Iran deal can be effectively verified to prevent "sneakout"
The agreement is based on verification, not trust. According to the U.S. fact sheet, Iran has agreed to accept the IAEA’s Additional Protocol as well as several even more intrusive monitoring and inspection measures that will provide high confidence that Iran is not making bomb material at its declared nuclear facilities and will significantly strengthen the ability of inspectors to detect clandestine facilities
Fortunately for the JCPOA, the refrain of an “anytime, anywhere” access may make for a great sound bite, but its utility is overstated by Cotton and other critics of the agreement. An access delay — even one of 24 days — wouldn’t make any material difference to the IAEA’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities.
When IAEA inspectors search for undeclared nuclear activities, they look for tiny traces of nuclear material on surfaces. Fortunately for them, nuclear material lingers. And, modern detection technology is so amazingly effective that minuscule traces of nuclear material can be detected years after nuclear activities took place. Countries have tried to sanitize facilities completely to remove every last trace of nuclear material. Iran did so at the Kalaye Electric Company after its secret nuclear program was revealed in 2002. Syria tried the same thing in 2007 after Israel bombed its plutonium-production reactor at al-Kibar. In both cases, the IAEA still managed to detect nuclear material. Those findings were critical to persuading the organization’s governing body to make a formal finding of noncompliance against both Iran and Syria.
Perhaps Iran has learned from its past mistakes and could do a better job of cleaning up nuclear material in the future and keeping its program secret. But, what’s clear is that perfect cleanup — if it were possible — would take many months. After just 24 days, the IAEA would have little difficulty detecting the residue from undeclared nuclear activities.
So, here’s the bottom line: The Iran deal doesn’t provide for anytime, anywhere access, but it does facilitate timely access anywhere — and that’s what needed for effective verification.
What the IAEA actually needs is some preliminary evidence about where a secret nuclear facility might be lurking. The much-discussed but little-understood Additional Protocol was developed precisely for that purpose, and the JCPOA obliges Iran to accept it, first voluntarily and subsequently on a legally binding basis. But, the JCPOA goes beyond the Additional Protocol in two innovative and important ways.
First, IAEA monitoring will be extended to declared yellowcake (the precursor material to the feedstock for enrichment) and to declared centrifuge components. This measure will deter Iran from diverting this material and equipment to a secret program. Iran could, of course, try to acquire yellowcake or centrifuge components secretly instead — but doing so would create more opportunities for detection.
Second, the deal also creates a “Procurement Working Group” to oversee the import of all equipment and material that either is used or could be used for nuclear purposes. The intelligence communities of the United States and its friends spend considerable resources monitoring Iranian imports. If they discover that Iran has obtained any items that should have been declared but weren’t, they will have acquired clear evidence of secret nuclear activities in Iran. They could hand this evidence to the IAEA, which could conduct inspections to investigate further.
All in all, therefore, the JCPOA provides for some impressive verification provisions to guard against sneak-out. That said, no one should be under any illusions. Detecting small, undeclared centrifuge plants is difficult, and there is no guarantee of success. But, perfection is not the right metric against which to assess a nonproliferation agreement. The real question is whether sneak-out is more likely with a deal or without one. And here the answer is clear: Sneak-out would be much more likely without a deal, because the IAEA’s powers to detect clandestine facilities would be much more limited.
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More than that, I believe that the terms of such a deal are of less importance to America’s national interests than how the nations of the Middle East respond to it. Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, I have believed that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, concluded that he did not need an actual nuclear arsenal because he calculated that there was little likelihood of either an American or Israeli attack and perhaps that Iran was far enough along toward being able to build a nuclear weapon as it needed to be given that threat environment. I also believe that Rouhani’s election convinced him that relieving the pressure of the sanctions on Iran’s economy was a higher priority than making further progress toward fielding a nuclear arsenal—so long as Iran did not have to give up its nuclear capability entirely and forever in return for the lifting of sanctions. Based on this analysis, I suspect that the Iranian government does not intend to cheat on any nuclear agreement or to use it as a cover to covertly acquire nuclear weapons as North Korea did, at least not for now or for the foreseeable future.
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Of course, the agreement is far from perfect as no tough international negotiation yields a deal that is completely satisfactory to all sides. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the agreement is that some of the constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities are lifted after 10–15 years, particularly with regards to its centrifuge capacity and ability to conduct research and development on next-generation centrifuges. Opponents will rightfully argue that there is a danger that this agreement leaves in place the potential for Iran to become a nuclear threshold state in 15 years and it is certainly true that permanent restrictions would have been more effective.
The good news is that the agreement still leaves in place a number of sufficient checks that last longer than 15 years. Most important, the key elements of the inspections regime, including the Additional Protocol, remain in place forever or for 25 years, giving the United States and its partners unprecedented visibility into Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is also forbidden from ever pursuing any research and development activities that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device, including uranium or plutonium metallurgy activities. Through the joint oversight mechanism the United States will have the ability to gain visibility into Iran’s research and development plans and block any changes Iran proposes that the United States find unacceptable.
But what about secret facilities? The brute fact about unknown facilities is that we cannot know what we don’t know. No agreement can provide 100-percent confidence that Iran will not cheat at a secret facility. Indeed, no one can have 100-percent confidence today that Iran has not already built a nuclear bomb at a secret facility. What has prevented the Iranians from doing this so far has been Tehran’s judgment that such an undertaking would be discovered and that the United States would act decisively to deny them success. The keys to sustaining effective deterrence are (1) rigorous efforts by the intelligence agencies of the United States and its allies, and (2) a credible military capability to act if Iran dashes toward a bomb.
