Verification in Iran: 15 questions and answers

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Aug 04 2015
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring

By Mark Hibbs and Andreas Persbo

Cross-posted on www.vertic.org and http://carnegieendowment.org.

What is the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding verification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)?

The IAEA is not a party to the JCPOA. But if approved by its Board of Governors, the IAEA will be responsible for monitoring Iran’s compliance with the nuclear provisions of the agreement. Much of what the IAEA will do will be virtually identical with what the IAEA has been doing long before Iran and the six powers concluded the JCPOA, namely, implementing safeguards under Iran’s bilateral safeguards agreement pursuant to Iran’s commitment under the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) not to make or possess nuclear weapons.

Beyond routine safeguards, the IAEA will continue to address with Iran allegations concerning so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear programme. Information suggesting that Iran had done work on nuclear weapons emerged during a comprehensive investigation of Iran’s nuclear history launched by the IAEA upon request of the Board of Governors in 2003. On the same day that the JCPOA was concluded, Iran and the IAEA agreed to a “roadmap” to resolve these PMD issues by December 15.

The IAEA will also monitor Iran’s compliance with provisions in the JCPOA that circumscribe the scope and extent of Iran’s nuclear programme including uranium mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment; fuel fabrication; research reactors; and heavy water production. The IAEA will periodically report to its Board of Governors and to the UN Security Council in this regard.

As a non-party to the JCPOA, the IAEA will conduct verification activities in Iran on the basis of its own independent and established legal authority, however some tasks assigned to the IAEA by the JCPOA will go beyond pre-existing IAEA-Iran understandings. In the case that Iran declines to provide access to the IAEA on any occasion, the JCPOA provides for an adjudication process whereby it will be ultimately up to the parties to the JCPOA in a Joint Commission to “advise” on “necessary means” by which Iran must within 24 days respond to the IAEA’s request. The language of the JCPOA would suggest that the powers will not decide for themselves what actions Iran must take.

Can the IAEA provide the needed assurance that Iran is complying with its obligations under the JCPOA?

Except for commitments related to PMD issues and some monitoring tasks, nearly everything the IAEA will do in Iran it has carried out successfully and routinely in Iran and in other states with IAEA safeguards agreements. Since 2014 the IAEA has been doing some verification in Iran beyond routine safeguards as called for by the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), a preliminary agreement between Iran and the six powers reached in November 2013.

The IAEA and the powers will be challenged by the December 15 deadline for closing on PMD allegations. Last December, Iran refused to answer the IAEA’s questions and then indefinitely suspended cooperation. Iran resumed cooperation earlier this year, but unless this has significantly increased, it will be difficult for the IAEA to conclude its PMD investigation on time. Whether the deadline is met will depend upon how Iran replies to IAEA requests, but equally upon what specific information the IAEA requires from Iran to conclude that the matter is resolved.

What resources will the IAEA have and need to do the job?

Since 2003, when the IAEA’s Board of Governors requested detailed reporting on Iran’s safeguards implementation, the cost of IAEA verification in Iran increased steadily. By 2013, safeguards implementation in Iran cost about EUR 12 million a year—more than for any other state except Japan. Most of this money was spent on non-routine activities including analysis of several thousand samples taken from the field in Iran. Last year the IAEA sought and obtained from member states funds to implement the JPOA. On July 14, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano suggested that the cost to the IAEA of implementing the JCPOA would be about the same as for the JPOA—EUR 1 million per month. With political support for the JCPOA among IAEA member states expected to be high, it is unlikely that they will deny the IAEA funding needed to implement it. The IAEA Board of Governors will convene to consider the JCPOA in late August. It will be understood by both the IAEA and member states that contributions from states to pay for the IAEA’s work under the JCPOA will be voluntary.

Until now Iran has restricted visa support for IAEA inspectors, effectively disqualifying experts from some, mostly Western countries which provide the largest share of the IAEA’s inspector pool. The JCPOA says that Iran will increase the number of designated inspectors to about 150 over the next nine months, informed by the basic criterion that an inspector be a citizen from a state having diplomatic relations with Iran. Amano on July 14 said that this matter would be subject to future negotiation with Iran.

The JCPOA will permit the IAEA to use updated and modern safeguards technologies including on-line enrichment measurement and electronic seals that directly communicate data to IAEA inspectors. Perhaps the IAEA will establish a field office in Iran to facilitate verification under the agreement, but this is not explicitly mentioned in the JCPOA.

What are the provisions in the JCPOA concerning verification of Iran’s declared nuclear activities? Do these go beyond what the IAEA does in other countries?

