FPI Bulletin: Iranian Self-Inspection Plan Leaves Verification Regime in Tatters

By Tzvi Kahn

Foreign Policy Initiative

August 25, 2015

The newly disclosed draft text of one of two confidential side deals to the Iranian nuclear agreement demonstrates that the inspections regime depends on trust, not verification. In fact, by allowing Tehran to inspect the Parchin military complex on its own, the side deal makes a mockery of President Obama’s claim that the nuclear agreement “is the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated,” and sets a dangerous precedent for other proliferators to follow. The administration must provide Congress with an opportunity to review the second side deal in order to ensure the absence of additional concessions that would further cripple the overall nuclear agreement.
The IAEA, Iran, and the Side Deals
The confidential agreements remain separate from the nuclear deal itself, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Rather, they constitute side deals negotiated between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), prompting the Obama administration to reject their characterization as secret. “There’s no secret deal,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “There is an agreement, which is the normal process of the IAEA where they negotiate a confidential agreement, as they do with all countries.” Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman said there are “no secrets here. Confidential agreements, but no secrets.” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz called the deals “standard practice of the IAEA.”
Nonetheless, the administration failed to inform Congress of the side deals — even though the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which passed near-unanimously in May, instructs the administration to share with lawmakers all “side agreements” and “related agreements.” Instead, Congress learned of the deals when two of its members traveled to Vienna to meet with representatives of the IAEA.
While agreements with the IAEA do typically remain confidential, there is nothing typical about the case of Iran, which has spent decades deceiving the IAEA and the U.N. about its nuclear program. Tehran, for example, has repeatedly violated U.N. Security Council requirements to permit access to Parchin and other military sites. It has also violated a range of other nuclear-related obligations, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Additional Protocol, and the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).
Thus, secret arrangements between Iran and the IAEA would make it impossible for the United States, as the lead party to the agreement, to independently verify the compliance of a regime long known for its intransigence. Equally important, it would prevent lawmakers from verifying the sound judgment of the IAEA, which just surrendered its own inspection role at Parchin.
Nevertheless, before the text of the first side deal became public, key administration officials, including Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz, expressed satisfaction with the content of both side deals even though they had not actually read them. “Nuclear experts with much bigger degrees than I can ever attain have looked at this and their comfort level with it is good,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. According to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, “We know their content. We’re satisfied with them.” State Department spokesman John Kirby said the administration’s “experts are familiar and comfortable with the contents.”
What the administration struggled to explain was how it could be so comfortable with the side deals if its most senior officials had not read them. Similarly, it failed to clarify how, if the deals were confidential, it nonetheless knew so much about them. Adding to the confusion, chief negotiator Wendy Sherman said she had, in fact, read the text of the side deals — yet she apparently lacked the ability to show them to her colleagues. Whatever the explanation for Sherman’s remarks, her access to the documents contradicts the administration’s claim that they must remain confidential — and raises the question of why Congress cannot read them as well.
The Parchin Military Complex
The Parchin military complex — located almost 20 miles southeast of Tehran, spanning some 15 square miles, and encompassing hundreds of buildings and test sites — first received international scrutiny for its nuclear activities in mid-2004 when evidence emerged that Iran had used the site for high explosives testing consistent with nuclear weapons research. In 2005, after months of stonewalling, Tehran allowed IAEA inspectors partial access to the site, which unsurprisingly yielded no evidence of wrongdoing.
In November 2011, the IAEA reported, based on new information obtained from member states and other sources, that Tehran had in fact “constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments. The explosives vessel, or chamber, is said to have been put in place at Parchin in 2000.” Such activity, the IAEA noted, may point to an Iranian effort to develop a nuclear weapon.
In the four years since then, Iran has rebuffed IAEA efforts to visit the facility while working aggressively to sanitize and reconstruct parts of the site in order to conceal past activities from inspectors. An August 2013 IAEA report observed that Iran’s activities at Parchin “have seriously undermined the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.”
Not surprisingly, then, during the nuclear negotiations, the Obama administration repeatedly stated that the final agreement must resolve concerns related to Parchin. As chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman put it in December 2013, the JPOA “talks about the need to address past and present practices, which is the IAEA terminology for possible military dimensions, including Parchin.” In February 2014, Sherman said, “We expect, indeed, Parchin to be resolved.” In April 2015, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the administration “would find it, I think, very difficult to imagine a JCPA that did not require … access [of IAEA inspectors] at Parchin.”
Unprecedented Inspection Measures?
Even as it remained silent about the side deal that prevented access to Parchin, the administration hailed the strength of the nuclear agreement’s verification regime. President Obama boasted that the agreement “contains the most comprehensive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.” Secretary Kerry called the deal’s inspections and transparency measures “unprecedented.”
Secretary Kerry is right, but not in the way he intends. In fact, it is the side deal’s allowance of Iran to self-inspect Parchin that may be unprecedented. The deal states that Iran would provide photos and videos of sites suspected of weapons work — but then states ambiguously that such steps would take “into account military concerns.” Iran would provide only seven environmental samples from areas of mutual agreement between Iran and the IAEA. And while the side deal would require Iran to use IAEA-approved monitoring equipment, the inspectors’ lack of access to the site would render this requirement toothless.
Leading nonproliferation experts have voiced skepticism about this approach. As the Associated Press reported, “Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the Iran probe as deputy IAEA director general from 2005 to 2010, said he could think of no similar concession with any other country.” According to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, “It’s really not normal, and you have to worry that this would set a bad precedent in the Iran context and in the context of other countries. I don’t know why they accepted it. I think the IAEA is probably getting a little desperate to settle this.”
Finally, the concessions on Parchin raise serious questions about the second side deal, which still remains secret. If the Obama administration was content to let Iran inspect its own facilities at Parchin, what other distressing concessions might it have made? Rather than proceed on the basis of trust, Congress should verify the second deal’s contents by demanding its public release before it votes on the nuclear agreement next month. Iran’s recent statements that it will deny inspectors access to all of its military facilities compounds the urgency.
The side deal on Parchin effectively leaves an already weak verification regime in tatters, and undercuts the rationale for the agreement as a whole. If international inspectors cannot personally inspect a core site of Iran’s weaponization efforts, and if the second deal remains hidden from public scrutiny, the United States cannot verify that Iran has abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.