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former IAEA Director-General

Under a Microscope: Monitoring and Verification in an Iran Deal
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Volume 7, Issue 7, April 29, 2015 

One of the Obama administration's key goals for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran is to deter and detect any attempt by Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons using a covert program. Given Tehran's past activities, including clandestine construction of uranium-enrichment facilities and an organized nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, concerns about a covert program and compliance with a deal are justified. But trust is not required for a good agreement. An enhanced verification, monitoring and transparency regime is the only way to provide the necessary confidence that Iran is abiding by its commitments and any clandestine activities will be quickly discovered. 

The parameters agreed to in Lausanne on April 2 lay the groundwork for a regime that will build an extensive, long-term and multilayered monitoring regime.  

Effective monitoring and verification is critical given Iran's nuclear past. As the U.S. intelligence community has consistently noted since 2007, if Iran were to make a decision to build nuclear weapons, it is more likely that it would seek to do so by means of undeclared secret facilities, a scenario sometimes called a "sneak-out."  

Critics of the deal, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assert that the oversight is not "serious" and that there is no "control mechanism" to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Such assertions are inaccurate and do not offer a more effective alternative.

John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, called the monitoring and verification "as solid as you can get" and judges those who say that the deal paves Iran's pathway to the bomb as "wholly disingenuous."

While no arms control regime can provide a 100 percent guarantee against covert activity, a realistic goal for a final deal in the ongoing negotiations is to increase the likelihood of detection to such a high-degree that breakout is an extremely unattractive option for Iran. Given the limits on Iran's nuclear program that would be put in place under the Lausanne parameters, Tehran would have to re-create its entire supply chain, conversion, and enrichment facilities covertly.  

Under the fortified monitoring and verification parameters of a final deal, it would be nearly impossible for Iran to set up such a covert, parallel program, without early detection. Early detection will ensure that the international community has time to take steps to head-off any attempt by Iran to break out and obtain nuclear weapons.

Undersecretary of State and lead U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman said on April 27 that "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. We will have eyes into every part of Iran's nuclear program from cradle to grave."   

On the other hand, failure to reach an agreement would reduce the current level of monitoring and verification to pre-2014 levels. That would increase the likelihood of clandestine activity and decrease oversight of Iran's nuclear program.

Current Safeguards are Insufficient

Prior to the November 2013 interim deal, Iran's nuclear program was monitored through its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), all member states are required to have a safeguards agreement in place. Safeguards are activities that the IAEA undertakes to verify that a state is living up to its international commitments not to use nuclear programs for nuclear-weapons purposes. Safeguard activities undertaken by the agency are based on a state's declaration of its nuclear materials and nuclear-related activities. Verification measures include on-site inspections, monitoring, and evaluation. Activities to verify and account for a state's nuclear materials during and in connection to inspections include auditing the state's accounting reports to the agency, verifying the nuclear material inventories, and applying containment and surveillance measures.There are four types of inspections available to the IAEA as part of a safeguards agreement to undertake these activities:

  • Ad hoc inspections: typically used for verifying the state's initial report on its nuclear materials and any changes to those materials.
  • Routine inspections: limited to locations within a declared nuclear facility, locations containing nuclear material, or places through which nuclear material may flow. These inspections may be carried out according to a schedule or on short-notice.
  • Special inspections: are utilized if the IAEA does not have the information necessary to fulfill its responsibilities, or if further information is required to clarify information obtained during routine inspections.
  • Safeguards visits: inspectors may visit declared nuclear facilities to verify the design information at appropriate times, including during construction, routine operations, and after maintenance procedures, to ensure that the facility was not modified or being used for unreported activities.

Iran's safeguards agreement entered into force in 1974. Under this arrangement, Iran is required to submit information regarding its nuclear program. In particular Iran must declare its quantities of nuclear materials, the locations of materials, and design information about its nuclear facilities. Iran currently has declared 18 facilities to the IAEA. Under the safeguards agreement, the IAEA can verify the quantities and facility designs through on-site inspections. Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA will remain in place in a comprehensive nuclear deal, but additional monitoring and verification measures would buttress the safeguards agreement.

