After President Trump de-certified the Iran Nuclear Deal in October, new focus has been placed on whether Tehran is in compliance and how that is monitored
Over two years have passed since the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), was signed between Iran and six world powers, but officials continue to disagree over whether Tehran is in compliance with the accord.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in September that Iran is in “technical compliance” with the nuclear deal. The same month, US General Joseph Dunford expressed his position in a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The briefings I have received indicate that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations.” In October, US Defense Secretary James Mattis told a hearing at the House of Representatives that Iran was abiding by its obligations under the deal.
Evidencing the divisions within the American administration, US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has accused the Islamic Republic of directly contravening the deal. The Iranians are “not just walking up to the line on the agreement,” he asserted, “they’re crossing the line at times.” Likewise, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley recently contended that Trump “has grounds” to declare that Iran is not complying with the JCPOA.
Indeed, Tehran has twice crossed that line, including surpassing the designated limit on heavy water, although some officials and experts have downplayed the violations. Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges is also seen as problematic, as per the accord’s stated restrictions.
Prof. Emily Landau, a Senior Research Fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, shared with The Media Line her belief that Iran is not complying with the deal and expressed particular reservations about the Procurement Working Group (PWG), which was set up to monitor Tehran’s nuclear-related purchases.
“While the PWG has in the past announced that Iran is complying with the deal, [the body] is not under the purview of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and therefore it is not their business to determine whether Iran is in compliance or not.” This, she emphasized, “is often misconstrued in the media,”
In this respect, Landau pointed to German intelligence reports detailing numerous attempts by the Islamic Republic to procure military technology that could be used to produce an atomic weapon.
Under a law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), passed by Congress during the Obama administration without consulting the Republican-controlled Senate, the U.S. president must re-certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal every 90 days.
In a controversial move, President Donald Trump chose to decertify the deal in October, but stopped short of scrapping it altogether. This left Congress with 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran.
Can the IAEA fulfill its mandate?
According to the Institute for Science and International Security, “One of the most serious compliance issues concerns the IAEA’s access to [Iranian] military sites and credible verification of Section T, which prohibits key nuclear weapons development activities.”
“Section T”, Landau explained, “relates to ensuring everything Iran does in the nuclear realm is for peaceful purposes. This would require going beyond inspections of nuclear sites to include military sites. But Iran doesn’t allow inspections of its military sites, leaving the IAEA unable to fulfill its mandate.”
Then-U.S. president Barack Obama repeatedly pledged that the JCPOA would allow for broad oversight of Iran’s nuclear program. And in October, Director General of the IAEA Yukiya Amano said that “Iran is subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime” while stressing that Tehran was implementing all of its commitments under the accord.
But the IAEA itself has demonstrated otherwise. Before the deal, the UN nuclear agency included in its reports details on Iran’s atomic-related activities along with the organization’s ability, or lack thereof, to access suspicious sites.
After the deal, however, the IAEA omitted such data on Iranian compliance.
The latest IAEA report released on August 31 “looks to be a politically motivated document to deflect discussion of problems in the JCPOA, possibly resulting from Iranian intimidation or a misplaced fear about the deal’s survival,” according to the Institute.
Amano has indeed seemingly contradicted himself in the past, conceding that he does not have the tools to carry out rigorous inspections and admitting that the IAEA has proven unable to verify Iran’s compliance with Section T of the nuclear deal.
“There is a gross lack of transparency in IAEA reports since the deal has been implemented,” said Landau. “In fact”, she noted, “the IAEA didn’t even ask Iran for inspections since they expected a refusal.”
By contrast, Dr. Sanam Vakil, an Associate Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at London-based Chatham House, told The Media Line that “the IAEA has repeatedly verified compliance since the deal was signed and they have monitored Iran, ensuring they keep to the deal.
“There is uniform agreement that Iran has complied,” she elaborated, “it would have been brought up in the Joint Commission if there was any tangible evidence should Iran not be in compliance.”
Iran’s Ballistic Missile Threat
Iran’s continued development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has generated concern. While the 2015 nuclear deal did not place restrictions on the program, United Nations resolution 2231 requires Tehran to grant full access to IAEA inspectors and discourages Iran from advancing its ballistic missile technology.
Iranian ballistic missile development had been prohibited in UNSC resolution 1929, but Tehran pushed hard to rescind the ban and the Obama administration relented, softening the language in UNSC resolution 2231, which replaced resolution 1929.
The new resolution’s ambiguous language essentially paves the way for Iran to develop its delivery system for nuclear payloads without violating the nuclear deal and without triggering any international response.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has insisted that his country is developing missiles for defensive purposes only. Perhaps to reinforce this image of compliance, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently restricted the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), according to an announcement by General Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
This is speculated to be an effort by Iran to differentiate its missile program from that of North Korea, which has escalated its threats against the United States.
Is Iran violating the spirit of the deal?
In addition to possibly violating the deal itself, Iran has also been accused of violating the spirit of the accord, which President Donald Trump defined as the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism and exportation of “violence, bloodshed and chaos across the Middle East”.
While Dunford said he believes Iran is upholding the technical aspects of the deal, he emphasized that “Iran has not changed its malign activity in the region since the JCPOA was signed.”
When Iran test-launched missiles in March 2016, Jacqueline Shire, a former member of the UN Security Council panel responsible for overseeing UN sanctions against Iran said, “The missile launches are a clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of [UN] resolution 2231”.
Last year, former UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in a report to the Security Council that Iran’s ballistic missile tests were “not consistent” with the spirit of the nuclear agreement signed with world powers.
And Tillerson also admitted that “Perhaps the technical aspects have [been met], but in the broader context the aspiration has not”.
Vakil believes that the “spirit of the deal” is subject to interpretation. “President Obama hoped this would result in something transformational, but I do not believe countries change overnight. Whatever is inside the [JCPOA] document—that is the spirit of the deal”.
She suggested that all parties are perhaps guilty of violating the spirit of the deal and that includes Iran, Europe and the United States.
“It’s important to understand each side’s interpretation”, she concluded.