Since the agreement imposes the most intrusive verification and inspection regime ever negotiated, it will significantly add to the ability of intelligence officials to discover any prohibited activity and enhance the legitimacy of U.S. or other countries’ military actions to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons should it violate its commitments. Nonetheless, as experts and so-called experts debate a 24-day delay for direct inspections of suspicious activity, or insufficient answers about Iran’s earlier nuclear pursuits, no one should miss the larger truth: 99 percent of the work to assure that any Iranian cheating is discovered will be done by U.S. intelligence agencies and those of allies. That was true before the agreement and will remain so after—even though the new inspections regime will provide some helpful information and observations that would otherwise be unavailable.
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The IAEA uses cameras to monitor facilities and sends inspectors to check seals placed on facilities. However, both because the IAEA must gain the consent of the inspected party and because of funding constraints, it does not remotely monitor facilities in near-real-time in Iran. Given the Islamic Republic's history of cheating, obfuscating, and lying, the lack of near-real-time monitoring represents a major procedural weakness. The IAEA or other international consortia should break with current practice, and use remote cameras which provide near-real-time surveillance capabilities and employ onsite inspectors 24 hours per day, seven days each week. However, video monitoring can only apply to Iran's declared sites. Written into any agreement should be verification procedures to address undeclared nuclear programs inside the country. Given the IAEA's inability to detect undeclared activities with confidence, however, such verification procedures might resemble mechanisms applied by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
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Moreover, responding to Iranian violations need not depend on proof gathered by the IAEA on site. While an IAEA inspection that catches Iran red-handed would probably provide the strongest basis for going to the Security Council and re-imposing sanctions, the United States would not need to wait for IAEA confirmation of Iranian cheating. If the United States acquired reliable intelligence of Iranian violations that posed a serious security threat and could be shared with others, the nuclear deal enables Washington to go directly to the Security Council without waiting for IAEA access. Indeed, depending on the scale and time-urgency of the threat, the United States could choose to act on its own to penalize Iran.
Inspections are only one component of the JCPOA’s comprehensive monitoring system. Continuous surveillance of the entire nuclear supply chain, including the prohibition of sensitive imports other than those individually approved and monitored for legitimate purposes, will make it difficult for Iran to pursue an undetected covert enrichment program. To succeed, a covert program requires not just a single clandestine site but a substantial number of effectively hidden facilities and undetected movement of equipment and materials between them. It requires unaccounted-for or successfully diverted supplies of uranium ore, processed uranium, uranium gas, centrifuge components, and facilities designed to produce those supplies. The JCPOA’s layered monitoring system will greatly increase the likelihood of detecting one or more of the necessary elements of a covert program and provide a substantial deterrent to Iranian cheating.
Basic technical capabilities to detect violations of commitments like those Iran would make under a comprehensive nuclear deal have improved significantly since 1994. This augments the deterrence of cheating, including by heightening the probability that such cheating could be detected in time to allow military interdiction.
Moreover, the proposed agreement to monitor the entire supply of specified materials and technology going to Iran and to limit Iran’s procurement to a declared channel eases the burden of verification and intelligence gathering and assessment. Any procurement that was detected outside the monitored supply chain and declared channel would presumably be deemed a violation of the agreement. Unlike today, intelligence analysts and policymakers would not have to debate whether a detected activity actually signifies a violation of the NPT or of any other international nonproliferation norm or guideline.
Intrusive IAEA inspections also allow intelligence officials to worry less about keeping watch over Iran’s known nuclear sites, allowing them to focus on the hunt for any nuclear activity Iran might be conducting in secret.
Multiple intelligence arms of the U.S. government are focused on Iran, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA’s Iran operations division.
Schiff said he is urging his undecided colleagues to read a classified assessment prepared for Congress by U.S. intelligence agencies, which he said gives him confidence in the ability of U.S. spy agencies to catch Iran in the act of cheating.
He said that Washington would be stepping up cooperation with allies to monitor Iran beyond the declared scope of the nuclear deal’s IAEA inspections.
That point was echoed by Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, in a recent interview with POLITICO.
“I know something about the American [intelligence] capabilities, and I can tell you that some specific areas, we can improve them with some specific capabilities that we have,” Ayalon said. “I believe that we can reach the point at which, if we share our intelligence… we shall know almost everything what is happening at every site every moment in Iran.
Although the chances of an Iranian sneak-out attempt are relatively great, however, its odds of success are extremely low. With the world’s spy agencies devoting huge resources to tracking events inside Iran, any serious attempt at cheating under a new nuclear deal would probably get caught. If Tehran somehow did manage to cheat without notice, its secret program would nonetheless advance slowly. Moreover, even in the unlikely eventuality of a highly efficient secret effort, Iran would still fall short of a bona fide nuclear weapons arsenal. The major powers, then, are right to focus on getting an agreement that limits Iran’s genuine breakout potential, not its highly questionable sneak-out potential.
Iran has often tried to build advanced nuclear capabilities in secret. But time and again, it has gotten caught in the act. Both of Iran’s uranium enrichment plants, for example, were discovered at early stages of construction. Pessimists point to this past cheating as evidence of Tehran’s untrustworthiness, but that same track record also demonstrates that the United States and its partners cannot be easily duped. Moreover, a diplomatic accord with Iran would not stop Western intelligence agencies from looking out for possible Iranian malfeasance. And the more access the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors have to Iran’s nuclear program, the easier it will be to detect any covert activities.
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