This morning at the White House, President Obama made his first sales pitch for the nuclear deal negotiated in Vienna. Those who have read through the full 159-page text of the agreement will quickly notice that Mr. Obama employed a good bit of strategic language to downplay pivotal concessions that may undermine all future inspections of covert nuclear sites.
According to the president, “this deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification. Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran’s nuclear facilities.” That means access to the facilities Iran has officially declared, a point Obama did not clarify. There is no 24/7 access for undeclared sites, nor anything close to it.
As Obama would have it, “inspectors will also be able to access any suspicious location — put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary.” Yet necessity is an exceptionally difficult thing to define. And the process for gauging necessity basically provides Iran with a license to stall, evade, and cover its tracks while inspectors wait for weeks or months to get the go ahead from diplomats. Regrettably, even when the diplomats say “yes,” there is no means of enforcing their request.The rules for access to suspicious sites can be found in Section Q of the first annex to the agreement. If inspectors have concerns about undeclared sites, they must submit to Iran a request in writing that explains their concerns. Iran may counter with a proposal for “alternative means” of resolving the issue without actually allowing inspectors to inspect anything. If the inspectors and the regime can’t agree to a solution within two weeks, the dispute gets kicked up to a higher level. In other words, Iran has a license to stall for two full weeks whenever it does something suspicious.
After two weeks, the problem gets handed over to the Joint Commission, a new body whose membership and responsibility is defined in Annex IV to the agreement. Basically, the commission has eight members, one for each of the countries who are party to the agreement, plus the EU. A majority of five commission members may “advise” Iran on how to resolve the inspectors’ concerns. The commission has seven days to address the inspectors’ concerns, after which Iran has three days to implement any recommended measures. So, at minimum, Iran will have 24 days to clean up any suspicious sites before inspectors get a first look.
But what if Iran doesn’t comply with the commission’s requests within three days? Alas, that is a mystery. Section Q ends with the pronouncement that Iran will implement such measures. However, there is a “Dispute Resolution Mechanism” described in paragraphs 36 and 37 of the main body of the deal. This process requires another 50 days — the precise length is difficult to discern from the text, since it involves three separate levels of evaluation. So in practice, Iran may be looking at a minimum of two and a half months before they have to do anything.
And what if the inspectors are still left out in the cold? Then the only option left for the U.S. (or the U.K. or France) is to go to the UN Security Council and try to blow up the entire deal, in accordance with the “snapback” provisions of the deal.
Would this president risk blowing up the entire deal because Iran refused access to one suspicious site? That is highly doubtful. Instead, as it has in the past, Iran may keep pushing, inch by inch, until it has carved out a growing space for non-compliance, since the U.S. has no reasonable means to bring it back into line.