Most of the IAEA’s work will be routine and follow from Iran’s safeguards agreement. Some provisions exceed routine safeguards implemented in Iran and elsewhere. These would call upon the IAEA to: monitor for up to 20 years limitations on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme including removal and storage of excess centrifuges and other infrastructure; annually assess Iran’s compliance with a long-term centrifuge R&D plan; verify for 10 years that any uranium concentrate processed into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) takes place at a declared facility; monitor for 25 years all uranium ore processing; monitor the modification of the IR-40 research reactor project and review design information for the replacement reactor; monitor the heavy water component of the Arak project; calculate the amount of uranium that must be removed from the Fordow enrichment site; and provide assurance that all nuclear fuel fabrication follows approved processes.

What does the JCPOA say about providing assurances that Iran has no undeclared activities?

Obtaining this assurance was a key objective for western governments, and it was highlighted in the JCPOA preamble. The agreement foresees that IAEA safeguards will provide necessary confidence. Sometime next year, Iran will start to provisionally implement its Additional Protocol. This implementation should permit the IAEA to eventually draw a so-called “broader conclusion” expressing confidence regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material in Iran. This conclusion should satisfy western government concerns.

Questions relating to undeclared activities in Iran will be handled in several ways. If undeclared activities are suspected to be on-going at declared facilities these will be handled according to the provisions of Iran’s Additional Protocol, including for complementary access, with IAEA notice given with at least 24 hours’ notice, or two hours in some cases. If the IAEA has concerns about any non-declared location, Iran’s protocol would permit the IAEA to carry out environmental sampling, in accordance with paragraph 5 (c) of the protocol.

But the JCPOA also provides for additional IAEA access beyond what it called for in Iran’s Additional Protocol, in the case for concerns about undeclared locations. Annex I, section Q, of the JCPOA permits the IAEA to “request access to such locations.” Should Iran contest IAEA access in any instance, the above adjudication process would aim to resolve the dispute within 24 days.

The JCPOA details minimum requirements in some specific areas, such as the frequency of inspections at certain sites, and the type of safeguards technology deployed. It also introduces more exacting standards for monitoring Iran’s uranium ores, whether imported or domestically mined.

The JCPOA states that its provisions are to be implemented “without prejudice to [Iran’s] safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol thereto.” In theory, that would allow the IAEA through the Joint Commission to request and carry out a ”special inspection” under Iran’s safeguards agreement. But such a request would have to be negotiated with Iran; instead the powers would more likely rely on the adjudication mechanism called for in the JCPOA.

What does the agreement say about the Additional Protocol?

Iran will implement its Additional Protocol on a provisional basis beginning on “Implementation Day”—assumed to occur sometime in 2016, after Iran has completed a broad range of nuclear actions, and once a first tranche of sanctions have been lifted. This means that, during the five-month period when Iran and the IAEA are meant to settle all PMD issues, the IAEA access provisions of the Additional Protocol will not apply. This outcome was the result of negotiations between Iran and the powers. But it means that if the IAEA requests access to locations, individuals, or information in Iran to resolve a PMD issue, it must rely on Iran’s safeguards agreement and any ad-hoc permissions given by Iran.

The JCPOA schedule calls for Iran, on the same date in 2023 that a second tranche of sanctions will be lifted, to initiate ratification of its Additional Protocol.

Why did the JCPOA permit Iran to implement its Additional Protocol on a provisional basis? Doesn’t that pose a risk that Iran will not cooperate with the IAEA?

The JPOA in 2013 had foreseen that within one year after the JCPOA was agreed to, Iran must ratify its Additional Protocol. But Iran during the negotiation succeeded in escaping any requirement that, by the time the JCPOA lapsed, its protocol must be a legal obligation. Iranian sources close to the negotiations said that withholding ratification would provide leverage against recalcitrant U.S. lawmakers who might oppose lifting of the second and third tranches of sanctions in 2023 and 2025, respectively. The powers did not insist on a formal ratification requirement and instead wagered that the benefits of sanctions-lifting, trade, and cooperation would motivate Iran to bring its protocol into force.

The powers also calculate that Iran will implement its protocol on a provisional basis because that is unconditionally required by the JCPOA; non-performance would constitute a serious violation. However, as soon as the JCPOA no longer applies, Iran may inform the IAEA that it will no longer implement the protocol on a provisional basis and, further, may suspend the ratification process.

During negotiation of the JCPOA concern was raised that Iran could “sneak out” to produce enough nuclear material in a hurry for a bomb. Is that concern technically justified in light of the accord?

Here, “sneak out” refers to the use of declared facilities to clandestinely produce nuclear material intended to be diverted for a non-peaceful use. It is not very likely that Iran would be successful should it try to deceive the IAEA by doing this.

