FPI Bulletin: Iran Deal Still Lacks Transparency

September 14, 2016

For the third time since the Iran nuclear agreement’s implementation, the International Atomic Energy Agency has released a report omitting key information that would enable independent verification of Iranian compliance. The lacunae, which follow the revelation that Tehran received exemptions for key nuclear obligations, reflect a broader lack of transparency surrounding the accord over the past year. If, in fact, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is verifiably preventing the Islamist regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the United States and its international partners should welcome rather than fear public scrutiny of Iranian steps to implement it.

According to a September 9 analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, the latest IAEA report, among other lapses, fails to specify the quantity of low-enriched uranium in Iran’s possession and the ownership status of Iran’s heavy water stored in Oman. It omits data concerning the agency’s monitoring of reprocessing-related facilities and other key sites. It states that Tehran has resumed manufacturing centrifuge rotor tubes, but adds that “technical discussions” remain ongoing — language typically used, notes the Institute, “when disagreements are unresolved.” This missing information, the Institute argues, constitutes “a serious shortcoming in the implementation of the JCPOA and erodes support for this important deal.”

In a September 1 analysis, the Institute also disclosed that Iran received several exemptions from its JCPOA commitments in order to hasten the arrival of the deal’s Implementation Day. Tehran, among other allowances, can now stockpile more than 300 kg of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium if it consists of certain waste forms. It can also possess a large number of radiation containment chambers known as hot cells, which, according to the Institute, “can be misused for secret, mostly small-scale plutonium separation efforts.” The exemptions and the secrecy surrounding them, the Institute contends, raise “the question of whether Iran is exploiting the exemption mechanism, outside of any public oversight, to systematically weaken as many JCPOA limitations as possible.”

The Institute’s revelations fit a longstanding pattern. Since the JCPOA’s finalization in July 2015, a successive trickle of reporting has highlighted a series of Iranian efforts to violate or circumvent its obligations both in letter and in spirit — and a corresponding U.S. campaign to deny, conceal, downplay or accommodate Tehran’s misbehavior. In so doing, the Obama administration has prioritized the appearance of Iranian cooperation over actual Iranian compliance, which has exerted a cascading effect that created a cycle of Iranian nuclear misconduct.

Thus, only weeks after Tehran and world powers reached the agreement, news emerged of a confidential side deal that would allow Iran to self-inspect the Parchin military complex. Nevertheless, the United States subsequently joined its partners on the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors in a unanimous vote to remove the issue from its agenda. In July of this year, news emerged of another confidential side deal that explicitly allows Iran to expand its uranium enrichment program after 10 years. In June, German intelligence disclosed that Iran has continued its proliferation-sensitive procurement activities in violation of the nuclear deal, a claim the Obama administration denied.

Troublingly, the press or another government — rather than the Joint Commission, the body charged with monitoring the JCPOA’s implementation, or the Obama administration — exposed each of these developments. Obama administration officials, for their part, have defended this state of affairs by arguing that confidentiality constitutes standard practice of the IAEA as well as a prerequisite for the deal’s successful implementation. “It’s written right in the JCPOA, which established the Joint Commission — that the work of the Joint Commission would be confidential unless the Joint Commission decided otherwise,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby on September 1. “It’s right there in the JCPOA itself. I mean, it’s designed that way.”

This position contradicts the Obama administration’s own arguments during the accord’s congressional review period last year. At the time, President Obama described the JCPOA’s verification measures as “unprecedented,” and asserted that the deal “is not built on trust; it is built on verification.” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed that the international community would receive “far better insight” on Iran’s nuclear program than its possesses today. At the root of these contentions lay the assumption that such disclosure remained necessary precisely because Iranian leaders do not deserve trust and maintain a long history of cheating on its past nuclear obligations. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice put it in March 2015, “Our approach is ‘distrust and verify.’”

Now, however, the administration claims that the deal depends on trust in the IAEA and the Joint Commission devoid of public scrutiny. “The notion … that there was some untowardness here about the confidentiality of the work of the Joint Commission is not founded,” Kirby said on September 1. Yet by the administration’s own previously articulated standards, the very fact that the Joint Commission insists on confidentiality undermines the integrity of its work.

Rather than accept the IAEA’s incomplete reporting as a fait accompli, the Obama administration should insist upon a full public accounting of Iran’s nuclear activities moving forward. As the president himself once argued, the absence of public accountability sets a deleterious precedent that would embolden and enable Iran to continue skirting the requirements of the deal. If Washington’s passivity continues, it should not be surprised if Tehran expands its nuclear program beyond the boundaries permitted by the agreement.

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