WASHINGTON — The terms delineated in the framework agreement will leave Iran as “a threshold breakout nuclear state for the next 10 years,” and after that the remaining safeguards against a breakout to the bomb will begin to fall away, former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen warned Monday.
In a lengthy interview, Heinonen, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s former top official for monitoring nuclear proliferation, expressed a range of concerns about the deal taking shape, warned of Iran’s history of deception, and also cautioned that the one-year framework for nuclear breakout pushed by the Obama administration might leave insufficient time for an international reaction to violations of the agreement.
Heinonen said that the framework agreement, announced in Lausanne, Switzerland, last Thursday, leaves a number of key concerns unanswered. Although it appears to be more robust than previous nuclear agreements, he said missteps could result in a repeat of the outcome that the non-proliferation regime suffered when North Korea violated the terms of an agreement and rushed toward a nuclear bomb.
Heinonen said the current framework also lacks an emphasis on Iran coming clean about its entire nuclear program heretofore, including the actual number of centrifuges in operation. Such information, Heinonen says, is of central importance to monitors’ ability to enforce and monitor the current nuclear program.
“I think that this whole exercise should begin with a full complete declaration from Iran about its nuclear program,” he said. “Many things have changed since 2003 when Iran made its previous statement.”
‘This whole exercise should begin with a full complete declaration from Iran about its nuclear program’
Few people outside of the talks between the P5+1 member states and Iran have a stronger background in the material covered than Heinonen, a 27-year veteran of the IAEA who served as the organization’s deputy director general and head of its Department of Safeguards.
Heinonen, who wrote his dissertation on nuclear material analysis, oversaw the IAEA’s efforts to monitor and contain Iran’s nuclear development.
He led and participated in international inspection teams monitoring nuclear facilities in numerous states, including North Korea, South Africa, Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Other countries are watching
Based on his years working on non-proliferation, Heinonen said he was also concerned about the geopolitical implications of the Iran deal, which seems to offer a “way out” for countries that knowingly violated non-proliferation treaties.
“We have a country that is in non-compliance,” Heinonen says. “This will be reflected in other areas like North Korea. I think that the North Koreans are watching these talks very carefully, even if they are in a different state of progress.”
The deal, he further suggested, will encourage other states in the region to strengthen their nuclear programs.
“This will have an impact on the region. Saudi Arabia has indicated that whatever Iran will get, they will get too,” Heinonen warned. “It doesn’t mean that neighboring states are going to dash for nuclear weapons, but that they are going to build their infrastructures in different way. I’m sure they will do it in accordance with the IAEA.”
Although Heinonen stressed that there is more to a nuclear program than simply buying nuclear capacity overnight, he estimated that Saudi Arabia alone has spent about $1 billion on its nuclear development thus far.
The United Arab Emirates, he said, could express aspirations to step up its nuclear program, or even invoke a principle by which it too would be allowed to conduct domestic uranium enrichment in order to maintain regional parity.
The impact could stretch beyond the Middle East, he said. “There are countries with good standing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty which have indicated earlier aspirations to develop nuclear fuel cycles, like South Korea. They’ve asked for permission to do so before, and these requests will get an extra boost.”
Detecting and responding to violations
Based on his own prior experience in Iran and elsewhere, Heinonen stressed that there must be short-notice visits to sites other than Natanz during which inspectors must do more than just “checking off a list” that they have visited.
“The IAEA has extra rights – in principle it can go to other, non-nuclear sights,” he said. “When I read the fact sheets, it is not clear what extra rights the IAEA has particularly regarding undeclared sights. The IAEA should have reasonable short-advance notice — they should be able to go anywhere, but with a reason.”
What’s needed, he said, “is to make a model for this kind of access – to account for security concerns and safety concerns for the inspectors – and if Iran immediately doesn’t follow it, it is in non-compliance and there is a quick response.”
The question of this quick response also concerns Heinonen, who said he was not certain that the much-discussed one-year time to breakout will give the international community enough time to respond effectively.
US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was part of the Lausanne negotiating team, hailed the framework and the process toward a final deal on Sunday, telling US viewers that the deal “will immediately get us over a year [of breakout time].”
“It will get us there with almost instantaneous recognition of any attempt to evade the deal and it will give us plenty of time to respond diplomatically or otherwise,” Moniz assured.
Heinonen is not so sure. He believes that if Iran tries to engage in covert nuclear development, the reaction time of the international community could be too slow – and the so-called “snapback” of sanctions could take too long to register an impact.
“We have here two aspects of compliance, a safeguard agreement and the original protocol. The original guarantor of the compliance will be the IAEA, and the IAEA will report and then the Security Council will support a resolution in the case of non-compliance,” he explained. “But the question is what constitutes ‘non-compliance’. Certainly when you have a secret place to produce components [and it is discovered], that is clear. But what happens if you produce a little more at an inspected site? What is the level of tolerance, and who decides how much constitutes non-compliance? The IAEA provides the facts and there is a body like the Security Council that acts on the basis of its reports.”
