One of the most innovative elements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the set of restrictions on research and other activities that could result in a nuclear explosive device—often called “weaponization.” These restrictions are spelled out in Section T of the deal. Recent allegations that Iran is not adhering to them or that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not monitoring and verifying Iranian compliance certainly would be cause for concern if accurate, but they are not.
Despite innuendo to the contrary, no credible charge has been made that Iran is conducting prohibited activities. Iran’s nuclear program is the target of intensive intelligence collection, as well as uniquely invasive IAEA inspections. If the United States, partner intelligence agencies, or the IAEA had detected any barred activities, there is no doubt that JCPOA opponents within the U.S. administration would have publicized them. Instead, the U.S. intelligence community has regularly reaffirmed its 2007 finding that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was halted in 2003, including the activities prohibited in Section T.
Principally, opponents of the deal charge that the IAEA is not authorized or is otherwise unable to monitor and verify Iranian compliance. In other words, the debate is not about Iranian implementation of its commitments.
Nevertheless, concerns about IAEA monitoring and verification also prove to be misguided:
- The IAEA is unambiguously charged with monitoring and verifying Iranian compliance with Section T.
The IAEA is tasked with monitoring and verifying the voluntary nuclear-related measures in the JCPOA—within the JCPOA itself (preamble par. x and par. C15), UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (no. 3), and IAEA Board of Governors Resolution 2015/72.
- The IAEA has publically confirmed that it is monitoring and verifying Iranian compliance with Section T.
The agency’s August 2017 quarterly report is unambiguous: “The Agency’s verification and monitoring of Iran’s other JCPOA nuclear-related commitments continues, including those set out in Sections D, E, S, and T of Annex I of the JCPOA.”
- IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has not said anything to contradict this confirmation.
In a September 2017 interview with Reuters, Amano did say that the IAEA would like additional clarity from the JCPOA participants—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union—about the modalities of monitoring Section T commitments. He said “our tools are limited” and that “more clarification would be helpful.” However, he did not say that it would be necessary or that the agency had failed in any verification tasks as a result of a lack of clarity to date.
- The IAEA has tools to monitor and verify Section T.
Reportedly, the IAEA believes that it can do almost all the monitoring work potentially required under Section T using its authorities under the Additional Protocol. This is in line with the agency’s approach to JCPOA implementation so far and with the Board of Governors’ mandate to carry out monitoring and verification “consistent with the Agency’s standard safeguards practices.”
The IAEA has identified that, in theory, some situations may arise that it cannot address under the Additional Protocol, and it is seeking tools to rectify this limitation. In rough terms, the agency believes that it can fulfil 90 to 95 percent of its Section T mandate under the protocol.
To date, none of the ambiguous situations have arisen, so this is still an abstract discussion.
- The IAEA can use its special access authorities under Section Q if necessary.
If the IAEA is unable to resolve questions using the Additional Protocol, Section Q provides the agency very broad authority to seek clarification and, if necessary, demand access to verify “activities inconsistent with the JCPOA.” Iran’s refusal would trigger the dispute resolution mechanism and, eventually, sanctions snapback.
- The IAEA can insist on access to any site necessary to monitor and verify Section T.
Section T issues are sometimes conflated with questions of access to military or nondeclared sites. Iran is prohibited from the activities specified in Section T at any location—military sites or others, such as oil exploration laboratories, which also use multipoint explosive detonation systems. The IAEA has authority to access any such sites—military or civilian, declared or undeclared—notwithstanding Iranian rhetoric to the contrary. The agency has been admirably clear in denying Iranian claims that they can limit access to these sites, and Iran has indeed permitted the IAEA to access military sites on occasion (though not consistently).
- The additional tools the IAEA has suggested are not necessary, may not be wise, and are not currently achievable.
Reportedly, the IAEA’s senior technical managers have expressed their desire for two things.
First, they would like Iran to declare any previous work or equipment now barred by Section T to use as a baseline.
- This may be desirable, but it is not specifically required by the JCPOA and may not be feasible. The baseless and erratic views of U.S. President Donald Trump make it virtually impossible for the United States to build diplomatic support for this request among the JCPOA participants.
- Moreover, it is not clear that an additional declaration would be meaningful. As with the 2015 IAEA investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, any Iranian declaration would almost certainly be incomplete and misleading. As a practical matter, intelligence information available to the IAEA is more reliable.
- Over time, Iran will need to be more forthcoming in all areas if the IAEA is to reach a “broader conclusion” that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
Second, the IAEA would like the JCPOA participants to agree on detailed technical specifications for equipment that would cause concern under Section T.
- This idea has the same diplomatic problem identified above.
- More importantly, this is a much more questionable technical idea. The IAEA can already draw on the technical specifications identified by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Agreeing on a specific list of technical specifications might limit the agency’s scope to investigate suspicious activities based on more contextual information. In fact, a specific list might essentially license Iran to use equipment and conduct research just under the identified thresholds.
- The United States should instead push the IAEA to be prepared to investigate Section T issues on a case-by-case basis.
- The United States and other JCPOA participants disagree on some issues, but these arguments are manageable.
As Amano said, “Russia has a different view” about how to handle Section T monitoring and verification that cannot be addressed under the IAEA’s normal Additional Protocol. Russia has long-standing concerns about the agency expanding its mandate to address disarmament issues and is thus reluctant to allow the IAEA to develop new tools purposely built for Section T monitoring.
That said, Russia has been an exceptionally flexible and supportive partner in negotiating and implementing the JCPOA. Based on that experience, it may not be necessary or desirable to have a broad debate with Russia on the theory of Section T implementation. It would be easier to enlist Russian support for the agency in investigating any specific, well-sourced points of concern on a case-by-case basis.