June 12, 2015

Will Iranian Military Sites be Stumbling Block for Nuke Talks?

Kerry Zarif Walk

With a June 30 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran fast approaching, the question of whether international inspectors will have access to military sites in Iran is being presented as a major stumbling block. However, while some work remains, the parties are closer to a solution than the differing domestic narratives would indicate. A relatively straight-forward solution exists.

While the administration has reflected the messaging of many Iran hawks in claiming that a final agreement will provide for “anytime, anywhere” access for inspectors, Iran has bristled at such proclamations and stated that military sites are off limits.

Aside from rhetoric and positioning, the reality is that the framework agreement provides for managed access to suspect military sites under the auspices of the IAEA Additional Protocol, so long as there is probable cause. The remaining work appears to involve how to swiftly adjudicate disputes over whether IAEA inspectors should have access to suspect non-declared sites. While the emerging compromise may not satisfy hardliners in each country who will oppose any agreement, it would deter and guard against any potential covert breakout by Iran while at the same time respecting Iranian sovereignty. 

Iraq-style Inspections?

Citing fears of a covert nuclear program, many Iran hawks have demanded an “Iraq-style inspections regime” that provides for “anytime, anywhere” inspections including at military sites. However, such a demand is not realistic. Iran fears that such inspections would be used to gather valuable intelligence on their conventional military capabilities, which in turn could be used against the country in a future military conflict. No sovereign state could permit unfettered international access to non-nuclear military sites without justification. As the former Director for Non-Proliferation at the National Security Council, Jofi Joseph, pointed out well before the framework, Iran would never accept such a demand because unlike Iraq, Iran has not been defeated in war. Despite the impact of sanctions, Iran “is not under such duress that it is willing to abdicate sovereign control over its own territory to international inspectors.”

Furthermore, arguments that Iran should just go ahead and permit the international community the same inspections we had in Iraq after the Gulf War would do little to assuage Iranian fears given that the U.S. ended up invading Iraq despite warnings that the country had no nuclear weapons program. With the United States and Israel routinely referring to “all options” being on the table with respect to Iran, it is no wonder that inspections of military sites is a politically sensitive issue in Iranian politics.  

What the Framework Provides

While an Iraq-style inspection regime is unattainable, it is also unnecessary given the verification measures that are expected to be included in a final deal. According to the joint statement issued by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, Iran has agreed to implement the Additional Protocol under the deal. This provision is key to assuaging the international community’s concerns regarding potential covert nuclear activities, including at military sites. According to Kelsey Davenport at the Arms Control Association, the Additional Protocol provides the IAEA:

“with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, to investigate questions about or inconsistencies in a state’s nuclear declarations. While these measures do not give the agency carte blanch access to Iran’s military sites, as some critics assert is necessary, the agency will be able to access these areas if there is cause or concern about illicit nuclear activities.”

This matches with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s description of a deal. Access to non-nuclear sites would not be “frivolous,” but part of a “well-defined process.” If just cause is established, Iran would allow managed access to inspectors in order to conduct environmental sampling that could signal covert nuclear activities. Under a deal, these inspection mechanisms would be supplemented by robust monitoring of Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain, including uranium mills, centrifuge production facilities, procurement networks, and declared nuclear facilities. This level of monitoring would make any attempt at diversion for a covert breakout next to impossible.

Critics will likely say that “managed access” with a “dispute resolution panel” would be too slow to respond to potential evidence of an Iranian violation at a military site. However, while all sides still must agree on the details, Gary Samore – former WMD czar under the Obama administration and president of the hawkish United Against a Nuclear Iran – described the inspection mechanism as “very impressive.” Even if Iran attempts a breakout at a military site, it wouldn’t be able to conceal evidence of a secret enrichment facility by the time the dispute resolution panel issues its verdict. Additionally, the alternative to the agreement is not better access, but no access whatsoever to military sites.

Iran is on the cusp of agreeing to a robust inspection regime that is likely to verify Iran’s compliance with an agreement or detect any covert move to break out and obtain a nuclear weapon. Iran, however, has sensitivities regarding how the issue is framed. As a result, hawks on each side that are opposed to any nuclear compromise will use this issue to try to create a wedge between the parties that derails progress. Rhetoric aside, this issue is unlikely to stand in the way of the parties finalizing a historic deal because a compromise is on the table that will satisfy each nation’s bottom lines.

This piece was originally featured in The Hill.

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