Existing verification approaches used by the IAEA were designed with much larger nuclear facilities in mind than those in Iran. For a state like Iran with declared uranium enrichment plants having far smaller throughputs, implementing an evasion strategy using declared facilities would take many years, if not decades. Once Iran adopts up-to-date safeguards technology such as on-line enrichment monitors, as called for by the JCPOA, an evasion strategy relying on declared facilities would become still riskier for Tehran.

Historically, proliferating countries have largely avoided using safeguarded facilities for proscribed purposes. A more probable evasion strategy for a country like Iran would rely on setting up a clandestine fuel cycle. This strategy would be more difficult to carry out once Iran implements its Additional Protocol. The protocol, established in the 1990s after Iraq evaded IAEA detection by setting up a secret and undeclared infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons, was designed to detect undeclared activities on the basis of a holistic evaluation of a state’s entire nuclear fuel cycle. Moreover, Iran’s commitment under the JCPOA to supply information on procurement will likely increase the risk to Iran of a clandestine strategy.

Some observers and officials during the negotiations demanded that the final agreement provide for “anytime, anywhere” inspections. Why didn’t the JCPOA permit these?

In April, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz was cited in media accounts as asserting that “we expect to have anywhere, anytime access.” Three months later, however, Secretary of State John Kerry explained that “there is no such standard within arms control inspections” adding that “we never had a discussion [during negotiations] about 'anywhere, anytime' managed access.” Unnamed senior administration officials later correctly informed reporters “that the concept of truly unfettered inspections anytime, anywhere is only possible if there is a military occupation of a country.”

Unlike Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War, where the IAEA carried out nearly uninhibited inspections in a militarily defeated nation, negotiations with Iran were based on the premise that Iran’s rights to the peaceful use of nuclear energy under the NPT would be observed—including the provisions of Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

So can Iran prevent the IAEA from getting needed access to people, places, and information?

All three verification mechanisms at issue under the agreement—the JCPOA, Iran’s safeguards agreement, and the Additional Protocol—provide the IAEA access in Iran on the basis that Iran cooperates with the agency.

In practice, Iran could prevent the agency from getting access. If so, denial of access should lead other parties to the JCPOA, after adjudication failed, to initiate the process called for in the agreement to reinstitute sanctions, which would possibly terminate the entire agreement. In such a case Iran would have to weigh the benefit of denying access against the risks. It is possible that, as more sanctions are terminated, Iran’s calculus would prompt it to take such a risk. On the other hand, as “Termination Day” for the agreement approaches, Iran might conclude that it would be better off fully cooperating with the IAEA until all sanctions terminate, restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme are lifted, and Iran is wholly free to decide its nuclear course.

Can Iran cover its tracks by attempting to deny the IAEA access?

The JCPOA establishes that, if Iran refuses the IAEA access to a site where it suspects undeclared activity may be taking place, the matter should resolved within 24 days. If IAEA personnel arrive at a site 24 days after the agency seeks access to it, the elapsed time would not erase key signatures for the presence of nuclear materials.

If the IAEA suspected that the site hosted clandestine nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure—stores of yellowcake, conversion facilities, enrichment plants, reactors, or reprocessing plants—in the case of operating equipment and the materials being processed there would be nuclear signatures. Small, portable infrastructure not used to process any nuclear material, a few centrifuges or a hot cell, for instance, might be removed leaving nothing behind for sampling to detect provided equipment is not contaminated with traces of nuclear material. While IAEA inspections in such a case may be inconclusive, the sudden rush to evacuate equipment may be detected by intelligence agencies.

If Iran has handled uranium metal and compounds in any quantity they will with high confidence be detected by sensitive environmental sampling—provided that the IAEA has information good enough to pinpoint where these activities took place. Less-sensitive methods would detect nuclear materials if Iran were careless in using them. In the case that Iran werecarrying out activities related to weaponization that do not involve nuclear materials, the likelihood that the IAEA would detect them may be less than in the case for activities involving nuclear material. In any case, the more Iran were to cooperate with the IAEA, the greater the chance of detection. Moreover, if verification under the JCPOA becomes overtly adversarial, the agreement will likely fail.

Does IAEA verification under this agreement terminate?

No. So long as Iran is a party to the NPT, the IAEA will implement safeguards under Iran’s safeguards agreement. If Iran in 2023 fulfils its obligation to initiate ratification of its Additional Protocol, and then ratifies the protocol, bringing it into force, Iran must implement the AP indefinitely as part of its safeguards agreement. Eventually the JCPOA’s dispute adjudication procedure will lapse. Should Iran’s Additional Protocol then not be legally binding and should Iran suspend protocol implementation, its provisions will no longer govern IAEA access. The powers are betting that the benefits of sanctions-lifting and cooperation will prompt Iran to ratify it. Over time, specific IAEA monitoring activities in Iran that go beyond the terms of NPT safeguards agreements will lapse; most of these Iranian commitments will have expired after 25 years.

