IAEA Verification of the Iran Nuclear Deal: 10 Hot Issues

On July 14, after nearly two years of tough negotiations, a comprehensive, long-term deal was agreed to between Iran and the United States, Russia, Germany, China, France and the United Kingdom, aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Under the terms of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tasked with carrying out an unprecedented level of monitoring and verification.

The 159-page document is detailed and complex but its impact on reducing Iran’s nuclear capacity and blocking its ability to pursue nuclear weapons is clear. It would

–      radically reduces Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and puts it at least 12 months away from having enough material for one weapon for over a generation;

–      eliminate Iran’s plutonium path to the bomb;

–      put in place a rigorous monitoring system, including timely inspections of military sites when necessary, that will effectively detect and deter cheating and will last indefinitely;

–      strengthen the nonproliferation resolve of the international community making it clear to potential proliferators that such an effort would be risky and very costly; and

–      head off a nuclear arms race in the region.

Here are brief answers to ten of the most common questions relating to the agreement and the IAEA’s role in verifying Iranian compliance with its requirements.

  1. In what ways does the JCPOA go beyond the additional protocol? What happens to the JCPOA over time? 

The JCPOA is a comprehensive deal incorporating a renewed pledge by Iran to never acquire nuclear weapons, plus a raft of reductions in its existing capabilities and acceptance of the strongest negotiated verification system ever. 

The additional protocol is one of the verification agreements that the IAEA will use to investigate allegations of clandestine nuclear activities in Iran. The JCPOA includes a maximum limit of 24 days to implement the necessary means for the resolution of the any dispute over site access, and the JCPOA includes the right to verify the limits accepted by Iran (on its enrichment capability, low-enriched- uranium inventory, and its production of new centrifuge machines).

2.  How does the 24-day timeframe for access work?  How does this 24-day limit go beyond the implementation of the additional protocol in other states? Could this delay prevent discovery of weaponization activities? What measures will the IAEA take in the meantime to make sure that Iran does not cover up suspected activity?

The additional protocol provides a means for the IAEA to request “complementary access” when it has questions it needs to resolve. There are no restrictions on where it can go, but the IAEA must identify specific questions to be resolved and identify specific locations where it wants to send its inspectors. Providing the inspected party, in this case Iran, with this information will not provide it with information that helps Iran evade detection or stall the investigation.

There are 121 countries that have an additional protocol in force and 78 complementary accesses were carried out last year. Only in Iran is there a cutoff on how long it can delay before the inspectors show up. The clock starts when a request is made through an established communications channel. It is possible that there will be no delay, and that in response to a request for urgent access by the IAEA, Iran will open the site for immediate inspection. In any case, the IAEA will protect a site once it becomes suspicious by ordering satellite imagery, perhaps continuing through the investigation, and by seeking corroborating information, especially from states willing to share intelligence information. 

When a request involves a building, and especially when it involves uranium (or plutonium), 24 days will generally not be long enough to prevent detection, and where there is evidence of recent painting or application of new surfaces, requests might be made for core samples to be taken by drilling into the renovated surfaces, after the initial investigation. 

To be certain, some activities associated with manufacturing nuclear weapons are clean and resemble activities for other purposes. However, as Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told Politico July 22, “It is essentially impossible, certainly with confidence, to believe that you’re going to do this kind of work with nuclear materials and be confident at having it cleaned it up,” Moniz, who helped negotiate the agreement alongside Secretary of State John Kerry, said said the Department of Energy (DOE) had conducted experiments that involved “very limited quantities” of uranium, and that DOE “unsuccessfully probed the limits of trying to clean it up.”

Taking into account all of the actions needed, the JCPOA provides robust opportunities for the IAEA to detect a resurgent nuclear weapons program, should Iran opt to take its chances.

The JCPOA also calls for frequent reports to be provided to the IAEA Board of Governors, and to the Security Council. These reports will provide information on Iran’s observance of the provisions of the JCPOA. 

  1. What is managed access?

If complementary access is requested to a sensitive location, such as a military base or a high-tech factory with intellectual property to protect, Iran will be able to request that the complementary access be carried out in such a way as to allow the inspectors to gather only the information they need to satisfy their specific request — but not to look around and learn other things that they don’t need to know.  All additional protocols include this provision, but it is ultimately up to the IAEA to determine if the access meets its requirements. Depending on the circumstance, Iran might want to move military equipment, transport the inspectors to the exact location they’ve requested in a vehicle with no possibility for the inspectors to see what’s around them, and cover sensitive items with tarps, for example. The inspectors must be able to establish that they are at the specific location they have requested by various means, including GPS navigation.

  1. How does the IAEA deal with intelligence sources from member states/interested parties? How does it verify this information and how does it protect sensitive information?

Article VIII.A of the IAEA Statute encourages member states to provide information to the IAEA that the state believes will help the IAEA carry out its responsibilities.  The IAEA is free to receive any sensitive information that a state is willing to provide, and handles it with great discretion. The IAEA has a mechanism for classifying information as “SAFEGUARDS CONFIDENTIAL” with different degrees of control depending on the nature of the information.  Access is restricted to staff members authorized on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. 

