The problem from hell in an Iran deal: Verification
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The problem from hell in an Iran deal: Verification

The nuclear talks have often seemed to focus on centrifuges, but the key to compliance is an ironclad monitoring regime, and it is proving elusive

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)
IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

There are more than half a dozen shifting elements at play in the Iran nuclear deal currently being cobbled together in Lausanne, Switzerland – everything from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges to the fate of the underground facility in Fordow to the possible military dimensions of the program. But the future, assuming a deal is reached, will hinge on monitoring and verification, and that, to borrow a phrase from an Obama insider, is a problem from hell.

The first challenge will be the detection of violations. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice told AIPAC earlier this month that “we’re not taking anything on trust.” Instead, she made the case that “we’ve insisted upon — and achieved — unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program,” including “daily access” to the nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordow.

Any deal, she implied, would be based on a “distrust and verify” approach.

Tellingly, though, the unparalleled access has failed to impress the International Atomic Energy Agency – a UN body that seems to have staked out territory to the right of the Obama administration.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) shaking hands with Yukiya Amano (left), chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) during a meeting in Tehran on August 17, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Iranian Presidency website/HO/Mohammad Berno)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) shaking hands with Yukiya Amano (left), chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) during a meeting in Tehran on August 17, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Iranian Presidency website/HO/Mohammad Berno)

In February, the agency said it “remains concerned” about the possible existence of military components of Iran’s nuclear program, “including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, told the Washington Post last week that “we would like to have access” – to the military installation at Parchin, where Iran allegedly conducted weaponization tests – “and we would like to clarify.”

In order to achieve any reasonable degree of transparency, the international community must have the ability to conduct  inspections “anytime, anyplace,” said Emily Landau, the head of the arms control and regional security program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

That means open access not only to Natanz and Fordow, and even Parchin, which has been denied to the IAEA since for years, but to any military installation or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps base in the country.

2004 satellite image of the military complex at Parchin, Iran (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe - Institute for Science and International Security)
2004 satellite image of the military complex at Parchin, Iran (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe – Institute for Science and International Security)

Without that, Iran could sneak toward a bomb by establishing “an entirely separate, unreported enrichment cycle anywhere along the chain from uranium mining to enrichment,” Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, intimated in a conversation with the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

Heinonen readily admitted that Russia’s centrifuge program “went for years without detection despite tremendous intelligence efforts,” and that the Iraqi, Libyan, South African, North Korean, and Syrian programs also all managed to fly under the radar for considerable amounts of time prior to detection.

And yet Landau said that detection is merely “where the hard part starts.”

After that, one must provide evidence of a violation, prove its significance, and marshal forces to action. The chances of that happening within a 12-month period, at this stage, amid the euphoria of a possible signed agreement, are slim indeed, she warned.

One need look no further than Syrian President Bashar Assad’s first documented usage of chemical weapons in March 2013. In April, the head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate’s research division, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, said publicly that “to the best of our professional understanding, the regime has used lethal chemical weapons.” He suggested that sarin, a weapon of mass destruction, was fired at civilians.

Secretary of State John Kerry greeting Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in Switzerland on March 27, 2015, before a round of nuclear talks with Iran that is expected to end in a framework agreement (photo credit: AP Photo/ Brendan Smialowski, pool)
Secretary of State John Kerry greeting Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in Switzerland on March 27, 2015, before a round of nuclear talks with Iran that is expected to end in a framework agreement (photo credit: AP Photo/ Brendan Smialowski, pool)

Immediately, the White House press secretary said the administration was “looking for conclusive evidence, if it exists;” Secretary of State John Kerry informed the press that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “not in a position to confirm” the officer’s assessment; and secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, professing surprise, said that the Israelis “did not give me that assessment” when he was in the country earlier that same week.

Only later that summer did the US accept that the Israeli allegations were accurate.

For Israel, which is not a party to the negotiations with Iran and has been boxed deep into a corner by President Barack Obama, concern over the inadequacy of the inspection regime and the international reluctance to mobilize against violations presents two enduring imperatives.

First, Israel must double down on intelligence gathering and make sure that the near fiasco of al-Kibar — the Syrian plutonium reactor that it discovered late in the game and largely by chance – does not replay itself.

And, second, it must move beyond Hitler rhetoric and establish, somehow, a working relationship with the Obama administration. This is vital so that, if evidence is found, and if there is little international will to act – as was the case when prime minister Ehud Olmert brought the smoking gun of al-Kibar to president George Bush in June 2007 – the American stoplight, hovering over Israel’s military runways, can be moved from a glaring red to a more friendly shade of yellow.

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