No, Iran is not allowed to inspect itself

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As any landmark vote by a deeply divided United States Congress nears, stretching the truth to win hearts and minds is politics as usual. But what’s being said and published in some quarters about how the Iran nuclear deal would be implemented has now spun out of control. A disinformation milestone was achieved in early August when opponents charged that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—responsible for verification under the Iran agreement—is making “secret side deals” with Iran. This was followed last week by wholly specious claims that the IAEA will put Iran in charge of an ongoing investigation of allegations that Iran conducted nuclear weapons-related work at a military base at Parchin. 

Iran is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and, consequently, it has a so-called safeguards agreement with the IAEA. That agreement commits Iran to declare all its nuclear material and activities to the IAEA. The IAEA is required to verify that Iran’s declarations are correct and complete. In doing so, it is also required to protect the confidentiality of Iran’s data about its nuclear program. 

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The IAEA has safeguards agreement with 180 countries. All have similar information protection provisions. Without these, governments would not open their nuclear programs for multilateral oversight. So IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was acting by the book on August 5 when he told members of Congress that he couldn’t share with them the details of a verification protocol the IAEA had negotiated with Iran as part of a bilateral “roadmap” to address unresolved allegations about Iran’s nuclear behavior. 

Like Iran, the United States has a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Were lawmakers from Iran’s Majlis to ask the IAEA to see documents concerning its negotiations with the United States, members of Congress would presumably be pleased to hear that Amano’s answer would also be no. Of course, Iran may choose to share its information with other parties and, in this case, Iran provided details of the roadmap to negotiators from the U.S. Department of State. Congress may not be happy that it is not in the loop, but it is not up to the IAEA to decide whether to share information about where and how its personnel do their work in Iran. 

On the heels of this manufactured controversy, a second unfounded challenge to the IAEA’s credibility emerged last week. The Associated Press published what it claimed was a draft of a “secret agreement” between Iran and the IAEA under which “Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms.” 

The IAEA wants access to Parchin to pursue allegations that Iran may have conducted nuclear weapons-related work there. The possibility that Iran may have used nuclear material in experiments conducted at Parchin prompts concern that not all of its nuclear material may have been declared to the IAEA. 

Whatever else Parchin is, it is also a military base. And, as is entirely usual in such cases, the IAEA has negotiated with Iran procedures so the IAEA can collect the information it needs in a way that does not compromise the security of the site. 

The key verification task at Parchin will be environmental sampling to detect minute traces of nuclear material left over from any past experimentation. The IAEA and Iran have developed a protocol to allow this to happen in a way that ensures, to the satisfaction of both parties, the integrity of the process. 

Without knowing the precise details of the IAEA’s understanding with Iran, IAEA inspectors at Parchin will likely oversee the taking of multiple samples using environmental sampling kits that the IAEA has prepared.  Multiple samples would be prepared at each location identified by the IAEA inspectors.  Each side would obtain samples taken with the kits.  Critically, the IAEA would have samples using kits prepared in advance by its own laboratory. 

The actual sample-taking would be performed by Iranian staff under close observation by IAEA inspectors, and it is the IAEA inspectors who would identify specific locations where the samples would be collected. Samples are collected by wiping sampling tissues on floors and other surfaces. In the event that surfaces have been modified or remediated, inspectors should ask that newly created surfaces be removed in a manner that will allow samples to be taken without obstruction. 

Each side would be responsible for taking its samples back to its own laboratories for analysis.  An additional set of samples would be stored under joint IAEA and Iranian seals to be used later if the results are not conclusive. 

The IAEA would analyze some of its set of samples in its own so-called clean laboratory.  Following standard procedures, it would send some of the samples to other laboratories operated in member states (including the United States), using blind samples so as to prevent the laboratories from being able to determine where they came from, or to alter the results.  When all sample analyses have been completed for the IAEA samples, all the results would be combined in a way to reflect all data obtained. 

By analyzing its own samples, Iran would be able to satisfy itself that the sampling process was not corrupted and that the IAEA results were not affected by any evidence planted at the scene or by any modification of the samples after they had been taken back to the IAEA for analysis.  

After analysis, IAEA and Iranian officials would meet to review their joint findings.  If they agree, then the process will move forward according to the outcome.  If the results do not agree, then they may refer to the additional set of samples for subsequent analysis.  Amano would be informed of any disagreement. Importantly, this process does not prejudice the ability of the IAEA to draw its own conclusions. It may decide at any point that its findings warrant informing the Board of Governors of the issue at hand to allow the Board to take appropriate measures. 

In short, and contrary to allegations printed beginning on August 19, Iran will not be allowed to inspect itself. 

The IAEA’s standard procedures for obtaining and handling information from the field were developed to permit the IAEA to make unbiased and objective safeguards judgments. While IAEA inspectors are subject to some limitations, these will not prevent the IAEA from drawing independent conclusions which are free of manipulation or obfuscation. On the basis of what has been made known so far, there is no reason to suspect that the IAEA’s conclusions about Iran won’t be sound.

Hibbs is a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace working on IAEA safeguards issues. Shea has worked as an IAEA Safeguards official, as head of the IAEA Trilateral Initiative Office, and as head of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Programs at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.