On April 9, Iranian President Rouhani boasted that “today and throughout the past year, we have launched 114 new technologies via the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. This is the message to the world: You have not succeeded, and you will not succeed in preventing the progress and development of the Iranian people and their nuclear program. If yesterday you feared our IR-1 centrifuges, well, here you go!”
He has reason to boast. The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal brokered by former President Barack Obama was extremely weak, but yet, given its weaknesses, the agency that was established to monitor Iran’s compliance has been exceedingly lax.
On April 4, The Wall Street Journal reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspected a warehouse in Tehran that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year said housed nuclear equipment and materials. When negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal, we had been assured constantly by President Obama of “anytime, anywhere inspections.”
Six months elapsed from the speech until the inspection. The question is what took the IAEA so long?
David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute of Science and International Security noted in a paper published earlier this month that the IAEA inspection took place only after the Islamic Republic had the opportunity to empty the site and clean it up. “In short,” they wrote, “the IAEA visits in March 2019 are like looking for a horse when the barn door has been left open for many months.”
But this is far from the only failure of the IAEA to ensure that Iran was complying with the deal.
In his statement announcing the implementation of the nuclear deal in January 2016, President Obama said, “On January 16, 2016, the IAEA verified that Iran has completed the necessary steps under the Iran deal that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful.”
The problem is that we have learned subsequently that the IAEA did not, then, have full knowledge of Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work. In January of 2018, Israeli intelligence recovered a half-ton of material documenting the advances Iran made in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Subsequent examination of the archives by weapons’ experts at the Institute of Science and International Security, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), found that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program was more advanced than previously thought.
In a paper published in February, Albright, Stricker and Olli Heinonen of FDD, wrote that “this new information in the archive indicates that Iran might still be in breach of its nuclear nonproliferation undertakings.”
Yet the IAEA still has not acted upon the information contained in the nuclear archive that was obtained by Israeli intelligence, even though it would give them greater insight into the full scope of Iran’s nuclear-weapons research.
The IAEA didn’t just fail to pursue the information in the archives. Even before Israel recovered the documents, the nuclear watchdog failed to verify other elements of Iran’s compliance.
An IAEA official told Reuters in August 2017 that the agency saw no need to demand access to Iran’s military sites. Following talks with then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the IAEA official said, “We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal.”
By refusing to inspect military sites like Parchin, the IAEA is sending a much different political signal than what the official thinks. It signals a policy of appeasement.
These failures of the IAEA—the failure to follow up on the nuclear archive, the refusal to demand access to military sites and others—show that the agency that is supposed to verify Iran’s compliance with the deal has given too much leeway to the Islamic Republic.
It would appear that the IAEA’s role in the nuclear deal is to validate it—ensure that nothing, not even Iranian violations, undermines it—not to verify it.
In announcing the implementation of the deal, President Obama guaranteed that Iran would be “subjected to the most comprehensive, intrusive inspection regime.”
The record over the past three years is that the IAEA, the agency charged with the inspections, has been anything but “comprehensive” and “intrusive.” It has refused to investigate certain suspicions and, in the case of the warehouse, taken its time allowing Iran plenty of time to clean up illicit nuclear sites.
With all of these lapses, how can the IAEA be an effective force in preventing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons?
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.