More Extensive Monitoring 

While Iran's current safeguards agreement includes facilities that produce enriched uranium, like Natanz and Fodow, and others that convert uranium into forms for enrichment or for fabricating fuel, the current declaration does not cover Iran's entire fuel cycle. Facilities such as Iran's uranium mines and mills, as well as centrifuge production areas are not included.

A verifiable nuclear agreement must extend the IAEA's access to monitor the entire fuel cycle and supply chain and provide timely notification of new facilities. The Lausanne parameters set up a more comprehensive system that will achieve these goals. Some of these measures will be time-limited. Others are permanent measures designed to give the IAEA greater access to verify that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful. 

Additional Protocol

Iran agreed at Lausanne to implement, and eventually ratify, the additional protocol as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal. 

Additional protocols are voluntary agreements negotiated on a state-by-state basis with the IAEA. A principal aim is to enable the IAEA inspectorate to provide assurance that there are no undeclared activities and all declared nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. Iran negotiated an additional protocol with the IAEA and signed the agreement in 2003. Between 2003 and 2006 Iran voluntarily implemented the additional protocol, but never ratified the document. In 2006, Iran announced that it would no longer implement the provisions of the agreement.

Under the additional protocol, the IAEA is granted expanded rights of access to information and sites. States must provide information about all parts of its nuclear fuel cycle and all sites where nuclear material may be located. The expanded list of sites includes uranium mines, fuel fabrication and enrichment plants, and nuclear waste sites. Inspectors can also visit these sites on short notice to resolve questions or inconsistencies or check for undeclared nuclear material. The notice for complementary access can be as short as two hours for verification of design information, ad hoc, or routine inspections. Inspectors are allowed to conduct environment samples, use detection and measurement devices, and check mechanisms, such as seals, that are put in place to prevent tampering or diversion.

A state is also required to provide information about its research and development activities related to the nuclear fuel cycle as part of the additional protocol and allow for the IAEA to verify those activities.

Additional protocols typically include provisions granting multiple entry visas to inspectors, and access to research and development activities. They also require information and verification on the manufacture and export of sensitive nuclear related technologies and allow for environmental sampling beyond declared faculties if the IAEA believes it necessary to fulfill the agency's obligations.

Historical experiences underscore the importance of Iran's adherence to the additional protocol, which will only come as part of a comprehensive deal. Clandestine attempts by Iraq and North Korea in the 1990s to obtain nuclear weapons while members of the NPT demonstrated gaps within the standard IAEA safeguards agreements. The additional protocol is a legal document granting the IAEA inspection authority beyond what is permitted by a safeguards agreement and was designed to respond to the gaps identified in these cases.

With the additional protocol in place, the IAEA will be able to visit and verify all of the facilities associated with Iran's nuclear activities, including sites that it does not currently have access to, such as the uranium mines, Iran's centrifuge production facilities, and its heavy water production plant. The additional protocol also substantially expands the IAEA's ability to check for clandestine, undeclared, nuclear facilities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, to investigate questions about or inconsistencies in a state's nuclear declarations. While these measures do not give the agency carte blanch access to Iran's military sites, as some critics assert is necessary, the agency will be able to access these areas if there is cause or concern about illicit nuclear activities.

These monitoring and verification measures will give the agency a more complete picture of Iran's nuclear activities and allow for early detection of deviations from peaceful activities. Early notification would give the international community time to respond to any dash Iran might make toward nuclear weapons. 

Modified Code 3.1

According to the Lausanne parameters, Iran will also implement modified Code 3.1 to its safeguards agreement as part of a final deal.

Modified Code 3.1 requires countries to submit design information for new nuclear facilities to the IAEA as soon as the decision is made to construct, or authorize construction, of the facility.

In 2003, Iran accepted modified Code 3.1 but reneged unilaterally in March 2007. The IAEA maintains that subsidiary arrangements, including modified Code 3.1, cannot be altered unilaterally. There also is no mechanism in the safeguards agreement to suspend implementation of modified Code 3.1. Therefore, the IAEA maintains that it remains in force, and Iran is not following through with its obligations under modified Code 3.1 to provide the agency with updated design information for new and existing nuclear facilities.

