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Whether or not Congressional Democrats ensure American acceptance of President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, it’s becoming ever clearer that the nation and its leaders need to know exactly how dependent the agreement’s enforcement will be on self-reporting by Iran.

The issue has been raised of course by the leak of documents from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) appearing to show that this international watchdog will be relying on Iran itself to monitor a key side deal to the agreement.

Defenders of the deal seemingly have persuaded many at least some important journalists that the disclosures are no big deal. According to a New York Times article, all that’s at stake is

a longstanding effort by the I.A.E.A. to complete a report on past Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon [at a military site called Parchin], an important part of the international effort to pressure Iran. [This report] has little to do with verification of the nuclear accord between Iran and the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China. That verification regime is laid out in the actual nuclear accord and does not rely on Iran’s self-monitoring.”

But there are at least two big problems with this position. First, the text shows that aside from its assessment of Parchin and other questions related to the current status of Iran’s weapons-related efforts, the IAEA will be playing a central role in the deal proper. Principally, on the one hand, the agreement’s preamble stipulates that

A Joint Commission consisting of the E3/EU+3 [diplo-speak for the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany] and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of this [agreement] and will carry out the functions provided for in this [agreement]. This Joint Commission will address issues arising from the implementation of this JCPOA and will operate in accordance with the provisions as detailed in the relevant annex.”

Yet the deal also states that

The IAEA will be requested to monitor and verify the voluntary nuclear-related measures as detailed in this [agreement]. The IAEA will be requested to provide major updates to the Board of Governors, and as provided for in this [agreement], to the UN Security Council.”

More specifically, the text makes clear the those “voluntary measures” are anything but peripheral:

Iran will allow the IAEA to monitor the implementation of the voluntary measures for their respective durations, as well as to implement transparency measures, as set out in this [agreement] and its Annexes. These measures include: a long-term IAEA presence in Iran; IAEA monitoring of uranium ore concentrate produced by Iran from all uranium ore concentrate plants for 25 years; containment and surveillance of centrifuge rotors and bellows for 20 years; use of IAEA approved and certified modern technologies including on-line enrichment measurement and electronic seals; and a reliable mechanism to ensure speedy resolution of IAEA access concerns for 15 years….”

That is, “voluntary measures” is a synonym for all of the commitments Iran has agreed to carry out, observe, and respect – the core of the deal.

Further, the lifting of UN, European Union, and U.S. sanctions on Iran will all depend, variously, on “IAEA-verified implementation” of Iran’s compliance with the deal’s provisions and, in later years, and on the IAEA’s arrival – if the agency determines that this objective has been achieved before deadline dates are reached – at “the Broader Conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities…” 

The other decisively important issue raised by the Iran agreement gets to the second big problem with the “no big deal” argument. As the Times account (only obliquely) suggests, the question of how much past nuclear weapons-related progress Iran actually matters decisively. The closer Tehran got to achieving weapons production capability, the closer it will be to that goal, all else equal, if the deal doesn’t prove as effective even as its supporters’ relatively modest promises indicate. Just as important, the closer Iran got, the closer it will be to weapons status as the agreement’s various provisions begin to sunset.

Therefore, any U.S. government engaged in planning for the worst – that is, any genuinely responsible U.S. government – will want the clearest, most comprehensive picture of where Iran’s weapons-related campaign stands right now. Both the Obama administration and the IAEA insist that they are legally barred from disclosing exactly how the agency will handle Parchin.

But they make another procedural argument that is even less comforting – that the kinds of reported IAEA arrangements that have raised such a ruckus are standard for the agency. The problem is, Iran’s history of defying international demands regarding its nuclear programs, and of evidence that it has cheated on actual commitments, means that it’s far from a standard country. And in fact, the implications extend to the IAEA’s more central non-Parchin role, too since the deal’s preamble declares that “All relevant [confidentiality-focused] rules and regulations of the IAEA with regard to the protection of information will be fully observed by all parties involved.”

Despite all these questions, and the lack so far of satisfactory answers, I’m still in favor of ratifying the Iran deal – because for the reasons set forth here, I still consider even a bad deal better than none. But if the Obama administration isn’t much more forthcoming – at least to members of Congress – about the actual verification procedures that the IAEA will use, that gap between a bad-deal world and a no-deal could start looking awfully marginal.

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