Discussion: Can the IAEA Effectively Verify an Agreement between the P5+1 and Iran?

July 16, 2015 Wasington DC –  On July 15, 2015 the Atlantic Council Iran Task Force and Search for Common Ground co-hosted a discussion entitled ‘Can the IAEA Effectively Verify an Agreement between the P5+1 and Iran?’ which focused on the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.  The panelists were Thomas Shea who previously served for twenty-four years in the IAEA Department of Safeguards, Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the National Security Council Jon Wolfsthal, John Limbert, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the US Naval Academy, and Jim Walsh, an expert in international security and a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.  Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and the panel moderator, began the event by acknowledging its timeliness: the discussion took place the day after a historic nuclear agreement was finally reached between the P5+1 and Iran.

The first speaker, Thomas Shea served as Sector Head at the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Programs at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and has led multiple nuclear inspections.  He commented, “The new agreement, which is incredibly detailed and in-depth, will need to be studied,” before delving into the process that lies ahead of the IAEA.

Shea stated that there were five challenges facing the IAEA: they must be prepared to discover clandestine or undeclared facilities, monitor existing facilities, account for declared nuclear materials, track imported nuclear capacity material, and track the usage of existing nuclear capacity material.  Shea also revealed some of the many means the IAEA has to gather data including access to satellite imagery, intelligence information, environmental samples, inspections, and monitoring by other states.  Overall, the IAEA is capable of monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities, progress, and usage of nuclear materials. With advanced technology and the new agreement, Shea believes we will be able to catch Iran immediately if it does not follow the deal.

Previous Senior Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden for nuclear security, Jon Wolfsthal, followed Shea’s comments by outlining the deal for those who have not yet read the 150 page document.  “This is a good deal.  This is a very good deal.”  Wolfsthal began his remarks by ensuring the congregation that not only has the agreement met the outlined goals, but it has exceeded them.  “We are not relying on trust,” he affirmed.  Wolfsthal was adamant that this agreement was framed around the ability of the U.S. and the P5+1 to verify Iran’s compliance. 

According to Wolfsthal’s outline of the deal, the Islamic Republic must satisfy IAEA requirements by this October or no sanctions will be removed.  Furthermore, sanctions relief will not occur until Iran meets the set qualifications, and even then it will not come all at once, but rather gradually.  The deal also provides the U.S. and the UN Security Council the ability to snap sanctions back into place without Russia or China being able to block them. “It is extremely unlikely that Iran can do something related to creating a nuclear bomb without the U.S. knowing,” Wolfsthal claims.

John Limbert, a former Peace Corps volunteer, taught in Iran before serving for thirty-four years in the U.S. Foreign Service where he worked mostly in the Middle East.  During the panel discussion, he applauded “President Obama’s outreach efforts, which he began as Senator Obama back in 2007,” and focused his speaking time on the issue of trust—or rather, mistrust. 

“What you hear from both capitals is very similar,” Limbert told the audience.  “’We cannot trust them,’ replacing the ‘we’ and ‘them’ depending on your location.”  When asked if he trusted Iran, Limbert confidently replied that he does not.  “Like the President said, you don’t make agreements like this with your friends…Diplomacy is making imperfect agreements with people you neither like nor trust.  That’s essentially what kept us safe in the Cold War.” 

Jim Walsh, previous Executive Director of Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University and one of the few to travel to both Iran and North Korea for nuclear talks, was the last to speak.  He specified that Iran is not going to ‘cheat’ on the deal, and if it does, we will know. “This is not our first rodeo,” Walsh admitted.  “This is not the first time we’ve wrestled with cheating,” he cited previous conflicts with Former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar al-Gaddafi and relations with the Soviet Union.  He is not worried.  “Iran is the most-watched country in the world.”  Walsh pointed out that in addition to the IAEA and U.S. monitoring, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries will be keeping a close eye on the Islamic Republic making sure that it adheres to all details of the new deal.

When the audience had time for questions, one man asked the panel about Iran’s engagement in terrorism.   He, like many others, was wondering if we remove sanctions, even gradually, will that money be spent on funding terrorism in the region?  Jim Walsh replied first by questioning how we would ask the Iranians to follow all of the restrictions without giving them anything in return.  Jon Wolfsthal pointed out that Iran’s engagement in terrorist funding is an “incremental threat,” but “it’s a lot easier to defend the region when there is no nuclear shield for Iran to hide behind.”

After underlining the IAEA’s tasks and capabilities, reviewing the details of the agreement, and discussing the likelihood of Iranian compliance, it is safe to say that the entire panel believes the Iran Nuclear Deal is a good deal.

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