Who’s in charge?
Heinonen is also concerned as to the delegation of responsibility for following the trail of materials, procurement, and imports overall. The IAEA, he said, does not inspect such processes. “Who decides what is not in compliance there? There are a lot of details that need to be thought through.”
In addition, Heinonen is worried about the international dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, including what he described as a past willingness to outsource aspects of it to other countries, such as North Korea. “You can outsource,” he said. “We will be monitoring the uranium mines, but they can always get yellowcake from somewhere else.”
North Korea’s own nuclear program, in fact, serves as a warning to Heinonen of what an Iran deal could become if it is not written wisely and enforced carefully.
Heinonen, who was involved in the IAEA monitoring of North Korea, recalled that inspectors were frustrated because while they had limited access to nuclear facilities, they suspected – or even knew – that nuclear materials were being hidden at other sites. The result was that when the so-called Hermit Kingdom decided to sprint for a bomb and violate its negotiated agreements regarding its nuclear program, it could reach breakout more quickly.
‘The IAEA should have reasonable short-advance notice — they should be able to go anywhere, but with a reason’
The same thing, Heinonen said, could happen in Iran if monitoring protocols are not carefully written and stringently enforced. Iran, he warned, “has a history of deception.”
“When Natanz was revealed in August 2002, it took half a year until February 2003 before the IAEA got in,” he said. “The explanation was that this was the first place and said that it was a pilot plant. They used the half-a-year to build the pilot plant, in order to cover up the other place where they did research and development.” The same deceptive policy, he said, also underscored the development of the secret underground facility at Fordo.
“You may have a combination of secret and non-secret development. One must be careful with timeliness – it is quite a challenge to maintain one-year breakout time for the known and the unknown,” he warned. “There is never absolute assurance about activities and undeclared material, and there are other examples from the past in which intelligence was unable to find nuclear projects.”
IAEA needs more resources
Even in the best of worlds, Heinonen stressed that the IAEA is too understaffed and underfunded to provide the kind of monitoring outlined in the deal that is to be finalized by June — the so-called “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”. Even once a comprehensive agreement is reached, the IAEA will need to “prepare a robust plan” for how to meet the requirements delineated in the deal.
According to the former IAEA deputy director, the IAEA will need to conduct a secondary round of negotiations with Iran over specific inspections protocols even if the P5+1 achieve a comprehensive agreement. “The IAEA needs to negotiate with Iran how it is done in practice,” Heinonen explained. “The P5+1 cannot negotiate on behalf of the IAEA.”
The quick transition to implementation following a comprehensive agreement, according to Heinonen, will be “very tough for the IAEA because they must set the baseline and monitoring systems as dismantlement is underway.” The transition and new monitoring regime means that the IAEA will need a major boost to manpower.
Heinonen said, however, that this was not unprecedented: Within three months of initiating intensive monitoring activities in Iraq in 1991, the IAEA had drawn in reinforcements from member states in order to bulk up its presence in Baghdad.
Conflicting fact-sheets and a ‘rolling text’
Heinonen emphasized that one should not to read too much into the current framework text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Slightly different accounts of the agreement reached last week have been published by some of the respective governments of the P5+1 member states and Iran, with key differences evident between Iran and Washington’s description of the plans for sanctions relief, among other areas of discrepancy.
The US wrote that it foresaw a gradated process of sanctions relief, while Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif indicated that there would be an immediate withdrawal of sanctions. Heinonen said that he believes that all the versions released in recent days were for “domestic consumption,” and surmised that there is most likely a more detailed and specific document which the parties have all seen.
‘Three months to iron out all these details is a short time’
“I think these are extracts from a more comprehensive document which is what is known as a rolling text,” he said. A rolling text, he elaborated, contains the topics under discussion – but does not determine any conclusions – a concept reinforced by top US negotiator Wendy Sherman’s repeated insistence that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
“What is happening is that all of them are preparing their own fact sheets from the rolling texts,” Heinonen suggested. “There is more ahead of them than there is behind them,” he said, stressing that the hardest negotiations were yet to come.
Although he expressed considerable faith in the technical knowledge of many of the negotiators, Heinonen warned that the success of nuclear talks is put at risk by politically imposed deadlines. He stressed that negotiators should take their time on the comprehensive deal, which currently has a June 30 deadline. “Sometimes, they are very focused on that day, but the fact is that they have to spend the rest of their lives in the future.”
“I think that three months to iron out all these details is a short time. Now we have a not-very-detailed outline that should be turned into a very precise agreement. I will be a challenge for the technical people and for the political people. But it should not get to the situation that the deal is more important than the outcome.”