Is President Barack Obama right that the so-called framework nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) announced on April 2, will “cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon”? Some will assess the truth of his statement by crunching the centrifuge and uranium stockpile numbers. However vital such analysis will be, it is important not to lose sight of the nuke for the centrifuges. For integral to Obama’s argument is his claim that this deal “provides the best possible defense against Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon in secret. . . . If Iran cheats, the world will know,” and “If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it.” But the promised inspections regime will not be intrusive enough to detect Iranian cheating or to thwart any breakout attempts in time.
Iran has a long and proud history of cheating on its international nuclear agreements. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who once monitored Iran’s nuclear program, observed in 2013: “If there is no undeclared installation today . . . it will be the first time in 20 years that Iran doesn’t have one.” Indeed, Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz was a covert facility that was only discovered in 2002, by the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. A year later, the European Union struck a deal with Iran to prevent it from spinning its centrifuges and beginning to enrich uranium. Yet for much of the deal, Iran was busy mastering its uranium supply chain. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran,” wrote Iran’s nuclear negotiator and now president Hassan Rouhani, “we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility at Isfahan. . . . In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” In 2009, the world learned of yet another clandestine enrichment plant, under a mountain at Fordow, that Iran was trying to construct.
Now, however, President Obama would have us believe that Iran is a changed country. Pushing back against “skeptics [who] argued that Iran would cheat, that we could not verify their compliance, and the interim agreement would fail,” the president insisted on April 2 that “Iran has met all of its obligations.” This is demonstrably false.
In the past year alone Iran has violated its international agreements at least three times. First, even though the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) prohibited Iran from enriching uranium in any centrifuges that were not in use at the time the deal went into effect in January 2014, last November the IAEA caught Iran operating a new centrifuge—worse still, it was an advanced IR-5 model. Second, the JPOA required Iran to process any low-enriched uranium it produced during the deal’s term from the gaseous form used for enrichment into a solid that can be used as reactor fuel, so that it would not be readily available for further enrichment and potential breakout. As of February 2015, Iran had an excess of some 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, in violation of the deal’s terms. Third, in parallel to the JPOA, the IAEA and Iran signed a Framework for Cooperation under which Iran agreed to answer outstanding IAEA concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. Iran answered only one question to the IAEA’s satisfaction and, for the past six months, has been stonewalling on the rest. This recent record of cheating, while Iran was negotiating a comprehensive arrangement and thus incentivized to be good, bodes poorly for the future under a new accord.
Obama claims, “International inspectors will have unprecedented access not only to Iranian nuclear facilities, but to the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program—from uranium mills that provide the raw materials, to the centrifuge production and storage facilities that support the program.” He added, “With this deal, Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world.”
Heretofore, the largest and most intrusive monitoring effort ever set up was the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) created after that 1990-91 Gulf war to verify the dismantlement of Iraq’s WMD program. It had dedicated personnel based in Baghdad with their own helicopters and even a U-2 spy plane and with authority granted by the U.N. Security Council and backed by the U.S. military to go anywhere at any time to inspect anything. And yet it failed to gather an accurate understanding of the capabilities that Saddam Hussein did or did not have. As Charles Duelfer, who served as UNSCOM’s deputy executive chairman, recently wrote, “UNSCOM and the IAEA after more than seven years of operations inside Iraq could not verify that Saddam had completely disarmed.”