What Will Inspectors Need in Iran?


As the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program approach the June 30 deadline for a final deal, a crucial issue remains unresolved: inspections.

The country’s supreme leader has proclaimed military sites strictly off-limits to inspectors, while the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has said such inspections are a key priority. If the ongoing talks hold to form, the United States will either concede the issue or seek a compromise solution. The latter may be possible; the former would be dangerous.

The concessions the United States and its P5+1 partners have already made — permitting Iran to maintain a limited uranium enrichment program for 15 years, and an unlimited one afterward — make the prospective task for inspectors daunting. They will need to confirm that Iran is abiding by the restrictions on its nuclear program, oversee its ongoing and declared program, and monitor the country for any secret nuclear work or nuclear-related military work. As Foreign Minister Fabius recently said, “the best agreement, if you cannot verify it, it’s useless.”

So what, specifically, would inspectors need in order to provide adequate assurance that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, either by “breakout” at declared facilities, or by “sneakout” using secret sites?

A panel of former U.N. weapons inspectors and U.S. nonproliferation specialists, brought together by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control (where we work) to address this question, recently agreed on a firm list of requirements for effective inspections. At the same time, they sought to frame some of the measures so as not to drive away Iranian negotiators. Their recommendations include the following:

  • A full declaration by Iran of its past and present nuclear work, which would be an essential starting point for monitoring and verification. In an effort to avoid controversy, the declaration could take the form of a consolidation and updating of the various declarations Iran has made since 2003.
  • The right to inspect any facility or location in Iran, including military sites, under the principle of “managed access.” Iran has accepted this principle in another arms-control agreement, the Chemical Weapons Convention.​​​
  • ​​Ready access to documents, facility plans, and key personnel, which is essential for verifying Iran’s declaration and for guiding inspections.
  • ​​Inspection teams led by the International Atomic Energy Agency and augmented by expert personnel from the P5+1 countries, with access to upgradable, open-source monitoring equipment. The use of efficient monitoring equipment could reduce the need for on-site inspectors, who are perceived as more intrusive.​​​
  • ​The right to verify and monitor the end-use of all nuclear and missile-related imports made through an established procurement channel, including in non-nuclear sectors.
  • ​An international oversight body composed of all parties to the agreement, which has the benefit of including the P5+1 without excluding Iran. A joint commission of some kind has been a feature of every successful arms-control agreement.

The panel also stressed the importance of resolving the IAEA’s outstanding questions about Iran’s alleged weaponization activities — what the IAEA calls the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s investigation is essential for understanding the country’s past nuclear-weapons-relevant work, and would offer a basis for inspectors to access military sites where such work occurred and to examine relevant documents and personnel.

Another important conclusion: Experience with past arms-control agreements also led the panel to conclude that the ability to enforce inspection obligations will inevitably decrease over the course of 15 years. Sanctions are the most plausible response to an Iranian violation, but unlike reciprocal arms-control agreements, such as the Cold War treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union, there is no symmetry between less-than-egregious violations and the probable options for response.

Importantly, the Iran deal under discussion is more akin to “cash for access” arrangements, and if the bulk of the sanctions on Iran are lifted early, then most of the “cash” will already have been handed over. This reduces Iran’s incentive to grant access to inspectors and leaves only a frail instrument — the re-imposition of sanctions when most have already been lifted — to punish violations. The panel thus recommended that sanctions be lifted only gradually, as a confidence-building measure to reward compliance.

At the same time, the former weapons inspectors, based on years of playing “cat and mouse” with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, cautioned against the potential for inspections to turn adversarial. Inspections must be business-like and cooperative, particularly if they are to be sustained over the life of a 15-year agreement. Should any cheating occur, unlike in Iraq inspectors are most likely to encounter an accumulation of ambiguities or small violations rather than dramatic evidence of illicit activity. The oversight body envisioned by the panel would allow these ambiguities and inconsistencies to be addressed expediently before they undermine the overall agreement.

Inspections in Iran need not be “anytime, anywhere” like the authority given to inspectors in Iraq after the first Gulf War. That level of access was necessary for inspectors because Iraq lied on its very first declaration and inspectors had to proceed on the assumption that the Iraqis were cheating. For Iran, the panelists instead proposed the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) framework of “challenge inspections” under “managed access” — a framework that would allow inspectors to access any location in Iran on a fixed timetable but also afford Iran certain rights and protections. Under the CWC, to which Iran is a party, any member state can call for an on-site challenge inspection of any facility or location in the territory of another member state.

The weeks after the announcement of the April 2 framework agreement have been marked by public backtracking by Iranian officials from commitments previously made in the negotiations, perhaps in a bid to extract further concessions. A certain amount of give-and-take is inevitable.

Yet on this crucial issue of inspections, U.S. negotiators should not scramble to reach yet another accommodation in order to seal a final agreement. Rather, they need to hold firm on inspections, as they are the only way to ensure the full implementation of any deal that is eventually reached.