When U.S. President Barack Obama walked out into the Rose Garden in April he made one of the defining speeches of his presidency. He announced to the world that the U.S. had finally struck a deal with Iran that would prevent it from developing nuclear weapons -- an agreement that he worked on for the duration of his time in office and one that led to renewed diplomatic relations after a 35-year political standoff.
The president vowed that Iran's nuclear facilities would be closely observed and, if the Iranians cheated the agreement, “the world will know it.” But new information received by International Business Times shows Obama's words may turn out to be hollow ones. The inspectors who are responsible for monitoring Iran's nuclear capabilities do not have the necessary expertise to point out machines or processes that could or would indicate Iran is militarizing its nuclear material, according to former nuclear inspectors.
The nuclear deal, a focal point of the Obama administration and a contentious issue in Congress, hangs on the idea that Iran will have to undergo intensive monitoring and verification by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body in charge of checking the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program to make sure it complies with the agreement and does not develop a nuclear weapon.
“Iran has ... agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history,” Obama declared in April. Inspectors would have access not only to Iranian nuclear facilities, Obama said, but to the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program, including uranium mills, centrifuge production and storage facilities that support the program. “If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it,” Obama said.
But former IAEA inspectors say those chosen to monitor Iran’s nuclear material can easily perform routine sampling of material but are not equipped with the knowledge to understand when nuclear sites are being used for military purposes.
“Anyone can be trained to do the sampling,” said Robert Kelley, the former director of the IAEA nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001. But what is more difficult to learn, he said, is how to spot machines and processes that point to militarization of nuclear material. “They [the inspectors] could come out and be questioned about the site and not have any idea about what they saw.”
The deal relies heavily on a U.N. agency that currently does not have the capacity to carry the weight of the agreement, Kelley told IBTimes. The verification needed to uphold the agreement is multifaceted and is out of the scope of most inspectors’ capabilities, he said.
Kelley, along with Tariq Rauf, another former IAEA inspector, wrote a recent report claiming the IAEA monitoring and verification in Iran “go beyond normal safeguards” and that the agency should bring in experts from the outside to conduct the nuclear weapon analysis in Iran. During the IAEA inspections in Iraq, the team responsible for monitoring brought in experts from the outside to conduct the weapons analysis because inspectors usually have “zero” nuclear weapon experience and “little to no nuclear experience,” Kelley told IBTimes.
The IAEA historically has operated on a strict mandate to take samples of nuclear material and track levels. A job description for an IAEA inspector says the position involves carrying out analytical work at various nuclear facilities and sites to verify the absence of “undeclared nuclear material or activities, undeclared production or processing of nuclear material at declared facilities and on diversion of nuclear material.”
That verification, according to the job description, will be ensured by in-field activities including the collection of nuclear material and environmental samples, servicing of surveillance equipment, verification of plant design and examination of government records. The job does not require inspectors to know how to spot nuclear weapon production.
In April, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said in an interview with CNN that for the nuclear deal to succeed, "a precondition has to be that there's going to be a real re-dedication in the IAEA to do the kind of work that's going to be necessary to do 24/7, 365 days a year in the various facilities.”
Former IAEA inspectors told IBTimes that the IAEA does not have the capacity to live up to those expectations.
“The IAEA has been oversold,” Kelley said.
The IAEA has a history of making mistakes, according to former U.K. ambassador to the IAEA Peter Jenkins. He has called on the IAEA to review their work on a case in Syria, stating in a recent report that the IAEA improperly sampled some of the nuclear material at a site in Syria.
"After the team had left the site and returned to their hotel, having taken several samples that Syria had authorized, [a] senior inspector bragged that he had taken an unauthorized 'swipe' of a surface in the men's room. When the samples came back from analysis, it was on the unauthorized swipe that [anthropogenic natural uranium] particles had been found, " Jenkins wrote. "If this account is true — and I know of no reason to think it is not — then one hypothesis is that the senior inspector’s swipe material was already contaminated, either deliberately or by accident, when he arrived at the Dair Alzour site, or it became contaminated when placed in his pocket."
Another challenge to the "robust inspections" promised by Obama, unveiled by the Associated Press in a report earlier this month, points to the possibility that the IAEA might allow Iran to conduct its own monitoring program.
In an article published Aug. 19, AP cited a confidential document that showed the IAEA had negotiated a side deal with Iran to let the country carry out its own inspections. The report immediately caused an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who staunchly oppose the deal, claiming it gives Iran too much leeway to develop a nuclear weapon in the future. The side deal, Republican officials said, would strip the deal of inspection accountability and reliability in monitoring Iran’s nuclear material.
The details of the deal remain murky. It is not clear from the Associated Press’ document whether the IAEA will send weapons inspectors to oversee the sampling, or management personnel. Either way, former IAEA employees say sending unqualified inspectors into Parchin under the nuclear deal does not add any value.
The IAEA declined to provide IBTimes with a comment on these claims or those of Kelley and other former inspectors. But in a statement released by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano last week, he said, “I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran. Such statements misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work.”
The director went on to say, "the arrangements are technically sound and consistent with our long-established practices. They do not compromise our safeguards standards in any way.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman said in a briefing this week that the department was “confident” the IAEA would have the access it needed to oversee the sampling at Parchin and specified that inspectors would be able to physically enter the site, even if they do not lift the samples themselves.
Other analysts have in recent weeks pointed to the fact that Iran, following the botched analysis in Syria, may want to lead its own monitoring for fear of being wrongly accused of developing nuclear weapons.
But in another twist to the story, this week the IAEA said the agency cannot move forward with its monitoring of Iranian nuclear material until it receives more money from member states. The agency says it needs funds of $10 million a year to adequately oversee and implement the deal and verify that its terms are kept.
The deal requires the IAEA to make an assessment of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program by the end of 2015. The U.N. agency's agreement with Iran is part of a larger deal struck between Iran and six world powers -- China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany -- to cut back Iran’s nuclear program and prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapon. That deal, though it still needs to be passed by Congress, requires the IAEA to ensure Iran’s compliance through a robust verification process.
Nuclear negotiations began during Obama's presidency in an effort to normalize relations between the two countries. Iranian international isolation began in 1979 following an Islamist revolution that overthrew the pro-Western regime of the Shah. The subsequent occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran led to the end of diplomatic relations with Washington. Following Iran's decision to move forward with an illicit nuclear weapons program, in 2012 the European Union imposed further sanctions on the country, banning all arms exports and the importing of Iranian crude oil and natural gas.
The nuclear deal was designed as a way of preventing -- or at least delaying -- Iran's development of nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. But if Kelley's claims are correct -- and IAEA inspectors aren't qualified to determine whether the nuclear site is being used for military purposes -- this has deeply troubling implications, both for the deal and for the legacy of the Obama administration.