Can the IAEA verify the Iran deal?

By Alisa L. Carrigan | May 5, 2015

On April 2, six world powers known as the P5+1—the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany—announced a framework agreement with Iran that, if it leads to a full deal, will build transparency in Iran's nuclear program and, by increasing the time Tehran would need to build a nuclear weapon, limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In exchange for Iran's acceptance of these limitations on its nuclear program, international sanctions that have been leveled on the country would be lifted.

The deadline for reaching a final agreement that specifies all the details is June 30, and the P5+1 are publically hopeful that this agreement may stick whereas others have failed in the past. (Recall that multilateral negotiations over Iran’s program have been going on in various forms since 2003.) Numerous parties have commented on whether the deal is "good" or "bad" for both sides. Does it answer questions about Iran’s capabilities and intentions? Will it actually prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon? Does it impinge on Iran’s right to nuclear technology? On and on the list goes.

But one issue that has thus far received little comment is whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is capable of effectively carrying out verification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in a way that will ease the collective mind of the international community—and what, exactly, verification may entail for the agency. Yukia Amano, the agency's director general, said at the 2015 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference that the agency stands ready and willing to be "the eyes and ears of the international community on nuclear matters in Iran." And the fact sheet released by the US State Department regarding the Plan of Action places the agency squarely in charge of verification, calling for the agency to, inter alia: have access to both declared and undeclared facilities through Iran’s implementation of an Additional Protocol; provide "continuous" monitoring of the removal and storage of centrifuges; investigate suspicious sites or allegations of covert facilities anywhere in the country; and continue its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has been under the agency’s microscope for years now. In some respects, this is a good thing: It means that if a final agreement is reached, the agency won’t be starting from scratch in planning inspections and verification activities. The IAEA already has inspectors on the ground in Iran visiting declared sites, and has analysts at headquarters in Vienna working on information from various sources. In fact, Amano noted in his opening statement at the agency's 2014 Safeguards Symposium that, "Our verification effort in Iran has doubled under the Joint Plan of Action" as negotiated in 2013. "This has had significant resource implications, not just financially. Many of our most experienced inspectors and analysts are now working on the Iran file full time, which means they are not available to work on other dossiers."

But even with a team that has already been analyzing Iranian information full time, the scale of verifying nuclear activities in a country with a number of facilities and a decade’s worth of questions (or more) means a significantly increased workload, especially if the final agreement includes most of the provisions in the Plan of Action framework announced on April 2. Though Iran voluntarily implemented an Additional Protocol from December 2003 to February 2006, Tehran has not actually concluded an Additional Protocol with the agency. As a result, inspectors have been unable to visit some sites for a decade or longer, meaning that even if those sites contain nothing of note, they must still be inspected and given a clean bill of health. Information turned over by Iran and by other sources must be analyzed. Continuing inspections and follow-up visits (probably many of them) to install and maintain safeguards equipment must be planned and carried out.

Big job. In a 2015 paper for the Belfer Center at Harvard University, former IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen writes that "The necessary verification regime should be measured not against what existed previously in Iran or what other countries have undergone. Instead, a more accurate assessment of the current state of inspection in Iran would be to acknowledge that Iran has been and remains a nuclear noncompliant case, and IAEA verification needs to be enhanced accordingly." Heinonen argues that because there has been so much conjecture about Iran’s material stockpile, facilities, and activities, and so much is unknown, the agency will need time to synthesize what it already knows, what it has hypothesized, and what it will discover upon returning to the country with new legal authorities under an Additional Protocol.

Heinonen invokes the lessons of the agency’s work in South Africa in the 1990s, and the comparison is apt (with the caveat that South Africa dismantled its weapons first and then allowed the IAEA to conduct verification activities). He calls the work in South Africa "[Additional Protocol]-plus" safeguards—whereby the South African authorities adopted a posture of transparency and allowed inspectors access "any time, any place—with a reason." Because weapons knowledge remained intact in the country after the weapons were given up, the "[Additional Protocol]-plus" inspections continued for several years to ensure that materials and facilities were not re-diverted after initial inspections and dismantlement had taken place. Initial work on verifying South African dismantlement began in 1991; it was not until the release of the agency's Safeguards Statement for 2010 that South Africa was included in the group of states where the agency "found no indication of the diversion of declared nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities and no indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities."

In the South African case, the agency was trying to verify four things: first, that all nuclear material in the country had been placed under agency safeguards and was in peaceful uses; second, that all nuclear weapons, their components, and related manufacturing equipment had been destroyed; third, that all nuclear weapons–related installations had been fully decommissioned or converted exclusively to peaceful nuclear uses; and fourth, that mechanisms allowing for early detection of restoration of any nuclear weapons capability were put in place. With these goals in mind, the agency conducted monthly inspection trips. A September 1993 agency report noted that 22 trips had been carried out since late 1991 and that 150 inspections at various facilities had been carried out in that period. Prior to 1991, the agency had been inspecting three facilities; after 1991, South Africa declared seven more facilities.

