Nuclear Inspectors Have Snazzy New Tools to Catch Iran Cheating

The catch: Iran gets to approve which ones the IAEA can use.


On the heels of Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency returned to Baghdad with a mandate from the U.N. Security Council to find and destroy the country’s illicit nuclear weapons program. What they found astonished them: Left unchecked, Iraq had hoped to have a bomb by the end of the year.

IAEA inspectors had frequently visited Iraq throughout the 1980s, touring the country’s nuclear facilities and checking to see whether Baghdad’s declarations to the Vienna-based agency were complete. While some within the agency harbored suspicions about Iraq’s intentions, the IAEA failed to grasp the true extent of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. Iraq used a campaign of deceit and deception to clandestinely acquire the tools, materials, and knowledge necessary to construct a nuclear weapon. At the same time, IAEA officials were invited for carefully choreographed visits to sites such as the Tuwaitha research facility, a center for the weapons program. The officials left thinking that Iraq was far from attaining a bomb — a serious miscalculation that wasn’t corrected until after the first Gulf War.

Today, the Iraq experience weighs heavily on the minds of the IAEA officials charged with a new, even higher-stakes test: verifying that neighboring Iran is living up to its commitments under a historic nuclear deal inked last year. It’s a task that grants the IAEA a central role in determining the outcome of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Moreover, the IAEA’s ability to detect a clandestine Iranian nuclear program — if Tehran decides to restart one — represents a crucial variable in whether the Middle East will see yet another major war.

Hanging over the entire effort will be the agency’s little-known failures in Iraq. In the 1990s, agency inspectors found that Iraq had secretly built industrial-scale uranium enrichment facilities and had made significant progress on nuclear weapons designs. Iraqi nuclear engineers, the IAEA found, had hoped to have a first weapon built by 1991. While Israel had bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981, it did little to set back the broader nuclear program.

To eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the IAEA overhauled its policies and aggressively sought out clandestine facilities. The agency used explosives to destroy more than 500,000 square feet of Iraqi facilities, shipped nuclear material out of the country, and carted equipment back to its Vienna headquarters.

By 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate its purported WMD stocks, the agency could claim a bitter victory: It had fulfilled its mission to eliminate them, but Saddam’s ability to persuade the West that he still possessed an active nuclear program prompted war all the same.

The soul-searching triggered by the terrifying discovery of Iraq’s quest for the bomb remains a touchstone for those charged with overseeing Iran’s nuclear program today. “The tools that we had were not sufficient to expose undeclared nuclear activities,” said Tero Varjoranta, the deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards at the IAEA. Since then, according to Varjoranta, the agency has embraced new technologies like environmental sampling — capable of detecting minute traces of nuclear material — and satellite imagery analysis to better detect clandestine nuclear programs. It also has more power to do so, courtesy of the 1997 Additional Protocols — which Iran has agreed to abide by — allowing far more intrusive inspections.

The IAEA argues it has come a long way since the dark days of the 1990s. Among the modern technologies now used by the IAEA are swabs, or environmental sampling, that can detect the most minute traces of nuclear material, even in facilities that have been scrubbed clean. The agency commissions large volumes of satellite imagery to examine suspect sites. It uses advanced digital camera technology that can remotely monitor nuclear facilities. Those cameras are increasingly able to communicate with seals used to close storage containers. When the seals are tampered with, the cameras switch on and monitor the activity. The seals have become more advanced as well, including models that use fiber optics to prevent tampering. A real-time enrichment monitor clamps onto centrifuge systems to check enrichment levels.

In short, the agency has more tools than ever to ensure that Iran is living up to its promises, but there’s a catch: Iran gets to approve which technologies the IAEA can use. The deal includes a provision that the IAEA be allowed to use “modern technologies,” but as with agency inspections in other countries, Iran and the agency will have to work out exactly what technology is deployed where.

That has prompted critics of the deal — particularly Israel and many of the GOP presidential candidates — to argue that Iran will still be able to use the funds freed by sanctions relief to secretly build a bomb.

“They’re going to use those $100 billion to expand their conventional capabilities and to one day buy or build a nuclear weapon,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said during a Fox News debate last month, referring to one estimate of the Iranian funds unfrozen as a result of the nuclear deal. “When I am president of the United States, on my first day in office, we are canceling the deal with Iran, and nations will have to make a choice. They can do business with Iran, or they can do business with America.”

So far, Varjoranta says Iran hasn’t impeded his inspectors’ work. “At this point, we have the technology on the ground that we need,” he said, adding, for example, that Iran has allowed the use of the agency’s next generation camera surveillance system. Neither the most permissive nor the most strict in making technology available to inspectors, “Iran is in the middle of the spectrum,” Varjoranta said. Crucially, he said, the nuclear deal mandates that inspectors will be allowed to use real-time enrichment monitors to ensure that Iran doesn’t enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent.

A senior official at the Department of Energy refused to say whether Iran has allowed inspectors to use the necessary technology. Instead, the official — familiar with the nuclear agreement’s implementation and speaking on condition of anonymity — would say only that U.S. officials are working to ensure that the IAEA has the tools that it needs and that discussions over technology use are ongoing.

The IAEA now has a 24/7 presence of inspectors on the ground in Iran, but Varjoranta won’t say how many. The agency wants to keep the number vague, he said, to be able to “surge” inspectors into Iran and deter cheating. In total, the IAEA will spend about 15 million euros annually to verify the deal, Varjoranta said.

