Politics & Policy

We Can’t Trust the IAEA on Iran

IAEA inspectors at Fukishima, Japan. (IAEA)
Their capabilities are disturbingly limited — Congress has to keep this in mind.

It’s imperative that the United States prevent Iran from getting a nuclear-weapons capability: An Iranian bomb would directly threaten Israel’s existence, strengthen Tehran’s ability to challenge U.S. interests, and catalyze nuclear proliferation throughout the world’s most unstable region. Given the stakes, relying on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to detect Iranian nuclear bomb-making in a timely manner is short-sighted.

As Monday’s deadline approaches, the Obama administration has focused excessively on narrow, technical issues rather than the giant strategic issues at stake. They seem to have the strategic issues wrong, but these real, huge strategic consequences should heighten our concern with the fine print. Members of Congress must understand the particulars to mount a credible public counterattack against a bad deal. The details matter.

Having already (and mistakenly) conceded some enrichment capability to Iran, the P5+1 negotiators have prioritized lengthening the “breakout time” required for Iran to divert its retained civilian nuclear program to a military one. Thus, the P5+1 have focused on limiting the number and quality of centrifuges, the amount and level of (in-country) enriched uranium, and the capability of the Arak plutonium facility.

The focus on lengthening breakout, however, ignores whether or not the IAEA inspectors can actually detect Iranian diversion to a military program in sufficient time. Negotiators are wrong to simply assume the IAEA’s ability to detect diversion and provide timely warning.

And we shouldn’t put our faith in American intelligence capabilities to back up the IAEA. Former CIA and NSA director General Michael Hayden told the House Foreign Affairs Committee just this week that “absent an invasive inspection regime, with freedom to visit all sites on short notice, American intelligence cannot provide adequate warning of Iranian nuclear developments.” Even with the support of Western intelligence agencies, the IAEA is ultimately on the hook for detecting Iranian cheating.

I believe that the IAEA is unlikely to meet its goals for timely detection. Even if agency inspectors detect an Iranian breakout (or clandestine “sneak out” at undisclosed facilities, they are unlikely to detect it in enough time for the United States to respond in a meaningful way. Absent adequate warning, our leaders will be forced to choose war or capitulation.

This troubling proposition has implications that extend beyond Iran. Based on its own metrics (and a disturbing record of surprises), the IAEA is likely to fail to provide timely detection of military diversion in nearly every conceivable case.

How does the IAEA determine its “timely detection” goals? As Henry Sokolski of the Non-Proliferation Education Center and Victor Gilinsky have described the process, the agency first assigns each type of nuclear material a “conversion time” — the time necessary to convert adequate plutonium or highly enriched uranium to bomb-usable nuclear explosive materials. IAEA conversion times assume that Iran would have completed design, preparation, and testing of non-nuclear bomb components beforehand.

Under these assumptions, the agency officially assesses that conversion into weapons-grade material would take one week. The agency thus sets a corresponding timely detection goal of one week — that is how much time, if the IAEA works perfectly, that the U.S. would have to respond to an Iranian breakout.

Is the IAEA’s goal of one-week detection even achievable? History suggests not always. After all, IAEA completely missed Syria’s plutonium reactor construction until Israel bombed it. The agency similarly failed to detect Libya’s clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Perhaps most importantly, Tehran has already caught the IAEA flat-footed, at Natanz.

Put these detection failures aside for a moment. Suppose the IAEA’s detection systems work perfectly. A one-week warning period leaves no time to develop a coherent international diplomatic response. One week’s notice leaves an American president with two options: military action or acquiescence.

The widely held assumption that the IAEA can deter through early detection is simply impractical. In reality, when it comes to materials and facilities a short technical distance from a bomb, the IAEA can inspect and monitor but it cannot “safeguard,” as part of what the IAEA purports to do, in the normal meaning of the word. It is especially disturbing that the IAEA does not itself make this distinction clear. Unfortunately, instead of defining its limitations, the agency sloughs over them in order to expand its role in international inspection.

What should Congress do? The appropriate congressional committees of jurisdiction should direct the director of national intelligence (DNI) to promptly assess the IAEA’s timely detection capabilities. Congress will find the DNI’s assessment highly disturbing. Unless the limitations of IAEA inspections are clarified, the existing reflexive reliance on the IAEA inspectorate risks narrowing the president’s options to hasty military action or acquiescence every time a country turns its civilian nuclear programs into a source for weapons.

Ignoring the IAEA’s detection shortcomings not only makes war with Iran more likely, but enables this president’s preference for half-measures and could prove fatal for Israel and certainly disastrous for U.S. interests.

— Jim Bridenstine, a Republican, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, a naval aviator, and a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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