Amid the hand-wringing this weekend over President Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, a curious theme arose among defenders of the Obama administration’s agreement with the mullahs. They seem to be rather certain that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the 2015 agreement.
“Even Mr. Trump’s adversarial relationship with the truth could not dodge the fact that Iran is in compliance — as determined repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the American intelligence community and our closest European allies,” wrote an indignant Antony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state for the Obama administration.
Fred Kaplan at Slate called Trump’s statement Friday on the deal “the most dishonest speech he has ever given from the White House,” and insisted that “the inspectors have reported time and time again, Iran is not cheating,” and therefore Trump had to invent reasons to decertify the deal. Tom Ashbrook dedicated Monday’s edition of On Point to Trump’s decision, saying Trump “won’t certify Iran’s complying, even though everybody basically says they are.”
So on across the media. Everyone, it seems, is confident that Iran is meeting its obligations and that Trump’s decertification is dangerous and unwarranted—motivated not by the plain facts but by a myopic desire to undo his predecessor’s singular foreign policy achievement.
What they don’t mention is that no one knows whether Iran is complying with the deal because Iran will not allow nuclear inspectors access to military sites. Although monitors with the International Atomic Energy Agency have been allowed to inspect declared nuclear facilities and a handful of other sites approved by Iran, officials in Tehran have made it clear that military installations are off-limits to foreign inspectors.
Iran Has a Long History of Hiding Nuclear Activity
That matters because Iran has almost certainly used military bases for nuclear-weapons-related testing in the past. Experts believe the Iranians tested nuclear explosives at Parchin, a military complex southeast of Tehran, in the early 2000s. But when IAEA inspectors requested access to the site in 2012, Tehran refused. After three years, during which the Iranians bulldozed buildings and paved over a large area, Iran finally allowed inspectors into Parchin, where they found traces of manmade uranium consistent with nuclear weapons testing.
The Parchin problem is explored at length in a recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security, whose president, David Albright, recently testified before Congress that Iran has “built and operated more advanced centrifuges than it is allowed, and it has misused quality assurance limitations to conduct banned mechanical testing of advanced centrifuges.” In other words, Iran was caught operating more advanced centrifuges—fast-spinning machines that concentrate a form of uranium that fuels reactors and bombs—than the deal’s ambiguous language seemed to allow. In addition, last year Iran was twice caught exceeding the agreement’s limits on heavy water, another key component in nuclear technology.
The only reason proponents of the deal insist that Iran is in compliance is because every time Tehran has been caught violating the deal, it either fixes the problem or clarifies the agreement’s language in a way that “brings it back into compliance.” This back-and-forth highlights an inherent problem with the structure of the deal, which is designed to ensure Iran stays in, and in compliance, no matter what.
A big part of that design is the dynamic between inspectors and the Iranians, whose refusal to allow inspections of military sites is crucial to the deal’s success—even if it renders parts of the enforcement regime nonsensical. For example, one section of the deal prohibits any activities that could be used to develop a nuclear explosive device. But as Valerie Lincy, executive director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s not clear how the IAEA is confirming that, given that work would happen at a military site.”
This is a theme critics of the agreement, like Albright, have brought up time and again. I spoke with him back in August about the North Korea nuclear crisis, and he told me that we’ve made the same mistake in the Iran deal that we made with Pyongyang in the Agreed Framework of the 1990s and the six-party talks of the early 2000s: no inspection of military sites.
‘Once North Korea knew they could get away with it, they began to cheat,’ says Albright. ‘They had no intention of letting the IAEA inspect military sites.’
According to Albright, the big mistake we made in North Korea is the exact same one we’re making in Iran: not letting the IAEA do its job. North Korea expelled the agency and promised it would get to come back, but that never happened. To get North Korea to agree to a deal, the United States never insisted on a robust inspections regime that included allowing the IAEA access to military sites.
That’s exactly what we did in negotiating the Iran deal; IAEA inspections of military sites were excluded to preserve the agreement. Much like the Clinton administration did with Pyongyang in 1995, the Obama administration created a dynamic whereby U.S. negotiators were scared to push for the inspection of military sites out of fear that Tehran would say ‘no’ and the deal would collapse.
It All Began With Finding Iran’s Secret Nuclear Facility
Let’s not forget how we got an Iran deal in the first place. Back in 2009, American, British, and French officials shocked the world when they declassified intelligence that revealed a secret uranium enrichment facility hidden beneath a mountain in Iran. That facility, Fordo, wasn’t large enough for producing nuclear reactor fuel that could be used as part of a peaceful nuclear program. Based on its size and location, America and its allies suggested that Fordo had only one purpose: to covertly develop nuclear weapons.
Iran was already under United Nations sanctions for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The revelation of the Fordo facility prompted a new, harsher round of sanctions, along with demands that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment activities and clarify the nature of its nuclear program. Those sanctions eventually brought Iran to the negotiating table with the Obama administration and five other world powers, which in 2015 culminated in the current deal, lifting sanctions and imposing limits on Iran’s nuclear activities.
But of course, the deal also requires America and its allies to take Iran’s word that it is adhering to those limits. The deal requires us to overlook Iran’s long history of lying about its nuclear program, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism and blatant pursuit of ballistic missile technology, including missiles that might be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It also requires us to do nothing in response to the installation last year of a Russia-made air defense system around the nuclear facility at Fordo, among other provocations.
Whether Trump’s move to decertify the deal will prompt Congress to pass new sanctions against Iran, or whether such a move will be enough to scrap the Obama-era deal and renegotiate something better, remains to be seen. For now, one thing is certain: the only government in the world that knows for sure whether Iran is complying with the nuclear deal is the one in Tehran.