Inspector Clouseau was unavailable (4)

Omri Ceren emails an update on the IAEA side deal with Iran on Parchin. I think that readers who have followed this important story so far will find this of interest as well. Omri writes:

As was more or less inevitable, today was all about the AP scoop describing the secret IAEA-Iran side deal on Parchin, the military base where Iran conducted hydrodynamic experiments relevant to the detonation of nuclear warheads. The IAEA has been trying to get access to the facility for years to figure out how far the Iranians got, as a prerequisite to setting up a verification regime preventing them from going further. The Obama administration told lawmakers throughout the Iran talks there could be no deal without the Iranians providing that access, but the AP yesterday published the text of a side deal between the IAEA and Iran indicating that the West had caved on that demand.

The document, titled “Separate arrangement II” – which was referenced in a Wednesday AP story and published Thursday – indicates that Iranians will be allowed to inspect themselves for evidence of the nuclear work they conducted at Parchin [a][b]. Instead of allowing IAEA inspectors to collect evidence from the facility, samples will be collected by the Iranians using Iranian equipment. Instead of allowing the IAEA to collect everything it wants, only seven samples will be handed over from mutually agreed upon areas. Instead of giving inspectors access to facilities, photos and videos will be taken by the Iranians themselves, again only from mutually agreed upon areas.

Iran deal supporters haven’t settled on just one response. As of last night administration liaisons were playing for time by telling lawmakers that the earlier AP story about the side deal was just a rumor. Then the AP published the actual draft. So this morning White House allies – including groups that have worked with the administration in lobbying Congress – tweeted around the theory that maybe the AP document was forged, at one point even referencing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [c][d][e]. Other validators have been trying to argue that the IAEA can still do its work even without access [f]. The White House will end up taking that latter claim – the IAEA stuff, not the Parchin Truther insanity – and insulating it with the argument that past work doesn’t matter anyway because what matters is the verification regime for future inspections. State Department spokesman Kirby was already floating that claim at yesterday’s press briefing [g].

That talking point might work on a political level. Administration officials can simply assert that the side deal is adequate and then – when pressed for details – declare that they can’t reveal their reasoning because it’s classified. They’ll heavily leverage yesterday’s statement from IAEA chief Amano saying that, for all sorts of classified reasons, the IAEA can live with the arrangement [h]. The opacity might well get the White House through the next month and a half of Congressional review.

But on a policy level, the side deal guts the JCPOA’s verification regime for future violations, which the administration has put at the center of the Iran deal. Administration officials really had no choice: once they gave up on any demands that would physically preclude the Iranians from going nuclear – dismantling centrifuges, mothballing facilities, etc – verification was all they had left. But it’s difficult to see how the pretense of verification can be sustained now that the Parchin side deal has been detailed:

(1) The side deal will become the precedent for future inspections of military sites — The Parchin arrangement – no physical access, restricted sampling, restricted video surveillance, etc. – will likely be used at least in part as a precedent for inspections of future sites. There is at least one other secret side deal out there: the AP’s Parchin document describes itself as “Separate arrangement II,” so presumably there’s a ‘Separate arrangement I’ that isn’t public and that may describe the verification arrangements. The Iranians were already saying that the future verification regime will not include inspector access to military sites, which would track with the Parchin precedent [j][k][l]. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told CNN about the Parchin arrangement “you have to worry that this would set a bad precedent in the Iran context and in the context of other countries” [m]. Rep. Royce sent Kerry a letter a few weeks ago that was even more explicit: the “side deals of today will become central to the agreement’s verification provisions tomorrow” [n] [quote omitted].

(2) IAEA sign-off suggests the agency has bent to political pressure — The Parchin arrangement is a humiliation for the IAEA. Heinonen told CNN that “It is very unusual… I find it really hard to understand why you would let someone else take the samples and only see through the camera” while Albright said “It’s really not normal… I don’t know why they accepted it. I think the IAEA is probably getting a little desperate to settle this” [o]. Until very recently Amano was explicit that the agency required further access to Parchin to resolve PMD issues: last March he “what we don’t know [is] whether they have undeclared activities or something else. We don’t know what they did in the past… we cannot tell we know all their activities” and last June he reiterated “the Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran” [p][q].

Amano’s defense of the Parchin side deal comes amid speculation that the IAEA is being subject to overwhelming pressure by the Americans and the Iranians. On the American side, the leverage is straightforward: Amano is up for reelection next year, and he perennially relies on Western nations to provide him with slim majorities [r]. On the Iranian side, there are several mechanisms that are getting attention. Some are overt: this week Iran’s Fars News Agency published a boast that Amano knew he “would have been harmed” had he disobeyed Iranian wishes and revealed details of the side deal to Congress (the threat was scrubbed after it garnered international attention; some Iran defenders have suggested that Fars published the threat due to a mistranslation of a speech, though it’s unclear why having a state-controlled vehicle go out of its way to mistranslate and publish a threat is supposed to be reassuring [s][t]). Other Iranian pressure mechanisms are more subtle: for the first eight years of the JCPOA Iran is only bound to provisionally apply, rather than to ratify, the Additional. Even JCPOA supporters describe the concession as being “all about Iran keeping some leverage over the IAEA… it wants to be able to keep the option of revoking its provisional implementation, and not ratifying the AP, as leverage” [u].