South Africa is one model for the agency’s potential work in Iran; another that should not be overlooked is the Iraq Action Team (which became the Iraq Nuclear Verification Office in 2002). At about the same time as the agency began working with South Africa (1991), the UN Security Council assigned the agency the responsibility to find and dismantle any pieces of a clandestine nuclear program in Iraq. In order to develop a full understanding of Iraq’s clandestine work in weapons of mass destruction, the office relied on teams of inspectors made up of nuclear experts from the agency and member states, with the eventual goals of removing or destroying materials and gaining a full understanding of all the work Iraq had done. As the mission of the Iraq Action Team progressed and weapons programs were discovered and dismantled, the agency's focus (and the team’s) shifted from detection and dismantlement to "ongoing monitoring and verification," the purpose of which was to provide continued assurances to the UN Security Council and the international community that Iraq was not conducting any further activities in weapons of mass destruction nor rebuilding what had been dismantled or removed. Ongoing monitoring and verification activities began in 1994, and the agency maintained a continuous presence in Iraq until the end of 1998. Due to increasing difficulty in gaining access to facilities, inspections continued more sporadically after 1998; the last inspections took place from November 2002 to March 2003, when agency personnel were withdrawn due to impending military operations.

The Iraq Action Team involved 23 dedicated staff members in Vienna and a number of staff rotating through approximately a dozen sites in Iraq. A typical inspection in Iraq called for anywhere from 12 to 35 personnel, drawn from 10 to 20 IAEA member states. For comparative purposes, a typical state with limited nuclear activities and a safeguards agreement with the agency is assigned a team of one or two inspectors and one or two analysts who plan and execute verification activities. Larger states with significant nuclear facilities or activities may be assigned three or four inspectors and three or four analytical staff. In the largest such states—Japan and Canada—the agency maintains satellite offices composed of eight to 10 dedicated staff members.

The entire analysis section in safeguards—encompassing open-source analysts, satellite imagery analysts, and trade analysts—currently numbers approximately 60 people. So taking these numbers as a guide, the verification of Iranian nuclear activities would require that approximately one-third of the current staff in the analytical section be re-tasked—or that an additional 20 analysts be hired to deal with Iranian verification activities or to back-fill analytical work on the agency's other 163 states with safeguards agreements that must also undergo verification activities annually. If the agency is also to lead analysis of Iran’s supply chain, and work on or lead work on a dedicated procurement channel as outlined in the Plan of Action, that number may even be conservative—and increasing the number of trade and procurement experts working at the agency would certainly be required. (One way to ensure adequate staffing levels, rather than bringing in new staff members, is simply seconding staff with appropriate experts from other agency departments to assist with work for as long as their expertise is needed or work levels demand.)

Numbers in the agency's inspectorate are similar—a large number of inspectors and technical support staff (who design and set up unattended monitoring systems, for example) would need to be re-tasked from within the organization, and these staff members would be coupled with facility and technology experts from member states. Additionally, Iran must approve all field personnel, which potentially narrows the pool of candidates who can work in the country.

Big money. Whenever there is talk of staff, there must also be talk of budgeting. Increasing the number of available staff, as well as training and equipping teams and sending them to Iran, will cost money—and probably large amounts of it. In 1997, the agency spent $94 million dollars on all its safeguards activities, and $2.4 million of that was spent on the activities of the Iraq Action Team alone. It is important to remember that the bulk of the detection and dismantlement in Iraq had taken place before 1997, and inspectors were carrying out ongoing monitoring and verification with less frequency than they had in the period from 1991 to 1994. That the budget of the Iraq Action Team was still about 2.5 percent of the total safeguards budget indicates how much such a verification operation in Iran might cost.

According to the agency's 2013 annual report, the Department of Safeguards spent approximately $145 million on activities, salaries, and equipment (including extra-budgetary contributions)—about one-third of the agency's total budget. It is not outside the realm of possibility that verification of Iranian facilities and activities could cost $10 million to $15 million annually for several years, and then a few million more moving forward. In fact, Amano’s 2014 statement on safeguards activities in Iran lends support to that number: He noted that work to implement the Plan of Action as negotiated in 2013—which required significantly less of the agency than the current framework does—would cost the agency an additional 6 million euros for six months' work (approximately $6.7 million). That is by no means an impossible amount of money, but it must come from somewhere—and for the sake of credibility and independence, it might be better if that money did not come from a single agency or member state, but rather from several.

The Plan of Action announced on April 2 offers hope that Iran and the international community can find a way to resolve their long standoff. But a key—perhaps the key—part of any final agreement rests on the agency's ability to resolve questions about Iran's nuclear facilities and activities and inform the international community that the IAEA is satisfied with what it has found. The agency is the only international, technical organization capable of this kind of nuclear stock-taking and verification, and it possesses experience in dealing with extraordinary situations—witness its roles in South Africa and Iraq. But the agency must be equipped and ordained by the international community and welcomed by Iran. Ultimately, the international community—including Iran—needs to ensure that the agency has the personnel, equipment, and budget to discharge its duties in a thorough, transparent, and fair manner. Anything less would severely undermine any final agreement between Iran and the P5+1.


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