The IAEA may request intelligence or a state might offer it. It is understood and accepted that the IAEA can receive such information, but the IAEA is not permitted to share its findings other than through official channels, e.g., periodic reports to the Board of Governors.

Recalling that bogus intelligence information was provided to the IAEA during its investigation of Iraq, the IAEA exercises due diligence to avoid being mislead to advance a political agenda.

  1. How does the IAEA identify clandestine facilities?

A suspicion may begin from any one of a number of indicators, possibly from IAEA activities or possibly from an external source. Once begun, the process of seeking clues and evidence continues until the IAEA feels that requesting a complementary access under the additional protocol is warranted. The main method used is visual observation by trained inspectors, coupled with relevant aids, including environmental sampling. 

  1. What is the IAEA Iran Task Force?

The IAEA’s Iran Task Force is unique in that, because of the great importance assigned to Iran, a special group has been formed that is effectively isolated from normal inspection practice. The task force staff now numbers just under 50, about half of whom are inspectors only doing inspections in Iran, and analysts that report to the head of the Task Force rather than to their normal supervisors.  

Under the JCPOA, the IAEA will be permitted to authorize between 130-150 inspectors to work on the ground in Iran.

  1. How and when does the IAEA send inspectors to Iran? Who are they? What are their nationalities?

Inspection teams will be flying from Vienna to Iran probably several times a week. They may stay for a day or longer, but typically less than a month.  The work load under the JCPOA will be significantly larger than before, mostly to resolve the many questions that the Iranian Additional Protocol declaration will generate.  As the JCPOA kicks in, one can expect to see a more predictable routine develop. 

Inspectors are trained scientists and engineers, and many hold masters and Ph.D. degrees.  By nationality, they may come from any of the 176 IAEA member states.  Iran, and all other parties to the NPT, can refuse inspectors on an individual basis, because of nationality, religion, or any other reasons. The state does not have to explain their reason. The inspectors have to be acceptable to Iran; Americans and nationals of other states with whom Iran does not enjoy diplomatic relations are not, at least for now. 

Under the deal, Iran needs to provide the IAEA with areas to work near nuclear sites and multiple entry visas.

  1. Does the IAEA have adequate funding to complete the outlined monitoring and verification activities, and if not, how much will it need? What does the United States contribute in terms of budgeting and staffing?

No doubt they are sharpening their pencils in Vienna now that the JCPOA is official. Expect a request of something on the order of $10 million extra per year, on top of the current safeguards budget of $143 million.  The IAEA spent 12.5 million euros on implementation of the interim deal in 2014. Still a bargain: the Washington, D.C. police budget is $514 million.

The United States pays 25% of the total budget of the IAEA. A few years ago, the United States cut its payment to 22% for most UN organizations, but the IAEA is important to U.S. national security, so it gets the maximum, plus additional extra-budgetary contributions to help keep its capabilities up to the mark. In 2014, the United States provided extra-budgetary contributions for safeguards implementation totaling about 24 million euros.  Budget increases require consensus approval by the Board of Governors, and even with the backing of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, it could still take some time before whatever added funds are requested show up in the bank. 

  1. What steps could Congress take to help this effort succeed?

The U.S. Congress should provide a contingency fund of $50 million to enable the IAEA to fully implement the JCPOA without cutting back on inspections in other states. Americans cannot carry out inspections in Iran, but they can and do serve as analysts and can become inspectors for other countries.  Congress should look to provisions that could facilitate assignments from the U.S. Department of Energy national labs, other federal agencies, the nuclear industry, nuclear technology companies, and from academia. 

Also, up to now, IAEA reports on Iran have been released to the public, and this practice should continue in the future.

10.  What would happen to the deal and its verification system if Congress succeeds in blocking implementation?

If Congress disapproves of the JCPOA and overrides a veto from President Barack Obama, and if that process ends up actually blocking the JCPOA, then the outcome will be dire.

–        Iran would be free of any limits on its nuclear capabilities, and judging from what happened in the last decade, would continue to increase its potential nuclear weapon capabilities and decrease the time it would take to build a nuclear weapon. 

–        The current sanctions regime would collapse and it is extremely unlikely that the United States could reassemble the coalition of states that has been effective in encouraging Iran to make the compromises its agreed to in the JCPOA. 

–        The international nonproliferation regime would suffer a severe blow, undermining the stability of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as the foundation for international security.

–        Iran would reject additional monitoring of its program and the risk of yet another unnecessary, costly, bloody war in the region would grow.

The bottom line is, with the JCPOA’s layered, highly-intrusive IAEA verification and monitoring system in place across all sectors of Iran’s nuclear supply chain, the likelihood of detection of noncompliant activities will be very high and will provide the international community timely warning of any attempt by Iran to break out.

On the other hand, failure to implement the agreement will reduce the current level of monitoring and verification to pre-2013 levels. That would increase the likelihood of clandestine nuclear weapons-related activity and decrease international peace and security.

The above is an excerpt of a new study by Thomas Shea that assesses the IAEA’s legal authorities, structure, operational history and technical ability to verify the agreement between Iran and the P5+1. Shea served for 24 years in the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards, where he was responsible for developing and applying safeguards in a wide variety of nuclear facilities. The study was supported by Search for Common Ground and Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Please click here to access the report.