocol, describing it as “a powerful verification tool that provides the agency with more information and access rights.”

Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, praised the monitoring regime for covering “every element of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle.”

“Any attempt to divert material for a covert program will sound an early alarm bell, giving the international community time to respond,” she said. But other experts speaking with Foreign Policy offered a less sanguine view.

The inspection regime is “far from” an arrangement that would allow “anytime, anywhere” inspections, said Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the IAEA. Heinonen said he is “disturbed” by a provision that requires multiple weeks of negotiations to secure access rights to sensitive declared or undeclared nuclear sites.

The provision in question underscores the need to keep inspections to a necessary minimum and to avoid any interference in Iran’s non-nuclear military or national security activities. And it outlines several steps the IAEA will have to take to gain access, beginning with providing Iran with an explanation for its concerns in writing and supplying Iran with the “relevant information” substantiating its suspicions.

If Iran is unable to convince the IAEA that its nuclear activities are legitimate, the IAEA can then formally request access to a suspected site. The pact would provide Iran with an opportunity to try to convince the IAEA that it can address its concern without permitting an inspection.

If Iran is still unable to address the IAEA’s concerns after two full weeks, a dispute resolution panel, or joint commission, comprised of representatives of the key powers — Britain, China, Iran, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and the European Union — would be given an additional week to try to resolve the dispute. If the panel can’t agree unanimously on the need for inspections, the matter would be put to a vote. A simple majority would be required to adopt an advisory ruling urging Iran to permit the inspections. The Iranians would be expected to act on the ruling within three additional days.

“From an investigative point of view, that is a little bit not good,” said Heinonen, a Finnish nuclear weapons expert who is currently at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Before Iran grants you access, it can take measures to change the environment in the place you are looking and destroy evidence.”

Heinonen recalled that in 2003 Iran tried to remodel a building at the Kalaye Electric Company to cover up covert research and development work for uranium enrichment it had conducted at the site since the 1990s.

“They refurbished the whole place,” he said. “It was a shabby dirty workshop … It was entirely like a new building, new tiles on the floor, the walls were repainted, even the shabby toilet had lights that went on automatically.”

Heinonen also raised concern about a provision which requires that the IAEA explain to the Iranians in writing why it needs access to a sensitive site. While Heinonen said it might seem reasonable to have to justify the need for an inspection, foreign intelligence agencies supplying the atomic energy agency with evidence of a breach in the agreement might not be willing to disclose that intelligence to the Iranians.

But others were more upbeat. Jacqueline Shire, a former member of a U.N. panel of experts monitoring the implementation of nuclear sanctions, said that the IAEA’s extensive experience in Iran placed them in a strong position to uncover possible violations.

“Many of the deal’s key provisions fall on the IAEA — addressing past weapons-related research and updating or modernizing monitoring/verification with new technology,” she told FP by email. “The good news is that they have been on the ground in Iran for well over a decade and have all the experience necessary to do a robust job.”

Ian J. Stewart, who tracks Iran’s nuclear program for King’s College London’s Project Alpha, said the inspection regime would ensure greater scrutiny of Iranian imports of dual use items that could be used for civilian industrial programs and also for nuclear weapons work.

“Importantly, the Iranian authorities will have to accredit end-use statements for imported goods,” he told FP. “This is a level of scrutiny of imported goods that is substantially beyond normal.”

Though the inspections regime is a crucial component of the Iran deal for many lawmakers, others have focused their attention on the pace of sanctions relief and the lifting of a conventional arms embargo on Iran after five years.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act signed by President Barack Obama this year, Congress has 60 days to review the nuclear deal. The clock doesn’t start ticking until reams of documents, as well as certifications from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, are delivered to Congress.

If the GOP-controlled Congress passes a “vote of disapproval,” which would prevent the Iran deal from being implemented, the president has vowed to veto that legislation. To override a veto, Republicans would need a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.

Photo credit: Alexander Klein/AFP

Correction, July 15, 2015: The name of the IAEA director-general is Yukiya Amano. A previous version of this article mistakenly spelled his name “Yukio Amano.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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