NEW YORK – Short-term concerns over the nuclear deal reached with Tehran last month center on a provision that predicates the entire agreement going forward on a resolution of a UN inquiry into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear work.
The difficulty of resolving that investigation has become evident in recent days – to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, to nonproliferation experts and to the Obama administration – even as a debate culminates on Capitol Hill over the long-term merits of the deal.
For the accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to proceed toward full implementation, the IAEA must satisfactorily conclude its investigation into the possible military dimensions, or PMD, of Iran’s nuclear work.
Tangential to the JCPOA, the two parties agreed upon a “road map” toward that end in Vienna last month, which sets an end-of-year target for the inquiry’s conclusion.
“Iran will not receive new sanctions relief until Iran has completed its nuclear steps, including the steps it has committed to take in the road map,” a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post
The White House has repeatedly said it does not seek a “confession” from Tehran: “The United States has already made our judgment about the past,” the official added, “and we are focused on going forward.”
But recent media reports out of Vienna, sourced by leaks from concerned IAEA officials, suggest the process may be less smooth than the deal’s architects had previously hoped.
One document leaked to Reuters on Thursday reveals findings of significant construction at Iran’s Parchin military complex
, which lies at the heart of the IAEA’s PMD inquiry. “At a particular location at the Parchin site, the agency has continued to observe, through satellite imagery, the presence of vehicles, equipment, and probable construction materials,” the report reads.
“In addition, a small extension to an existing building appears to have constructed,” it continues.
Similar reports of activity – tracked through satellite imagery and thus independently verifiable – was cast as a “fabrication” by Tehran earlier this month.
But Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, responded to the report on Thursday by saying that Tehran does not need the UN agency’s permission to build at Parchin.
The IAEA report continued, “Full and timely implementation of the relevant parts of the road map is essential to clarify issues relating to this location at Parchin.”
The US declined to comment on the routine IAEA report.
But State Department
spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday, “When you’re talking about a site like Parchin, you’re talking about a conventional military site.”
Iran is therefore within its rights to pursue construction projects on such sites, he added.
The IAEA’s concerns follow another leak last week from a UN official in Vienna to the Associated Press, which detailed a confidential document setting standards for the investigation of Parchin.
According to the report, the IAEA will allow Iran to use its own experts and equipment to collect soil samples, photo and video evidence of the site, accounting for “military concerns,” which will then be passed on to the agency.
Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the IAEA, said that the safeguards agreement departs “significantly from well-established and proven safeguards practices.
“At a broader level, if verification standards have been diluted for Parchin (or elsewhere) and limits imposed, the ramification is significant as it will affect the IAEA’s ability to draw definitive conclusions with the requisite level of assurances and without undue hampering of the verification process,” Heinonen, now with Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, wrote in a memo published on Wednesday.
Advocates of the agreement stand by the road map as consistent with the standards of the IAEA, and argue that the agency’s standards serve as testimony to the overall rigor of the JCPOA. But skeptics view these obstacles before the PMD investigation as harbingers of the struggles to come over the life of a complex agreement that, at key stress points, hinges on Iranian compliance.
In Washington, the Obama administration continued this week to argue that the US has no choice but to adopt the deal. Its ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, wrote on Thursday that a rejection of the agreement by Congress would “significantly weaken our ability to achieve our broader foreign policy goals.
“If the United States rejects this deal, we would instantly isolate ourselves from the countries that spent nearly two years working with American negotiators to hammer out its toughest provisions,” Power said in an op-ed published in Politico. “We would go from a situation in which Iran is isolated to one in which the United States is isolated.”
And Vice President Joe Biden plans to meet Jewish leaders in Miami on September 3 to discuss Iran, the White House announced on Thursday. The meeting was encouraged by Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who is publicly undeclared on how she will vote on the deal.
A vote on a resolution of disapproval in Congress, scheduled for mid-September, looks increasingly unpopular among Democrats. White House officials say they hope to secure as many as 40 Democratic senators, which could prevent a vote on the deal in the first place.
Already, opponents of the deal are warning Democrats against using a parliamentary procedure known as “filibustering,” which would allow them to effectively block a vote with the support of 40 or more senators.
The debate, the American Jewish Committee said in a message on Twitter, “is too important to be silenced. The deal’s supporters must not filibuster the vote.”
Fifteen Senate Democrats remain publicly undecided.
One Democrat in the House of Representatives, Carolyn Maloney of New York City, announced opposition to the agreement on Thursday, becoming the seventh New York Democrat to do so.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bonnie Watson of New Jersey, a Democrat, announced support for the deal. Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate are optimistic they will preserve the accord when it comes to a vote.
The JCPOA is intended to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief – and to permanently prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Critics argue that its caps and restrictions are insufficient, and that the agreement legitimizes Iran as a state forever on the verge of acquiring nuclear arms.