November 13, 2015 | Monograph

Strengthening the Verification and Implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

FDD Press

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)  puts Iran’s nuclear program under greater scrutiny than before and reduces the likelihood of an overt dash to the bomb for the next 10 years. But the agreement contains a number of notable weaknesses—particularly regarding undeclared nuclear activity and weapons-related research—that should be mitigated by adopting stronger verification measures.

Under the JCPOA, Iran will retain a sizable nuclear infrastructure and the capacity to rapidly expand its atomic program. Tehran will retain a substantial uranium enrichment capacity and is permitted to augment its nuclear activity after 10 years, even though there is no technical or economic reason for it to do so.

The JCPOA undoubtedly places Iran’s nuclear program under broader and stricter safeguards than existed before the accord. From a verification perspective, the agreement contains strong points, but it also has weaknesses. It reduces and limits what Iran can produce, enrich, and stockpile. It carries particularly strong provisions concerning Iran’s Arak reactor—Iran’s “plutonium path” to a nuclear bomb—for the next 15 years. Its mechanisms to monitor declared nuclear material at declared facilities are robust. The JCPOA also puts the entire nuclear fuel cycle—from mining through enrichment to fuel fabrication and spent fuel—under monitoring and verification.

The agreement, however, is not without its vulnerabilities and challenges: 1) verification mechanisms to detect undeclared activities and sites remain limited; 2) mechanisms to detect barred weaponization research are likely insufficient; and 3) after a decade, the additional transparency measures will fade away—at the same time that Iran is able to start expanding its program—presenting additional verification challenges.

Central to a strong verification regime is the proper resolution of the issue concerning the Possible Military Dimensions (PMDs) of Tehran’s nuclear research. The importance of understanding and resolving this issue is not a matter for historians. In order to ensure that Iran cannot reconstitute a weapons program in the future, it is important to understand how far the Islamic Republic has progressed in weaponization. Without a complete understanding of the PMDs of Iran’s research, it will not be possible to design verification protocols that effectively allow for early detection.

However, the agreement leaves the resolution of PMDs to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its inspections need to maintain a high bar and be carried out without undue interference that could dilute or compromise their integrity and that of other verification procedures. The IAEA’s reports on the inspection of the Parchin military complex still do not mitigate concerns about the verification and sample-taking process. The IAEA-Iran agreement regarding Parchin has deviated significantly from well-established safeguards practices, which involve the full physical presence of inspectors on location, the integrity of the samples they take themselves, and the ability of the IAEA to draw definitive conclusions with the requisite level of assurances. 

Resolving these issues in a satisfactory way is crucial. Otherwise, the IAEA and the permanent members of the Security Council risk opening up a confidence deficit about verifying Parchin and, as important, other sensitive sites in the Islamic Republic. Parchin appears to have already established a problematic precedent, not only for verification at other sites in Iran but for other nations with nuclear aspirations. The JCPOA obviously has implications for efforts to prohibit nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East. At a minimum, this means that as the JCPOA is implemented over the next several months, the IAEA needs to demonstrate that it can access Iranian sites of concern, including military bases, and conduct effective verification into the allegations of past nuclear-weapons work.

It is important to remember that what led to the international community’s concern about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program was not “just” uranium enrichment. Rather, it was because Iran has consistently tried to hide its nuclear program, failed to address concerns about PMD activities, and obfuscated verification efforts. To this day, Iran remains a country where the IAEA is unable to provide assurances that all nuclear activities are accounted for and in peaceful use, despite several U.N. Security Council calls to rectify the situation. As this report explains, additional measures are needed now in order to discourage further spread of sensitive technologies and procedures.