by Jim Walsh
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and its founder, David Albright, recently released a report on the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Over the years, the Institute has justifiably won the respect of members of Congress and nonproliferation analysts for its technical reports. This is not to suggest that the reports were without flaws. One could object to their reliance on worst-case scenarios, for example, but the scenarios themselves were analytically rigorous. Sadly, this most recent report relies on speculation more than technical analysis or evidence based claims.
The report makes several charges, most of which can be summarized as an allegation that the United States–together with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–secretly agreed to allow Iran to sidestep its obligations under the agreement by granting it “exemptions,” and that Iran “appears to be succeeding” in attempts to “weaken the JCPOA.”
Since the release of the report, the White House has categorically denied ISIS’s claims, maintaining that “Iran completed all of the steps required to get to Implementation Day under the JCPOA, as verified by the IAEA. Any assertion to the contrary is completely false, including any assertion that we moved forward with Implementation Day before Iran met all of its nuclear-related commitments.” The administration goes on to suggest in rather tough language that, “We’ve seen repeated attempts by critics of the deal to undermine it with misinformation and distortions.”
For the purpose of this analysis, however, we will set aside the administration’s response, and instead assume, for the sake of argument, that ISIS’s claims of exemptions are correct. Given that assumption, how does the report stand up? The answer is “not well.” Starting with the first paragraph and continuing though the document, there are numerous problems.
The ISIS report begins by invoking “secret” exemptions. The “secrecy” charge is a canard that agreement critics have trotted out before. It is intended to conjure up the image of nefarious plots hatched in dark, if not smoke-filled, back rooms. It is mainly used as a rhetorical device, not a substantive argument. As the authors are fully aware, virtually all nuclear-related agreements have confidential annexes and other aspects. Member reports to the IAEA are confidential, as are many other IAEA documents. The U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements all had “secret” annexes. Heck, the text of the Libya nuclear agreement was never publicly released. The use of confidentiality in nuclear agreements has been standard practice for decades, and with good reason. Absent an assurance of confidentiality, agreements on sensitive issues like nuclear technology would be difficult if not impossible to negotiate.
Certainly, this is an issue of balance. Agreements should be as transparent as possible, and there may be ways to increase transparency in the JCPOA, but one should not pit the acknowledged value of transparency against foreboding talk about “secrecy.” Strong, effective agreements require a mix of both transparency and confidentiality. This is often the case in legal trials, and it is no less true in the real world of national security.
The ISIS report tries to make two arguments about “secrecy.” The first is that “since the JCPOA is public, any rationale for keeping these exemptions secret appears unjustified.” It is difficult to believe that the authors, experts in their field, somehow managed to forget that the NPT is also a public document, yet the safeguards reports that are part and parcel of the NPT are confidential, or that any number of similar agreements have had both public and confidential components.
But then things get worse. The second argument about “secrecy” is that it “interferes in the process of establishing adequate Congressional and public oversight.” Yet in the preceding paragraph, the authors admit that the administration informed the Congress about the state of implementation back in January. So exactly how does informing Congress impede their ability to do oversight? More generally, it is a claim bereft of any empirical evidence. One might think that having five other countries involved in the agreement, including Britain, France, and Germany, would enhance oversight. And if “secret” provisions are such a fatal flaw, why haven’t all the other nuclear agreements that have been negotiated during the nuclear age run aground?
This pattern of argumentation is found throughout the paper: make speculative claims, but offer no evidence about the risks relative to how similar agreements have operated over time.
A larger problem with the paper is that the authors make no attempt to connect the alleged exemptions to the core issue – Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. Do all these “violations” bring Iran closer to a bomb? Or has the agreement accomplished the opposite, by removing Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons for at least 15 years?
For example, the ISIS report laments that Iran has been allowed to hold on to more than the permitted 300 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU). The authors do not indicate the amount involved, whether it is a thimble-full or a truckload. They also fail to point out the obvious but important fact that one cannot make a nuclear weapon with LEU. It would have to be further enriched to 80 or 90 percent – but, of course, the JCPOA prohibits enrichment at those higher levels. So what does it actually mean if Iran has been allowed to hold on to slightly more than 300 kg of LEU? Not much.
A similar problem can be found with respect to the authors’ concerns about hot cells. Iran has a legacy set of 19 hot cells that are used to produce medical isotopes, but the charge is that those hot cells exceed the permitted size under the JCPOA. The implication is that this opens the door to a plutonium bomb. That would indeed be a concern, except for the fact that the authors fail to tell the reader that the plutonium route to a nuclear weapon classically consists of a plutonium source (e.g., a heavy water reactor) and a reprocessing capability. However, Iran destroyed its unfinished heavy water reactor under the agreement, and a new, more proliferation-resistant replacement will not be built for years. Hot cells without a reactor are like a car without an engine: not going anywhere. As to the second requirement for building a plutonium weapon, reprocessing, Iran is prohibited from reprocessing spent fuel for 15 years under the JCPOA.
And here again, the authors engage in speculative questions that are untethered to facts. They ominously ask, “whether the IAEA regularly inspects all these exempted hot cells.” But the facilities in question are declared sensitive facilities. It would be odd if they were not part of the inspection regime. Do they have evidence that the IAEA does not inspect them? If they do, they should provide it. If they do not, they should wait until they do. Speculative questions are not evidence-based arguments.
Taken together, the ISIS report seems to be trying too hard, as if it wants to take bits and pieces and gin them into something more than they are. This conclusion is reinforced by the very nature of the report. The authors fail to tell the reader that most agreements designed by diplomats often run into glitches once they begin to be implemented. It is the nature of a complex technical enterprise. It was true during the interim nuclear agreement with Iran. It was true with U.S.-Soviet nuclear agreements, and as James Acton has pointed out, the U.S. has on occasion had to ask for temporary forbearance as it tried to comply with its own obligations. That is why agreements build in flexibility. In the JCPOA, as with similar agreements, there is an administrative body called the Joint Commission that was set up to handle these kinds of issues. Indeed, the Joint Commission is meeting and will address topics raised in the report. That is precisely how effective agreements are supposed to operate. Not every glitch or problem or missed deadline is evidence of evil intent, and if one insisted on brittle metrics, very few agreements would survive.
And so we need to judge these issues in perspective. Has the agreement made us safer and reduced Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons? Yes. Do any of the claims in the report suggest that the agreement has failed, or that we are safer without it? No. Are the “concerns” raised by the report actually consistent with normal practice in other nuclear agreements that have enhanced U.S. and global security? Yes. We would all be better served by a little more context, a little less speculation, and a greater emphasis on facts. And the fact is, to the consternation of its critics, the agreement is working.
Photo: David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security
Dr. Jim Walsh is an expert in international security and a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program (SSP). Dr. Walsh’s research and writings focus on international security, and in particular, topics involving nuclear weapons and terrorism. Before coming to MIT, Dr. Walsh was Executive Director of the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.