WASHINGTON — The Obama administration ducked concerns Thursday raised by senators in a public hearing that Iran would be responsible for collecting its own soil samples to turn over to the International Atomic Energy Agency for inspection of suspected nuclear sites.
Officials would neither confirm or deny the claims, made twice during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, which heard testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
The disclosure, first by Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) and pressed further by Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), involved a claim that Iran would be responsible for collecting its own soil samples at a key military site suspected of being used for nuclear-related tests.
“Is it true that the Iranians are going to be able to take the samples [at Parchin] as Senator Risch said? Because chain of custody means nothing [if] at the very beginning what you [are] going to get is chosen and derived by the perpetrator,” Menendez said.
“As you know, that is a classified component of this. It’s supposed to be discussed in a classified session,” Kerry responded, adding that Moniz could brief Menendez about the issue.
“It’s part of a confidential agreement between the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and Iran as to how they do that,” Kerry continued, apparently defending the terms of the Iran-IAEA agreement. “The IAEA has said that they are satisfied that they will be able to do this in a way that does not compromise their needs and that adequately gets the answers they need.
“I’m not confirming how it’s happening,” he quickly added. “I’m saying that we are confident that the IAEA has the ability to get the answers that they need.”
Kerry’s comments indicated that issues such as chain of custody for soil samples and other elements of the inspections regime under the new deal are set by the so-called “side deals” reached between Iran and the IAEA.
After the existence of the “side deals” was revealed earlier this week, the State Department assured lawmakers that they would be briefed on their contents in closed-door sessions. One such session was held Wednesday, and it is possible that the soil sample clause came up during those discussions.
Asked about the issue, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said he did not know “the details of the chain of custody issue.”
“I can tell you that before Iran receives any sanctions relief under this joint agreement, they must provide to the IAEA all of the information and access that the IAEA says they need to complete their report about the potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program,” Earnest said in a Thursday-afternoon media briefing.
Asked if the Obama administration would object to Iran being responsible for collecting its own soil samples, Earnest responded that “the IAEA is an international body of independent nuclear experts that can determine what access they feel like they need in order to complete their report. And what we will all have the opportunity to do, is to read that report after it’s been written. And I’m confident that part of that report will at least be a description of the kind of access that they needed and received in order to write the report.”
State Department officials were unable to comment Thursday evening on Menendez’s claims.
Earlier in the week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) said that an IAEA official in Vienna had told them about the nuclear watchdog’s undisclosed agreements with Iran, but administration officials have continued to deny that these constituted “secret side agreements” that were kept out of the nuclear agreement presented to Congress for review.
“These kinds of technical arrangements with the IAEA are a matter of standard practice, that they’re not released publicly or to other states, but our experts are familiar and comfortable with the contents, which we would be happy to discuss with Congress in a classified setting,” State Department Spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday during his daily press briefing.
The Thursday disclosure was consistent with what Pompeo and Cotton said was included in the Iran-IAEA agreements. The two claimed that one of the agreements covers inspection of the Parchin military complex, a site that the IAEA suspects was being used for experiments related to weaponization of Iran’s nuclear technology. The second, they said, details how the IAEA and Iran will resolve outstanding issues in determining the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.