The success of the historic accord reached Tuesday to prevent Iran from using its nuclear program to secretly build weapons will hinge on the most intrusive international monitoring system ever devised by the U.N. nuclear watchdog to detect cheating.
Designed to scrutinize every part of Tehran’s program, the system will rely on scores of U.N. inspectors, satellite imagery and intelligence from the United States and other nations. Remote cameras, tamper-proof seals and other sensing devices would send encrypted data from Iranian nuclear facilities, including sites that have been off-limits, via the Internet to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s headquarters in Austria.
“We’re not talking about Game of Thrones wax seals on parchment,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a group that funds nuclear arms control initiatives. “These are fiber optic seals that, if tampered with, will transmit a signal instantaneously back to IAEA headquarters.”
The 159-page agreement struck after two years of negotiations goes so far as even to set restrictions – police by the IAEA – on the capacity of the boxes in which technicians, their hands sheathed in attached protective gloves, handle nuclear materials.
Verification of the deal is something for which the IAEA has been preparing ever since it opened its doors in 1957.
Thomas E. Shea, IAEA veteran
“This deal is not built on trust; it’s built on verification,” President Barack Obama asserted in his statement on the agreement. “Put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary. That arrangement is permanent.”
The system, which the IAEA is geared up to implement over the coming months, is designed to verify that in return for a lifting of crushing sanctions, Iran implements restrictions intended to ensure that it would need a year to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb. That period would give the IAEA enough time to detect the duplicity and the international community to respond, according to U.S. officials.
The system’s most invasive provisions would last for up to 25 years, while other inspection measures would remain indefinitely.
The system’s most invasive provisions would last for up to 25 years, while other inspection measures would remain indefinitely under the same kind of arrangement – known as an additional protocol – that the IAEA maintains with 126 other countries.
One estimate put the system’s cost at more than $150 million a year, from special monitors on miles and miles of gas pipes and cameras watching caches of surplus machinery to tabulations of the ore that Iran excavates from its uranium mines. A large part of the bill will be footed by American taxpayers.
The inspection regime will be manipulated by those with something to hide.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
Thomas E. Shea, who spent 24 years at the IAEA devising safeguards for nuclear facilities, said that the inspection regime would be unprecedented in its sweep. It would not only deter Iran from violating the accord, he added, but it could dissuade other nations from covertly trying to develop weapons, research that Tehran is suspected of pursuing until late 2003.
“Verification of the deal is something for which the IAEA has been preparing ever since it opened its doors in 1957,” he said. “Now the question is: do the Iranians honor this, which I can only imagine they will, or do they get into this agreement with the intention of challenging it or violating it? That’s hard to imagine at this point. It (the inspection system) is too pervasive.”
Critics, however, seized on the absence of a mechanism giving the IAEA “anywhere, anytime access” to any sites, including those controlled by the Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, where the agency suspects banned activities might be secretly underway.
The verification system will be one of the most heavily scrutinized parts of the agreement.
“The inspection regime will be manipulated by those with something to hide,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared at a hearing that he convened only hours after Iran concluded the deal with the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France in Vienna, Austria.
Even supporters of the deal expressed concerns, underscoring how the verification system will be one of the most heavily scrutinized parts of the agreement by a largely skeptical Congress during a 60-day review period that lawmakers will have to sign off on the deal.
“This deal cannot be based on trust,” said Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Senate’s minority Democrats. “It must be based on strict enforcement and verification provisions, and a responsible review of the deal by Congress is a critical part of that process.”
We have very high confidence that the IAEA can effectively do the job.
Senior administration official
Distrust of Iran is well-founded.
As a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international accord designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, Iran is barred from developing nuclear weapons in return for having access to peaceful nuclear technologies that are subject to IAEA monitoring.
Iran, however, secretly developed for 18 years the capacity to enrich uranium – the process that produces low-enriched uranium fuel for power plants and highly enrich uranium for weapons – using materials it acquired from A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
In November 2011, the IAEA outlined evidence that it said showed that Iran covertly researched the design of a missile-borne nuclear warhead. As part of the new accord, Iran agreed to end years of stonewalling and answer the agency’s questions about the project.
The IAEA has had regular access to many of Iran’s nuclear plants. They include Natanz, the industrial-size facility that houses 19,000 first-generation centrifuges – the spinning machines that enrich uranium – and Fordow, a facility that is buried deep beneath a mountain that houses about 2,700 of the devices. But the agency has been denied access to others.
Under the new inspection system, inspectors will have 24-hour access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. That will allow them, aided by their monitoring tools, to track the entire enrichment process, from the mining of uranium ore to the ore’s conversion into uranium hexafluoride gas to the injection of the gas into the 5,060 centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to keep running only at Natanz.
“It is for the IAEA to determine what they need” for the inspection system, said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the accord publicly. “We’ve had a clear discussion with the Iranians about what we mean by that. There is no room for a misunderstanding about what (monitoring devices) will be installed. And if there is, it will be the IAEA that will be the decider as to what will go in.”
The system will also have to ensure that Iran produces only 3.67 percent low-enriched uranium – a weapon requires highly enriched uranium of more than 90 percent – for 15 years to power a research reactor and the Arak heavy water reactor, and that it gets rid of uranium stocks of higher enrichment.
IAEA personnel will verify other key aspects of the accord, from monitoring the production of centrifuge parts for 20 years and policing limits on nuclear research and development to ensuring that the Arak reactor is overhauled so it can’t make plutonium for a bomb.
The inspectors “are able to hit the ground running,” said the senior administration official. “We have very high confidence that the IAEA can effectively do the job.”
The inspection system is designed on the premise that Iran – because of its history of evading IAEA safeguards - could try to circumvent the agreement’s limitations and establish a parallel but secret weapons program.
That requires giving the agency access to non-nuclear facilities, including sensitive military sites, where the IAEA suspects that banned nuclear activities may be located.
U.S. officials, responding to critics’ demands for “anytime, anywhere” access, explained that no country, including the United States, could be expected to allow foreigner inspectors into military bases or other top-secret sites on the spur of the moment.
Moreover, Shea pointed out, when U.N. inspectors simply showed up at Iraqi military sites after Baghdad’s surrender in the 1991 Gulf War, they were sometimes embroiled in life-threatening standoffs with gun-wielding Iraqi soldiers.
“This is a negotiated settlement, not the result of an unconditional surrender,” he said of the new deal.
The deal commits Iran to a procedure under which the inspectors must give their reasons for seeking access to a sensitive site. If a resolution can’t be reached, the matter would go to a Joint Commission that is being established to adjudicate disputes, and a majority of the panel could order Iran to comply with the IAEA’s request. The entire process would take 25 days.