Despite promises by President Obama that Iranian cheating on a new treaty will be detected, verifying Tehran’s compliance with a future nuclear accord will be very difficult if not impossible, arms experts say.
"The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will not be effectively verifiable," said Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation from 2002 to 2009.
Obama said Saturday that the framework nuclear deal reached in Switzerland would provide "unprecedented verification."
International inspectors "will have unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program because Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world," he said in a Saturday radio address.
"If Iran cheats, the world will know it," Obama said. "If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it. So this deal is not based on trust, it’s based on unprecedented verification."
But arms control experts challenged the administration’s assertions that a final deal to be hammered out in detail between now and June can be verified, based on Iran’s past cheating and the failure of similar arms verification procedures.
A White House fact sheet on the outline of the future agreement states that the new accord will not require Iran to dismantle centrifuges, or to remove stockpiled nuclear material from the country or convert such material into less dangerous fuel rods.
The agreement also would permit continued nuclear research at facilities built in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran signed in 1970 but has violated repeatedly since at least the early 2000s.
The centerpiece for verifying Iranian compliance will be a document called the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), according to the White House.
However, the State Department’s most recent report on arms compliance, made public in July, states that Iran signed an IAEA Additional Protocol in 2003 but "implemented it provisionally and selectively from 2003 to 2006," when Tehran stopped complying altogether.
"The framework claims that Iran will once again execute an Additional Protocol with IAEA," said William R. Harris, an international lawyer who formerly took part in drafting and verifying U.S. arms control agreements. "This might yield unprecedented verification opportunities, but can the international community count on faithful implementation?"
Harris also said Iran could cheat by shipping secretly built nuclear arms to North Korea, based on published reports indicating Iran co-financed North Korea’s nuclear tests, and that Iranian ballistic missile test signals reportedly showed "earmarks" of North Korean guidance systems.
"So what would prevent storage of Iranian nuclear weapons at underground North Korean sites?" he asked. "If there is to be full-scope inspection in Iran, the incentives for extraterritorial R&D and storage increase."
U.S. intelligence agencies, which will be called on to verify the agreement, also have a spotty record for estimating foreign arms programs. After erroneously claiming Iraq had large stocks of weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community produced a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that falsely concluded that Iran halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003.
The IAEA, in a restricted 2011 report, contradicted the estimate by stating that Iran continued nuclear arms work past 2003, including work on computer modeling used in building nuclear warheads.
White House officials who briefed reporters last week on the new framework agreement said the key to verification of the future pact will be the new IAEA protocol. The protocol will provide greater access and information on the Iranian nuclear program, including its hidden and secret sites, they said.
The nuclear facilities at Fordow, an underground facility where centrifuges will be removed, and Natanz, another major centrifuge facility, were both built in violation of the NPT and will not be dismantled.
Additionally, the nuclear facility at Parchin, where Iran is believed to have carried out most of its nuclear weapons work, is not mentioned in any of the fact sheets by name.
The sole reference to Iran’s work on nuclear arms is the reference in the fact sheet to a requirement that Iran address "the possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program.
Officials who briefed reporters also said that under the new agreement inspectors would have access to Iran’s nuclear "supply chain"—the covert system used to circumvent global sanctions and procure materials and equipment.
DeSutter, the former State Department arms verification official, said the transparency measures announced after talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday at best could detect quantitative excesses at known locations, but not secret illegal activities, like those that Iran carried out on a large scale in violation of its obligations under the NPT.
The transparency regime for the new deal also will "undermine the already challenging verifiability of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by legitimizing Iran's illegal enrichment and reprocessing programs," DeSutter said.
Thomas Moore, former professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who specialized in arms control matters, also said Iran’s past cheating on the NPT makes verifying a new agreement nearly impossible.
Iran, in its statement on the framework, also denied it would sign a new IAEA protocol. Tehran said of the protocol that it will be implemented on a "voluntary and temporary basis" for transparency and confidence-building.
The imprecise language is a sign "Iran is keeping its weapon option open but refuses required openness to confirm it no longer wants one," Moore said.
"Iran would not divert centrifuges or the material they make from a declared site," Moore said. "Rather, it will instead cheat at an undeclared site."
Because Iran will not ratify the new protocol, the IAEA will be unable to verify the completeness and correctness of Iran's declarations, Moore said, both declared and undeclared materials and activities.
Iran is already the single most IAEA-inspected nation in the world and additional IAEA inspections are not expected to be better, although Iran's nuclear expertise will grow, he added.
"The deal is silent on Iran's actual military dimensions, except to the extent that its supporters claim the IAEA will be able to verify the absence of a weapons program in Iran. They won't," Moore said.
"Contrary to the imprecise political rhetoric, this deal does not yet contain the ‘most intrusive’ inspections ever tried," he said.
David S. Sullivan, a former CIA arms verification specialist and also a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee arms expert, said confirming Iran’s compliance with new nuclear obligations will be difficult.
"U.S. national technical means of verification is always difficult, fraught with the political process of monitoring, collecting, analyzing, and [achieving] consensus on usually ambiguous evidence of cheating that opponents are trying to hide," Sullivan said.
"These difficulties are even greater for the UN’s IAEA, which is a multinational political agency."
Past cheating by Iran, confirmed as recently as July 2014 raised questions about why there are negotiations with Tehran, Sullivan said.
"Why are we negotiating for a new agreement, when existing Iranian NPT violations remain in effect, ongoing, and unresolved, suggesting that Iran is unlikely to comply with any new agreement?" Sullivan said.
"Iran alarmingly is officially within three months of having nuclear warheads, according to the international negotiators, and is therefore about to become another nuclear-armed North Korea," he said, noting that Pyongyang also cheated on the NPT and now has nuclear-tipped missiles.
By not requiring Iran to correct past violations of the NPT, the new agreement will in effect codify its current cheating. "The negotiations started as an attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but now they have legitimized it," Sullivan said.