Weak inspections regime is nuclear deal’s Achilles’ heel

The absence of ‘anytime, anywhere’ surveillance — sought by negotiators just weeks ago — puts one-year breakout warning time in doubt

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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

One of the key sticking points in the nuclear talks with Iran was that of inspections. Israel and others mindful of Tehran’s history of deceit demanded so-called “anywhere, anytime” inspections. And just a few weeks ago, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz indicated that unlimited access to suspect Iranian facilities should be part of any verifiable agreement.

“We expect to have anywhere, anytime access,” he said in a April 20 interview.

However, such inspections did not make it into the final version of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” which Iran and six world powers, led by the US, announced Tuesday. “Anywhere, anyplace” was replaced by “where necessary, when necessary,” as US President Barack Obama termed it.

Indeed, the provisions dealing with how to detect possible Iranian violations of the agreement appear to be the deal’s Achilles’ heel. Rather than allowing inspectors unfettered access to Iran’s facilities, including surprise visits to any location suspected to host illicit activity, the deal creates a convoluted mechanism that will give the Iranians enough time conceal any wrongdoing on their part.

While the P5+1 world powers argue that Iran is now about a year from the capacity to break out to nuclear weapons capability, the weak inspection provisions put in place by the deal drastically reduces that time, a leading Israeli analyst said Tuesday.

What does the deal actually say about inspections?

If the originally desired “anywhere, anytime” inspections are absent from the deal, what does it say about access for inspectors and the detection of possible violations?

For a start, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be allowed to establish a “long-term” presence in Iran. The ayatollahs’ regime agrees to increase the number of inspectors to 150 within nine months (though only from countries that have diplomatic relations with Iran, so no Israelis).

A satellite image of Iran's Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image of Iran’s Fordo uranium enrichment facility (AP/DigitalGlobe)

Iran will issue “long-term visas” to these inspectors and commits to “providing proper working space at nuclear sites and, with best efforts, at locations near nuclear sites in Iran.”

More importantly, the agreement calls for “a reliable mechanism to ensure speedy resolution of IAEA access concerns for 15 years.” Western negotiators emphasize that the IAEA will be allowed to monitor Iranian uranium enrichment processes for 25 years.

“Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran’s nuclear facilities,” Obama declared Tuesday. Some of the deal’s transparency measures will be in place for 25 years, he added. The IAEA “will have access where necessary, when necessary.”

Under the agreement, Iran will grant inspectors “regular access, including daily as requested by the IAEA,” to the nuclear facilities in Fordow and Natanz for the next decade and a half.

However, the agreement also stipulates that any request to access Iran’s facilities “will be made in good faith, with due observance of the sovereign rights of Iran and kept to the minimum necessary.” The IAEA will have to “take every precaution to protect commercial, technological and industrial secrets as well as other confidential information coming to its knowledge,” according to the agreement.

These caveats aptly characterize the deal’s general spirit regarding inspections: Do what you have to, but don’t be too intrusive.

What if the IAEA suspects secret violations?

What does the agreement propose in case international inspectors have reason to believe that Iran is trying to hide something from them?

If the IAEA has concerns about possible Iranian violations of the agreement, or Iranian nuclear activity in sites not covered by the agreement, “the IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification,” the agreement states.

In other words, international inspectors will not be able to surprise the Iranians and catch them in the act. Indeed, the Vienna deal gives the regime ample time to hide any violations of the deal.

If Iran’s explanations do not adequately answer the IAEA’s concerns, it “may request access to such locations” to make sure no illicit activity occurs there. “The IAEA will provide Iran the reasons for access in writing and will make available relevant information,” the deal stipulates. However, “Iran may propose to the IAEA alternative means of resolving the IAEA’s concerns,” which should be given “due and prompt consideration.”

If there are still open questions, “or if the two sides are unable to reach satisfactory arrangements” to look into the inspectors’ suspicions within two weeks of the IAEA’s original request for access, Iran will resolve these concerns “through necessary means agreed between Iran and the IAEA,” the deal says.

If there is no agreement, a so-called Joint Commission — consisting of the six world powers and Iran itself — will vote on how to resolve the crisis. That grants Tehran yet more time to hide any illegal activity.

“The process of consultation with, and any action by, the members of the Joint Commission would not exceed 7 days, and Iran would implement the necessary means within 3 additional days,” according to the agreement.

Dr. Emily Landau (YouTube screenshot)
Dr. Emily Landau (YouTube screenshot)

“This is adding another layer of mechanisms that will just be something Iran will be able to abuse in order to play for time,” said Emily Landau, who heads the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies.

If Iran wanted to cheat, a senior Israeli official said Tuesday in a briefing to Israeli reporters, it would likely not do so in the known locations — Fordow and Natanz, which will be closely monitored by the IAEA — but in hitherto undisclosed locations.

If Jerusalem shared with the inspectors intelligence showing how the Iranians are engaging in forbidden activities in an unmonitored location, the Iranians would have nearly an entire month to cover their tracks. “If only the Western powers understood this,” the official lamented.

The main problem with this deal is its sunset clause, which essentially turns Iran into a legitimized nuclear threshold state within a decade, according to Landau. But the weak inspection regime makes the agreement dangerous a long time before it expires.

Trying to sell this deal, Western officials have argued that the curbs it places on Iranian uranium enrichment keep the regime about 12 months away from breakout capacity — the time it would need to produce enough enriched uranium to build a bomb.

But “before the 10 years even end, there are serious questions with regard to whether this 12 months from breakout is a real scenario,” Landau warned. It is more than doubtful that one year is enough time “to detect a violation, to agree it’s significant, to bring it to this commission to go through all the motions, to decide what to do about it, who will do it and then do it,” she said. “Twelve months for all of that will be very problematic.”

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