Two Years In, Iran Nuclear Deal Needs a Healthy Dose of Transparency

The Hill
July 14, 2017

Today marks the two year anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Speaking from Vienna on July 14, 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heralded the nuclear agreement with Iran as “a measureable step away from the prospect of nuclear proliferation, towards transparency and cooperation.” Instead, the past two years have been characterized by secrecy and obfuscation. As a result, it is difficult to assess how well the agreement is working, and in particular Iran’s compliance with its terms.

Supporters of the deal claim success; its critics decry violations. More public transparency is needed for an impartial evaluation of the agreement. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) offers a good opportunity to get it.

According to INARA, the administration must provide Congress with semi-annual reports covering Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, including whether Iran delayed access for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to suspicious facilities, people or documents by more than one week, whether Iran has undertaken illicit procurement, whether it has conducted centrifuge research and development either that violates the JCPOA or that reduces the time needed to fuel a nuclear weapon, and whether it has diverted uranium, carbon fiber, or other sensitive materials.

These semi-annual reports also cover a range of other issues of concern regarding Iran, including money-laundering, support for terrorism, ballistic missile advances, and human rights violations.

These reports would provide the public and the expert community with insight into Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement and the broader question of whether the agreement is working to soften Iran’s defiant posture. Unfortunately, the reports are classified. They are sent to relevant congressional committees and discussed in classified briefings.

The JCPOA’s two year anniversary coincides with the fourth iteration of this report — and the first by the Trump administration. This provides an opportunity for the new administration to change course and do away with the excessive secrecy surrounding the JCPOA imposed by the Obama administration.

More transparency is urgently needed, as demonstrated by a July 11 letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by four Republican senators, in which they urge Secretary Tillerson not to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The administration is required by INARA to certify every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement and that it is “vital to the national security interests of the United States” to continue suspending sanctions pursuant to the agreement.

In their letter, the senators argue that in light of Iran’s regional aggression, support for terrorism, ballistic missile tests, and human rights abuses, there is “no basis on which to make a certification that U.S. national security is bolstered by continued sanctions relief.” They also cite four examples of Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement to support their position. Yet in the absence of detailed public information about Iran’s compliance, it is difficult to evaluate these allegations.

A public version of the semi-annual INARA report would help fill this information gap. These reports cover all four noncompliance issues raised by the senators. For instance, the senators describe Iran’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors access to nuclear research and military facilities. This is indeed of great concern as access to such sites is a critical means of assessing that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons secretly. The JCPOA provides a mechanism for the IAEA to mount inspections to suspicious, undeclared sites in Iran, including military sites. But this mechanism is only valuable if it is used. INARA requires the administration to report if Iran blocks inspectors’ access for more than one week.

Likewise, the report must assess whether Iran’s centrifuge research and development is at a level that reduces the timeline to make nuclear weapons. The senators accuse Iran of operating advanced centrifuges in numbers beyond what is permitted by the nuclear agreement. There reportedly is debate about whether the “roughly 10” centrifuges of one type Iran is permitted to test means up to 11, or as high as 15. The difference and the overall number may be small but if allowed flexibility on this limitation now, Iran may continue to press for increases to the upper limit. And it will be better positioned to deploy these centrifuges in much larger numbers when it is permitted to do so roughly eight years from now.

The INARA report must also cover Iranian procurement efforts in violation of the JPCOA “or which could otherwise significantly advance Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon.” The senators cite German intelligence reports that Iran is continuing illicit procurement outside of the JCPOA-approved procurement channel. However, the public version of these reports shows that this procurement relates largely to Iran’s missile program, which (unfortunately) is not covered by the agreement. In fact, the federal government found “significantly less evidence of Iranian attempts to acquire proliferation-sensitive material for its nuclear programme.”

Finally, the senators recall that Iran has twice exceeded the JCPOA’s cap on heavy water stocks — though in both cases by a small amount. This repeat violation, like the others listed in their letter, indicates that Iran is pressing the limits of the agreement and exploiting the loopholes and vague language it contains. It is an argument for holding Iran to account for the commitments it made under the JCPOA, through rigorous enforcement.

Making the INARA reports public would be a useful initial step toward removing the secrecy surrounding the nuclear agreement. It would increase public transparency and allow for a more open debate about Iran’s violations, the ability and willingness of the agreement and its parties to respond to those violations, and the merits and risks for the United States of sticking with the agreement.

Valerie Lincy is Executive Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms ControlFollow Lincy on Twitter @vlincy.