Verification measures for a final deal

Jofi JosephJofi Joseph assesses the types of transparency and verification measures the P5+1 should be seeking in a final nuclear agreement with Iran. He argues that demanding Iraq-style inspections is both unrealistic and unnecessary and that more reasonable measures can offer strong assurances against undetected breakout.

By Jofi Joseph

As the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran intensify ahead of the July 20th deadline for a comprehensive agreement on limits to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, it is no surprise that talks have hit a rocky phase.  The most recent round of political director-level talks held in May concluded with both sides speaking of “significant gaps” and encouraging “additional realism” from their respective negotiating partners.  The next six weeks promise many more twists and turns, and we should not be surprised if the talks appear on the verge of collapse on multiple occasions – as we saw in the lead up to the November agreement on an interim accord.

One of the likely key issues in the negotiation is the nature of transparency and verification measures designed to ensure that Iran is complying with the various limits on its nuclear program.  As a State Party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and a signatory to a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran is obligated, like every other non-nuclear weapons state, to provide appropriate access such that the IAEA can confirm that any fissile material is not diverted to a nuclear weapons program.  In recent years, the Additional Protocol (AP) has emerged as another de facto requirement for non-nuclear weapons states, incorporating a set of measures to help the IAEA ensure there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in a given state.  Iran has signed, and temporarily implemented, the AP, but its parliament has never ratified the agreement.  Iranian ratification and immediate implementation of the AP will be a core P5+1 requirement for a final agreement.

IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts
February 12, 2013 - IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards Herman Nackaerts talks with journalists as he leaves for another trip with his team to Iran. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

However, the P5+1 will rightly insist that Iran’s extended history of non-compliance with its NPT obligations demands that Tehran offer additional transparency on its nuclear program.  Because Iran engaged in over two decades of deception to cover up its efforts to develop a uranium enrichment program, construct a heavy-water reactor, and conduct research for a weaponization program, it does not enjoy the benefit of the doubt as do other non-nuclear weapons states with clean records.  Iranian officials may bitterly complain of double standards and a “nuclear apartheid,” but it only has its own record of deceit and obfuscation to blame.

So the challenge facing the P5+1 and Iran is forging an agreement on transparency and verification measures above and beyond the status quo.  These provisions should ensure the confidence of the international community that it can detect in a timely fashion any Iranian circumvention of agreed restrictions on its uranium enrichment and other nuclear fuel cycle activities.  Some analysts have called for the imposition of an “anywhere, anytime” inspections regime in Iran, modeled after the UNSCOM regime in Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War.  International inspectors would have the authority to visit any site or facility in the country, including those on military bases – with minimal notice provided.

Although such an inspections regime sounds appealing, it is neither feasible nor necessary.  References to an Iraq-style inspections regime for Iran should remind us why the latter will never accept such a model – unlike Iraq in 1991, today’s Iran has not suffered a military defeat and formally surrendered at the hands of those with whom it is negotiating.  Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation have pressured Iran into considering limits on its nuclear program to assuage international concerns, but it is not under such duress that it is willing to abdicate sovereign control over its own territory to international inspectors.

Moreover, “anytime, anywhere” inspections are not required if the goal is to detect in a timely manner whether Iran has covertly reconstituted elements of a nuclear fuel cycle.  Instead, intrusive inspections to monitor every step of Iran’s declared nuclear fuel cycle can ensure no critical elements or feed material are diverted for use in a covert enrichment or plutonium production facility.  For example, Iran could construct a small facility in a hidden underground location to host a secret enrichment program.  However, it would be entirely useless unless Iran is able to supply this facility with centrifuges and uranium feedstock.  It will be very difficult for Iran to secretly replicate an entire fuel cycle capability, from the mining of natural uranium and production of yellowcake for use as feedstock material to the production of centrifuges for a covert enrichment facility.  Instead, were Iran to seek to covertly break out, it likely would attempt to divert small amounts of uranium feedstock and small numbers of centrifuges from a declared program.  Accordingly, an inspections regime that closely tracks the equipment and material in a declared Iranian program offers the best hope of detecting any illicit breakout attempts.

Technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran are already discussing the particular details of verification measures that can help comprise a final agreement.  Any final transparency regime should include the following key features:

  • Frequent and regular IAEA inspections of Iran’s declared nuclear sites, including enrichment facilities, power and research reactors, uranium conversion, fuel fabrication, and other facilities.  Periodic inspections can be supplemented by remote surveillance utilizing fixed cameras throughout key facilities, with a possible encrypted live feed connection to IAEA headquarters in Vienna providing a 24/7 virtual surveillance capability.
  • A systematic accounting of all uranium inside Iran – uranium ore mined and/or imported from foreign sources, yellowcake produced, and any uranium processed by centrifuges – to ensure that no material amounts can be diverted to a covert enrichment facility.
  • Intrusive measures to ensure real-time monitoring of Iran’s centrifuge inventory, including production facilities for key components like rotors and bellows, the assembly workshops where centrifuges are produced, and storage depots for completed centrifuges.  In short, every centrifuge produced in Iran should be documented and accounted for so as to ensure no machines are diverted to a covert facility.
  • Comprehensive reporting on Iran’s imports of all nuclear-related equipment and materials and dual-use items, including final destination and stated purpose.  This requirement will be especially important if, as expected, international restrictions on Iran’s importation of such items relax over the course of a comprehensive agreement.

President Rouhani and other senior Iranian officials have highlighted in public remarks their openness to greater transparency measures in a final agreement.  Because, as they argue, Iran has no desire for a nuclear weapon, they are prepared to demonstrate this fact through frequent inspections and other verification provisions.  The P5+1 should be prepared to institutionalize such measures, going significantly above and beyond a CSA and an AP, for the full duration of a comprehensive final agreement.  Ultimately, greater visibility into Iran’s nuclear program, its procurement networks, and the thousands of scientists and other personnel employed by this program offers the best guarantee the international community can detect any illicit nuclear activities inside Iran.

Jofi Joseph worked on US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and participated in P5+1 negotiations with Iran as a Director for Nonproliferation on the White House National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2013.