If Iran implements modified Code 3.1 under a comprehensive deal, the IAEA will receive information about any plans Tehran has to expand its nuclear program earlier than it would under the status quo. Iran would also be obligated to share any design changes to existing nuclear facilities. This would be particularly useful in the event of an agreement to ensure that design changes fit within the agreed upon limits of Iran's nuclear program in a final deal.

Additional Measures

In addition to regular access to Iran's declared nuclear facilities, such as Natanz, Fordow, Arak, and Esfahan, the IAEA will operate continuous surveillance of Iran's uranium mines for 25 years. The centrifuge rotors and bellows production areas will be under continuous surveillance for 20 years. The stored centrifuges removed from Fordow and Natanz will also be under continuous surveillance. 

In addition, any procurement of dual-use items or materials by Iran for its nuclear program will move through a designated channel and be subject to monitoring and approval. This oversight will assist inspectors in monitoring the flow of dual-use materials into Iran and throughout the country. A stringent accountancy system limits Iran's opportunities to obtain the materials necessary for a covert nuclear program.

Taken together, these measures cover Iran's supply chain. Continually monitoring the inputs and components of Iran's nuclear program will help ensure that Tehran is not covertly pursuing nuclear weapons using a clandestine parallel program. 

Advanced Technologies

The Lausanne parameters, as described by the White House factsheet, contain provision that allows for the use of the most up-to-date, modern technologies to verify Iran's compliance with the deal.

Technologies currently available to the IAEA that could be deployed for monitoring Iran's nuclear program will provide a high-degree of credibility that Iran is adhering to its commitments. 

Some of the various technologies that could be used include remote monitors to asses Iran's enrichment levels in real-time. Under the terms of a final deal, Iran will only be permitted to enrich uranium to 3.67 percent uranium-235, a level suitable for nuclear power reactor fuel. Deploying these monitors would ensure that Iran is abiding by this limit on its enrichment. Any deviations would be immediately detected and reported to the IAEA.

Other technologies can assist in providing assurance that Iran is not diverting material for a covert program. The IAEA is currently using an advanced surveillance system that takes photos on a time lapse and relays the images back to IAEA monitors using encryption. The system is also tied to additional mechanisms, such as electronic seals, and is triggered in the event of tampering.  

The use of technologies such as these increases the likelihood of detection if Iran ever attempted to deviate from the limits of a nuclear agreement or divert material for a covert program.

If there are allegations that Iran has constructed a covert enrichment facility, conversion facility, or centrifuge production facility, or yellowcake uranium-production facility anywhere in the country, the IAEA will be able to access the sites to investigate the allegations.

National Intelligence Measures

While a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran will lay out the monitoring and verification in an agreement, this regime will also be bolstered by national intelligence agencies, including the U.S. intelligence community. National agencies played a critical role in exposing Iran's past clandestine nuclear facilities, including Natanz in 2002 and Fordow in 2009.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in January 2014, prior to the implementation of the additional transparency measures under the interim deal, that the intelligence community assesses that "Iran would not be able to divert safeguarded material and produce enough WGU [weapons-grade uranium] for a weapon before such activity would be discovered." This assertion was made prior to gaining Iranian compliance to providing the additional information that will be available under the enhanced monitoring and verification regime. National intelligence agencies will continue to monitor and scrutinize Iran's nuclear program after a deal, providing additional assurance that Tehran is abiding by the comprehensive nuclear deal.

Together, expanded IAEA monitoring and national intelligence will provide a high degree of confidence that any covert nuclear activities in Iran would be quickly detected. No agreement can guarantee that there is no illicit nuclear weapons program, but juxtaposed against the alternative--a no-deal scenario with less monitoring and fewer inspectors on the ground--the benefits of a good comprehensive agreement are clear.


--KELSEY DAVENPORT, Nonproliferation Policy Director

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.

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Posted: April 29, 2015