But the IAEA’s arguably most important tool in detecting a clandestine Iranian nuclear program goes unmentioned in the nuclear deal: its relationship with spy agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency. States can provide the IAEA with information about nuclear activity, and the IAEA can use that intelligence to inform its inspections. Tips from spy agencies have been put to good use by the agency: In the early 2000s, American intelligence all but certainly revealed to the IAEA the existence of the Natanz enrichment site.

Now, the nuclear deal with Iran has handed the CIA a powerful tool to improve its monitoring of Iran. The agreement with Iran sets up what is called a “procurement channel,” a process that Iran must follow in order to obtain goods used for nuclear activity or so-called “dual use goods,” which have both civilian and other purposes. The deal mandates that countries selling a long list of goods to Iran must report those sales. The powers that negotiated the deal — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany — then have veto power over those exports.

The procurement channel, a key aspect of the deal that has received scant attention, is likely to generate a huge amount of data on imports to Iran. “It’s a windfall for the intelligence agencies,” said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If they detect the import of something that hasn’t been declared, that in and of itself can be a violation. At that point, the intelligence agency can tip off the IAEA, and the IAEA can request an inspection.”

But what, exactly, the procurement channel will deliver for world powers remains mired in uncertainty. The channel requires the sellers of controlled goods to report their exports to the U.N., and American diplomats have in recent months been working feverishly to inform states of their obligations and get them to buy in. “The initial reaction that we are getting is that they are still trying to figure this out,” said a State Department official involved in setting up the channel who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic work to implement the agreement.

It remains unclear what volume of goods the channel will have to process, and it’s likely that significant amounts of civilian goods will have to be processed, the official said. This may include specialty metals, valves, pumps, and goods related to Iran’s automotive and airline industries.

A provision that appears geared toward providing intelligence agencies with a baseline against which to evaluate their monitoring of Iranian imports also carries risks for the IAEA. “Intelligence agencies have their own goals,” said former IAEA head and U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq Hans Blix. “In Iran, they don’t hesitate to use assassinations, so they probably won’t hesitate to use misinformation.”

But the IAEA does not have much of a choice but to collaborate with spies near and far. As he was struggling to make sense of Iraq’s nuclear program in the 1990s, Blix realized that the IAEA had to make better use of national intelligence agencies if it was going to be successful. By providing the agency with both environmental sampling tools in Iraq and supplying it with satellite imagery of Iraqi facilities, American spies helped the IAEA develop what have become two of its most important tools.

IAEA officials have sometimes clashed with American intelligence officials. While carrying out inspections in the aftermath of the Gulf War, U.S. intelligence provided the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, then the executive chairman of the U.N. inspection mission, with U-2 photographs of a suspected nuclear facility, according to a memoir of one Iraq inspector. The image had been degraded to mask the spy plane’s capabilities. Ekeus thought it useless and threw it in the trash in front of a U.S. official and demanded better. The American returned with higher quality images.

The George W. Bush administration’s push in 2002 to invade Iraq threw that conflict into even sharper relief. Central to the administration’s case for war was the claim that Iraq had sought to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger. That claim was based on a set of forged letters that American intelligence agencies refused to provide to the IAEA when President Bush made the claim in a speech before Congress, Blix said. When they finally did, it was immediately apparent to the agency that they were forgeries.

The clash between the IAEA and the White House went further than the relatively narrow question of Iraqi yellowcake purchases from Niger. The agency dispatched inspectors to Iraq in the run-up to the American invasion and carried out extensive inspections. Those inspections revealed no evidence of the weapons of mass destruction that American officials claimed they would find. That finding was validated in the aftermath of the American invasion.

For the agency, it was a bittersweet victory. The IAEA had proven itself capable of revealing the true extent of Iraq’s weapons program. But that didn’t prevent a disastrous war from being launched on the basis of an ill-advised American intelligence assessment.

Today, the IAEA is less dependent on national intelligence agencies than it has been in the past. The proliferation of high-quality commercial satellite imagery means the agency can commission its own photographs, rather than relying on what the U.S. or Israeli government chooses to provide it. The agency has also become highly sophisticated in carrying out environmental sampling, and has routinely embarrassed Iran with its ability to detect illicit nuclear material in clandestine facilities the Revolutionary Guard has cleared out, meticulously cleaned, and even renovated. Blix compares environmental sampling to a urine test administered to a drug addict, with nuclear materials extremely difficult to remove from the body.

The real challenge for the agency lies in the dual task it has been handed in Iran: to not only verify that Iran is abiding by the restrictions on its nuclear program, but also verify the absence of any illicit nuclear program whatsoever. Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA official and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, calls confirming the absence of a secret program the agency’s “Achilles’ heel.”

According to Heinonen, the difficult task of proving a negative such as this comes down to close scrutiny of Iran’s declarations, and whether its activities on the ground match those declarations. Inspectors, he said, will seek “coherent, consistent pictures” and seek out discrepancies.

Concessions to Iran have made this task harder, Heinonen argued. To get Iran to agree to a deal, the P5+1 did not require Iran to provide historical information on its nuclear activities. That information would have served as an important baseline for inspectors to evaluate Iran’s claims about its current activities, Heinonen said.

“There is no 100 percent assurance,” Heinonen said.

Photo credit: KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola