“Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb.”
— President Obama, State of the Union address, Jan. 28, 2014
This line jumped out at The Fact Checker during last week’s State of the Union address. An old journalistic rule is to never label something “unprecedented.” On what basis does the president label these inspections as “unprecedented” — which “verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb?”
Iran and six world powers, including the United States, in November agreed to a “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA) to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful in nature. The deal came after years of fruitless talks, during which Iran raced ahead with a nuclear program that some feared would allow the country to quickly put together a nuclear weapon. (Iran has steadfastly denied it has nuclear-weapons ambitions.)
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog based in Vienna, has the primary task of verifying Iran’s claims and making sure it fulfills its end of the bargain, which includes halting uranium enrichment above 5 percent and diluting a stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium.
When assessing the president’s claim of unprecedented inspections, one has to compare it to an agreement that was in place during the last period of cooperation between Iran and world powers. Between 2003 and 2005, the E.U.-3 (France, Britain and Germany) held talks that allowed enhanced inspections by the IAEA.
We should note that to some extent the use of the phrase “unprecedented” is a red herring. No IAEA safeguards agreement is ever the same. “The fine print — so-called subsidiary arrangements and facility attachments — of every bilateral IAEA safeguards agreement will have some unique idiosyncracies,” said Mark Hibbs, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They aren’t the same.”
When The Fact Checker asked the White House for evidence of the president’s claim, we received a long statement from a senior administration official, which we will quote in full. (The bold was provided in the statement we received.) Much of the statement appears to compare today’s inspections with the access the IAEA had before the JPA, not necessarily in the 2003-2005 period.
“Prior to the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA conducted inspections at Fordow approximately once per week, where they monitor numbers of centrifuges installed and their operational status; enrichment activities; and the inventory of material fed into centrifuges and the enriched uranium produced.
Under the Joint Plan of Action, IAEA inspectors will have daily access to Fordow. On days when inspectors would not otherwise be present to carry out standard inspections under Iran’s Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, inspectors will have access to Fordow in order to review camera surveillance records. With daily access, the IAEA would quickly detect the beginning of any move by Iran to break out of the NPT and rapidly produce at Fordow highly enriched uranium for weapons.
Similarly, prior to the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA conducted inspections at Natanz approximately once every two weeks, where they monitor numbers of centrifuges installed and their operational status; enrichment activities; inventory of material fed into centrifuges and the enriched uranium produced; and research and development activities at the pilot plant. Under the Joint Plan of Action, IAEA inspectors will have daily access to Natanz. On days when inspectors would not otherwise be present to carry out standard inspections, inspectors will have access to Natanz in order to review camera surveillance records. With daily access, the IAEA would quickly detect the beginning of any breakout at Natanz.
At the Arak reactor, the IAEA currently conducts inspections every three months. Under the Joint Plan of Action, as part of verification of Iran’s commitments not to commission the Arak reactor, not to transfer fuel or heavy water to the site, and not to install remaining components, the IAEA will have access to Arak once a month. Inspectors would observe whether or not fuel or heavy water had been transferred to the site, or components installed, and issue periodic reports on Iran’s fulfillment of its commitments based on the results of the inspections.
At the plant in Esfahan where fuel for the Arak reactor is produced, prior to the Joint Plan of Action the IAEA currently conducts inspections every three months. As part of verification of Iran’s commitments not to produce fuel for the Arak reactor and in order to provide reports to the Joint Commission, the IAEA will have access once a month. Inspectors would observe the lines where fuel for the Arak reactor is produced, and issue periodic reports on Iran’s fulfillment of its commitments based on the results of the inspections.
Under the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA is also granted new types of access to Iran’s uranium mines and mills and to its centrifuge storage, rotor production, and assembly facilities.
Finally, the IAEA has stated that it is planning to roughly double the size of its inspection team and install additional monitoring equipment.”
The official added: “It is the entirety of the inspections below — not any one single piece — that make the overall inspection regime unprecedented.”
We then checked with a number of experts in the field and received a decidedly mixed reaction.
“While the extra access helps, the real verification benefit of what the IAEA actually gets in ‘daily’ additional access at the centrifuge plants is marginal,” Hibbs said.
Olli Heinonen, who headed the IAEA’s safeguards section during the 2003-2005 talks between the E.U.-3 and Iran, also said the emphasis on daily inspections was a bit dubious. He maintains that the rights of access, which included military facilities, was better in the earlier inspection regime, because Iran agreed to provisionally implement what is known as the Additional Protocol, which in the JPA is part of the final step.
“The Additional Protocol provided the IAEA with access to nuclear fuel cycle-related activities not involving nuclear material,” said Heinonen, who is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “In addition, the monitoring of suspension meant that all key centrifuge components, their raw materials and manufacturing facilities were under the IAEA control. The clarification of past activities provided until the end of 2005 access — albeit with difficulties — to facilities owned by the military.”
“There was no need on those days to have daily access to any of the facilities,” he added. “The language in the JPA says that the IAEA has daily access to surveillance records. This does not mean that the IAEA can see what happens actually at the enrichment cascade areas or elsewhere at the facility. The surveillance is designed to detect unreported removal of nuclear material from the cascade areas. This is a standard practice in all enrichment facilities and should also be valid to Iran unless the IAEA has negotiated entirely new arrangements.”
“The access rights of the IAEA [today] are better than in last two three years after the implementation of the 2007 Work Plan came to halt in September 2008,” Heinonen concluded. “However, the IAEA had much more rights in 2003-2005 when Iran agreed with the E.U.-3 to suspend its uranium enrichment and heavy water reactor and reprocessing-related activities and provide a complete picture on its past nuclear program. On those days we were able — albeit with difficulties — to visit some military installations suspected of being part of the nuclear program: Kohladouz, Lavisan with some associated location, and twice the famous Parchin.”
David Albright, who heads Institute for Science and International Security, said the president’s language “is a bit over the top.” He took particular exception to the latter part of the president’s statement — that the inspections “help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb.”
“That’s not true,” he said. “We do not have inspections that are good enough to determine if they have a secret centrifuge plant.” He said the ability to determine whether Iran can make a bomb, such as learning how much raw material Iran has used or how many centrifuge rotors have been made, is yet to be negotiated. The current inspections, he said, only help determine whether Iran is not breaking out to make a bomb at these particular declared sites.
However, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, came to the administration’s defense.
“’Unprecedented’ is a strange word because it isn’t synonymous with ‘sufficient,’” he said. “I am satisfied that the monitoring arrangements are ‘sufficient’ for the purposes of the JPA. Whether one can find precedent for them or not seems irrelevant to me.”
Lewis said that “it’s just too hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison to the relatively modest program back in the 2003-2005 period. There are now two parallel tracks, one with the P5+1 [diplospeak for the six world powers] and the other with the IAEA. The IAEA process is formally separate from the Joint Plan of Action, but let’s not kid ourselves about how the IAEA got access. Moreover, what may matter is not the IAEA’s formal access, but what it gets in practice.”
Lewis, who helms one of The Fact Checker’s favorite Web sites, ArmsControlWonk, said the president’s statement “didn’t strike me as wrong or misleading. They meant it to say that it’s the best monitoring arrangement we’ve had in memory. On balance, I think that’s probably right, although I suppose there is always room for improvement.” He added that deterring activity at possibly secret sites is more a job for U.S. intelligence, not the IAEA.
The Pinocchio Test
This is obviously a matter of some interpretation, but the president and his staff would be wise to avoid the use of such claims as “unprecedented.” The inspections are clearly lacking some elements of the 2003-2005 period, such as access to military facilities, while including some areas of improvement. That does not really justify the use of the word “unprecedented.”
Moreover, if the president is using such a sweeping word based on a technicality — that no such IAEA access agreement is ever the same — that’s particularly off-base. (The White House did not respond to a question about that.)
We wavered between One and Two Pinocchios but ultimately settled on Two. It may not involve factual error, but, as our rating scale says, “a politician can create a misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.”
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