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Provoking Iran into Tearing up the 2015 Nuclear Deal

This is how the Trump administration could try to use the IAEA to spur Iran to back out of the JCPOA.

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How easy will it be for President Donald Trump to use the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provoke Iran to “tear up” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aka the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran?

Annex 1 of the JCPOA spells out the basis on which the IAEA may request extraordinary access to Iranian locations:

Requests for access pursuant to provisions of this JCPOA will be made in good faith, with due observance of the sovereign rights of Iran, and kept to the minimum necessary to effectively implement the verification responsibilities under this JCPOA. In line with normal international safeguards practice, such requests will not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities, but will be exclusively for resolving concerns regarding fulfilment of the JCPOA commitments and Iran’s other non-proliferation and other safeguards obligations.

In other words, if the United States decides to submit to the IAEA information designed to trigger a request for access to a certain Iranian location or locations, this information must relate to activities involving the use of nuclear material or activities prohibited by the JCPOA.

If and when such information is submitted, the IAEA secretariat will want to assess whether it is reliable—all the more so in light of recent leaks from the White House. In 2003 the secretariat reacted with commendable skepticism to information submitted by the United Kingdom that purported to be evidence of Iraqi acquisition of uranium from Niger. On several occasions it turned a deaf ear to claims about Iran originating with the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

In 2005, the IAEA secretariat was reluctant to believe in the authenticity of information on a laptop supposedly obtained from an Iranian scientist. When it came round to accepting the information’s authenticity two or three years later, the circumstances were exceptional and, for all any outsider can know, the judgement may have been right. The IAEA can be relied on for high standards of professionalism. Its reputation for impartiality and integrity contributes a great deal to the durability of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

Let’s suppose that the secretariat decides to believe in the authenticity and reliability of information submitted by the United States. What will the secretariat do next? 

In furtherance of implementation of the JCPOA, if the IAEA has concerns regarding undeclared nuclear materials or activities, or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA, at locations that have not been declared under the comprehensive safeguards agreement or Additional Protocol, the IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification.

76. If Iran’s explanations do not resolve the IAEA’s concerns, the Agency may request access to such locations for the sole reason to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at such locations. The IAEA will provide Iran the reasons for access in writing and will make available relevant information.

At that point Iran will have two options: to cooperate with the secretariat or to withhold cooperation.

If, despite the secretariat’s positive assessment of the information submitted by the United States, that information is in fact fabricated or from an unreliable source, Iran will have every incentive to cooperate to the full. The officials accompanying IAEA inspectors to undeclared locations will have to struggle to control their pleasure in demonstrating the falseness of US allegations, but they will be ready to make that sacrifice.

During the dark years when the IAEA was investigating the laptop material and other possible indications of a “military dimension,” Iran frequently withheld cooperation. But during that period Iran was being asked to prove a negative: the absence of alleged activities. Now the burden of proof (through access to locations) would rest on the IAEA’s inspectors.

On the other hand, Iran might decline access or offer the IAEA unreasonable alternative arrangements for verification—to avoid detection of a JCPOA inconsistency or a safeguards violation. Then, what began as a US attempt to provoke Iran into walking away from the nuclear deal will have turned out to be an inspired service to the nuclear non-proliferation community.

One other possibility must be considered:

If the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA cannot be verified,,,,,,the members of the Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns.  

In other words, the United States, claiming that the absence of verification of US-supplied information was not proof of the information’s unreliability, could seek to involve the Joint Commission. The composition of this commission, however—USA, UK, France, Germany, European Union, Russia, and China—is such that there is little or no chance of it abetting a US attempt to provoke Iran by feeding fabricated or unreliable information to the IAEA.

As others have written on this site, the European Union, France, and Germany see no interest at all in provoking Iran into renouncing the JCPOA. Nor do Russia and China.

Those who value the JCPOA as a well-balanced non-proliferation achievement cannot afford to be complacent. No doubt the US government employs many ingenious minds. But it looks as though destroying the JCPOA by provoking Iran will be a tall order.

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