Could Parchin leak sway undecideds on Iran deal?

With Congress skeptical of ‘side-deals’ between IAEA and Tehran, revelation that Iran may self-inspect key nuclear site raises eyebrows

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

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

WASHINGTON – Opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran suggested Wednesday evening that revelations that Tehran would “self-inspect” a suspected nuclear-related site could sway undecided members of Congress away from supporting the agreement at next month’s vote.

Hours after the Associated Press exposed a leaked document that seems to allow Tehran to provide its own inspectors and equipment, as well as determine which areas are off-limits, for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s probe of the military facility at Parchin, critics renewed calls for the entire agreement between the IAEA and Iran to be disclosed to Congress — an agreement described by some in Washington as part of “secret side deals” with the UN watchdog.

“The Obama administration tried keeping this information secret, which would have prevented American lawmakers and the American people from finding out the full extent of our diplomats’ collapse to Iran. The Associated Press had to get the document from overseas and reveal it that way,” said Omri Ceren, Managing Director at The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group which is opposed to the terms of the current deal. “Now that the full information is public there’s going to be a public backlash, which is exactly what the administration was hoping to avoid. Even lawmakers who have expressed support for the deal may have to reconsider, given how insane it is to let the Iranians police their own nuclear violations.”

According to the report based on a document seen by the news agency, Iran will provide both the inspectors and equipment for inspection at the Parchin military complex. The document also seems to indicate that Iran will provide agency experts with photos and videos of locations the IAEA says are linked to the alleged weapons work, “taking into account military concerns.”

That wording raised concern that IAEA inspectors will have limited access – even through their Iranian inspection team – to the facility, allowing Iran to continue to block access to areas that Iran determines are restricted due to military considerations.

Iran is believed to have conducted secret work toward the weaponization of its nuclear program at the Parchin site — and inspection of the facility was one aspect of independent talks between the IAEA and Iran as part of complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

For weeks, members of Congress have called upon the administration to provide them with the agreements reached between Iran and the IAEA, which concern accounting for its actions at the Parchin site, as well as coming clean about previous military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. Current legislation requires the administration to provide Congress with all documents related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – but both the IAEA and the White House argue that the separate agreement is between Iran and the nuclear oversight body and is confidential.

Instead, administration officials have briefed legislators on the contents of the agreements in classified sessions – but have not actually seen them.

Iranian compliance with the confidential agreements is one of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran that is currently being reviewed by Congress, prior to an anticipated vote on the agreement in September. President Barack Obama has campaigned hard for Democratic legislators to support the deal, and with less than a month left, and almost two dozen Democratic senators still uncommitted, the stakes are high.

One of those key undecideds — Maryland Senator Ben Cardin — has already requested that the administration provide the contents of the so-called “side deals” for Congressional review.

The AP report on the self-inspect deal is likely to be further ammunition in the arsenals of the deal’s opponents. By Wednesday afternoon, those opposed to the deal in Congress cited the leaked document as further evidence that the inspection and verification regime delineated in the nuclear agreement signed between the world powers and Tehran in July 14 is insufficient to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complained that “this type of unorthodox agreement has never been done before by the IAEA and speaks to the great lengths our negotiators took to accommodate the Ayatollah [Ali Khamenei] despite repeated assurances from the administration that this deal is not based on trust.”

Even before the “unorthodox” inspections protocol was revealed, Corker had voiced his opposition to the deal, warning in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “the inspections process is deeply flawed.”

“Through verbal presentations regarding possible military dimensions, many in Congress are aware of the unorthodox arrangements agreed to by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the administration and our negotiating partners to keep from upsetting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” Corker complained in the article. “Those actual agreements remain secret, but we know that at best they are most unusual and speak to the P5+1’s low commitment to holding Iran’s feet to the fire.”

Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a frequent participant in Capitol Hill hearings on the deal, described the parameters delineated in the leaked document as “a dangerous precedent.

“President Obama’s Iran deal is a massive bet on verification and inspection of a nuclear program that will expand over time as key restrictions disappear under the agreement,” he said. “Now we are learning that verification and inspection of military sites where Iran has engaged in weaponization activities seems to be based on Iranian self-verification and self-inspection. That’s a dangerous precedent and consistent with Iran’s repeated claims that no weapons inspectors will ever get into its military sites.”

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