The end of sanctions and the lapsing of the JCPOA does not mean that the IAEA will “close the file” on Iran. Under Iran’s safeguards agreement, the IAEA has the right, reinforced by the Additional Protocol, to raise with Iran any concerns that nuclear activities in Iran may not be declared. Should the IAEA and Iran reach an understanding on PMD issues as foreseen before the end of this year, the Board of Governors resolution attesting to this development should state for the record that the IAEA’s authority to pursue questions about Iran’s nuclear activities will legally prevail.

What is the significance of the “Broader Conclusion”? Does it matter if Iran gets this from the IAEA?

The “broader conclusion” is the ultimate goal of IAEA verification under the JCPOA. This is pronounced by the IAEA when, in the course of implementation of a state’s Additional Protocol, it judges that, in addition to the state’s declared nuclear activities all being accounted for, there are no undeclared activities, and that all nuclear materials in the state are dedicated to peaceful uses.

The JCPOA incentivizes Iran to cooperate with the IAEA to obtain this broader conclusion by earlier lifting of sanctions as soon as the conclusion is reached. But if the IAEA does not reach a broader conclusion after eight years, sanctions will be terminated on schedule, provided Iran is implementing the agreement.

The broader conclusion expresses high confidence by the IAEA in a state’s nuclear non-proliferation credentials; the verdict is subject to annual renewal.

Of 126 states with an Additional Protocol in force, 65 have a broader conclusion. Not having the broader conclusion does not imply that a state is not meeting its safeguards obligations. But given Iran’s nearly two decades of previous systematic safeguards violations, a broader conclusion would provide great assurance that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful.

Overall, what are the benefits of this agreement for verification?

The JCPOA is a vote of confidence in the IAEA and its safeguards system. If the JCPOA succeeds, that will be due to years of previous spadework by the IAEA to fully comprehend Iran’s nuclear programme. The JCPOA may therefore demonstrate the value of on-going efforts by the IAEA to further develop the concept that safeguards be based on a holistic evaluation of each state. Less certain is whether successful implementation of the JCPOA would lead to elements of the agreement being adopted by other states as a future non-proliferation standard. This is advocated by some officials and experts in advanced nuclear countries including Western powers which negotiated the JCPOA with Iran. Because the state-level safeguards concept is subject to intense scrutiny of IAEA member states sensitive about their NPT “rights,” the JCPOA includes the disclaimer that its provisions “should not be considered as setting precedents for any other state.”

Separately, the IAEA may rely upon the JCPOA’s provisions concerning up-to-date verification standards to get traction in convincing other states, where standards may have fallen behind, to allow the agency to make improvements.

Overall, what are the verification risks and uncertainties?

The ultimate test of the JCPOA’s verification provisions will be Iran’s willingness to comply with them. If Iran implements the deal in good faith, the provisions should be smoothly and successfully fulfilled. Uncertainties and risks apply in the case that disputes about compliance arise. These include:

  • The parties front-loaded the JCPOA with the most contentious verification issue: PMD. If not solved by December 15, the agreement does not spell out how Iran, the IAEA, and the powers will proceed. Unresolved disputes over this will damage political will needed to implement the JCPOA at an early stage and reduce its chances of success.
  • If the IAEA declares the PMD issue resolved without providing the Board of Governors an assessment that dispels concern that the IAEA may have relented to accommodate the powers and Iran, the credibility of both the IAEA and the JCPOA may be damaged. But if the IAEA frankly reports its findings, Iran might refuse to proceed with the agreement.
  • When the JCPOA lapses, Iran’s Additional Protocol may not be a legal obligation upon Iran, as there is no explicit requirement that Iran’s protocol must enter into force at any time.
  • Some undeclared Iranian activities that would violate the JCPOA may not be detected. Detection of these would likely require reliable information of an intelligence nature.
  • Iran may test the resolve of other parties by challenging the IAEA over access on the margins of the agreement in specific instances. If the powers permit this behaviour to go unrequited, it may escalate in scope, damaging the credibility of the agreement and perhaps prompting its failure.
    Since November 2013 Iran has duly implemented its obligations under the JPOA. But after sanctions are lifted, and floodgates for commerce with Iran are opened, parties to the JCPOA may lack political will to enforce lack of compliance with verification provisions.

Last changed: Aug 05 2015 at 11:53 AM

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