Politics & Policy

Congress Should Get Serious About Verifying Iran’s Compliance

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif meets with Secretary Kerry in New York in April. (State Department)
The president won’t do anything that might upset the Iranians, and they are taking full advantage.

Secretary of State John Kerry seemed preternaturally confident about a year ago, when he appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to defend the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially in Washington as the “Iran deal.” If the Iranians tried to evade their obligations under the deal, he said, “we will know it because a civil nuclear program requires full access 24/7, requires full documentation, and we will have the ability to track that as no other program before.”

We now know that Kerry’s 24/7 access and the “anytime, anywhere” inspections promised by deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes were never in the cards — a “rhetorical flourish,” as Wendy Sherman, State’s lead negotiator, put it. We also learned after the fact that Iran made a side agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under which Iran was allowed to collect its own samples at a suspected weapons-testing facility in Parchin.

More recently, we learned — from German intelligence — that during the last year Iran continued “illegal proliferation-sensitive procurement activities in Germany,” at what the German government called “a quantitatively high level.” The report adds that German intelligence had “registered a further increase in the already considerable procurement efforts in connection with Iran’s ambitious missile technology program which could among other things potentially serve to deliver nuclear weapons.”

And the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) recently released a report indicating that Iranian companies previously suspected of buying illicit goods — including aluminum, steel, and other raw materials — were once again active in China. For their part, Chinese businesses (often handmaidens to sanctions-busting activity) have been actively marketing themselves in Iran. ISIS also reported an unsuccessful effort by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to acquire tons of carbon fiber, which can be used to produce rotors for advanced uranium centrifuges and also has ballistic-missile applications.

Critics of the Iran deal have long argued that the JCPOA’s delisting of Iran’s covert procurement network would result in a redoubling of Iran’s efforts to acquire technology with applications in the fields of nuclear engineering and missile development. Those predictions appear to have been regrettably prescient.

It’s worth noting that the JCPOA created a procedure for Iran to buy dual-use and sensitive technology legally and overtly, but the Iranians don’t seem to want to use it. The Procurement Working Group (PWG) is a panel administered by the United Nations that is supposed to evaluate whether a given item has attributes that would be considered sensitive from a weapons-proliferation standpoint. So far, according to ISIS and the IAEA, the Iranians have used the PWG channel only once, and that request was denied because it lacked an end-use statement.

So far, the White House still maintains that Iran is living up to its commitments under the JCPOA framework.

Even if these actions don’t represent definitive evidence that Iran has violated the letter of the JCPOA, at a minimum they call into question its commitment to ceasing efforts to acquire sanctioned technology. There is simply no indication that they are willing to be part of a genuine inspections regime.

What has the Obama administration’s response to these anomalies been? So far, the White House still maintains that Iran is living up to its commitments under the JCPOA framework. The administration is stubbornly refusing to call Iran’s recent missile tests a “violation” of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, even though a senior State Department official practically admitted before Congress recently that it was one.

The only logical explanation for this willful ignorance is that the White House wants to preserve the Iran deal at all costs, at least until President Obama’s term is over. They are worried that if they give Iran any reason to claim that the United States isn’t holding up its end of the agreement, it will blame America and back out of the deal. After all, the way Secretary Kerry negotiated the JCPOA, Iran has the right to do so.

Since the Obama administration appears to want to maintain this policy of turning a blind eye in service of extending the JCPOA past November, it’s up to Congress to act to ensure the agreement’s integrity. Congress should set up an independent verification mechanism to assess Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.

The mechanism could take any number of forms — a new subcommittee, a new joint select committee, an outside blue-ribbon commission, or some variation thereof. But the mechanism needs to have genuine subject-matter experts, and they must have access to the same reporting that the executive branch receives.

This idea isn’t new. Robert Joseph, former undersecretary of state for arms control, proposed a similar solution to the House Foreign Affairs Committee even before the JCPOA was concluded. And Representative Todd Young (R., Ind.) introduced legislation (H. Res. 571) to set up a select committee. But no action appears to have been taken on Joseph’s recommendations, and Young’s bill stalled in the Rules Committee.

Between Congress’s July-to-September recess and the looming general election, it seems unlikely that any action will be taken in the near term to address these anomalies. But the verification challenges of the Iran deal aren’t going away. They’re just beginning.

— Marc C. Johnson is a consultant and former CIA operations officer who has worked extensively on Iran and WMD-proliferation issues. He can be reached on Twitter @BlogGuero.

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