Verifying Iran’s Nuclear Commitments

by Peter Jenkins

On April 22, in the latest of a long line of congressional testimonies on Iran’s nuclear program, the president of the Institute for International Science and Security, David Albright, issued a challenge to the six powers seeking a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran.

Albright argued that “Iran’s long history of violations, subterfuge, and non-cooperation requires extraordinary [verification] arrangements to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed peaceful.”

Was that good advice?

The first thing that has to be considered is whether the goal of international nuclear verification is to ensure the peaceful nature of programs or to deter their evolving in a non-peaceful direction.

The opening sentence of Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) reads as follows:

Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency…for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfilment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

This sentence envisages a system based on deterrence. Under this system, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will despatch inspectors to verify that non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) are respecting their commitment to refrain from taking steps to acquire nuclear weapons. The inspectors’ job is not to ensure that NNWS respect their commitments—the inspectors lack the means to do that—but to make NNWS fear that they will be detected if they attempt to transgress, leading to consequences at the hands of other parties to the NPT.

Ensuring Effectiveness

A second question is whether this system is effective. Can NPT parties rely on the IAEA to deter non-compliance with the non-proliferation obligation?

For some time after the NPT entered into force in 1970 the answer was “no.” The verification options conceded to the IAEA by NNWS in the safeguards agreements required by Article III were inadequate. With the exception of a provision for special inspections, which has never been invoked, IAEA inspectors could only access facilities and locations at which NNWS had declared nuclear material to be in use or stored.

The defective nature of these arrangements became obvious in 1991. That year in Iraq IAEA inspectors discovered hitherto undetected, because undeclared, uranium conversion and enrichment facilities, and came across evidence of extensive research into the design and construction of nuclear weapons.

This led to the drafting of a model “Additional Protocol” (additional to the standard Article III safeguards agreement). This model agreement was expressly designed to boost IAEA verification options so as to minimize the risk of recurrence of covert programs similar to Iraq’s.

The Additional Protocol has greatly increased the IAEA’s confidence in the effectiveness of verification as a deterrent. This is manifest in a distinction made in the annual IAEA Safeguards Implementation Report:

  • Where only a standard 1970s safeguards agreement is in force, the Agency confines itself to stating that it has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at nuclear facilities and locations declared by those states;
  • Where an Additional Protocol is also in force, the Agency feels able to state, once an initial comprehensive verification has been completed, that it can provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in that State.

So, as long as Iran applies the Additional Protocol—and the Joint Statement of 2 April indicates this to be Iran’s intention—members of Congress, and the rest of the world, can feel confident that IAEA verification will deter Iran from seeking to proliferate.

Why Not Go Beyond Deterrence?

Albright can, if he wishes, hold the view that deterrence is not enough. He can advocate subjecting Iran to unprecedented arrangements that are designed to make it impossible for Iran ever to use nuclear energy to acquire nuclear weapons. But if he wants to go down that path, then he has to demonstrate that such arrangements are negotiable. This he failed to do on April 22. Was that an oversight, or does he privately recognize the limits of what it is realistic to expect of Iran in the current negotiations?

After all, Iran in 2015 is not Japan in 1945. It is not a defeated country, at the mercy of the United States and its allies. It is a sovereign state that has retained the power to determine for itself what international obligations it will assume. Moreover Iran has not shown itself to be susceptible to coercion or to be ready to sacrifice national self-respect by submitting to norms that would mark it out as a gross exception.

Albright also has to justify exceptional arrangements by explaining why Iran deserves to be singled out. On April 22, he detailed Iran’s “long history of violations, subterfuge and non-cooperation.”

It is certainly true that Iran pursued “a policy of concealment” for 18 years prior to 2004 and violated its IAEA safeguards agreement by failing to declare nuclear materials and nuclear research. Also, the IAEA has complained about the inadequacy of Iranian cooperation to resolve certain outstanding concerns.

But these transgressions are not as exceptional as Albright would like members of Congress to believe. Iran’s covert nuclear program prior to 2004 was no more heinous than that of some other NPT parties known to have had such programs. Having corrected their safeguards violations, or renounced their covert programs and adhered to the NPT, these other states have not been required to submit to exceptional arrangements.

It’s a pity that Congress turns so often to Albright for testimony on Iran. He is too inclined to over-dramatize Iran’s nuclear transgressions and to proclaim the necessity of making demands of Iran that can only lead to one thing: the failure of negotiations.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Khosrow, well said!
    As I’ve said it many times before, Iran’s biggest mistake has been NOT leaving the NPT and finishing their work! The Iranians can not afford continuing with being the NICE guys for ever! If the nuclear arsenal development excuse is resolved tomorrow, I can assure you that there are many other excuses in the bag to draw from and put on the table. All these nonsensical qualifications and assessments made by a bunch of unqualified and moronic few are for brainwashing the general population in the west about the upcoming excuses!!
    Khamenei is correct by advising his people to deal with the people in the west directly and “DO NOT TRUST THE POLITICIANS IN THE WEST”.

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