A frequent critic of the Iran nuclear deal said Thursday that the United States and its negotiating partners have allowed Tehran to exceed agreed-upon caps for stockpiles of enriched uranium and other materials.

David Albright, the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International
Security, said key “exemptions” to the deal’s limits were made in what he characterized as “secret” meetings of the Joint Commission. That is the body established to decide issues that arise in implementing the deal. Its members are Iran and the countries that negotiated the agreement — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, as well as the European Union.

“These decisions, which are written down, amount to additional secret or confidential documents linked to the JCPOA,” said the report that Albright wrote with senior policy analyst Andrea Stricker, referring to the deal’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Moreover, the Joint Commission’s secretive decision making process risks advantaging Iran by allowing it to try to systematically weaken the JCPOA. It appears to be succeeding in several key areas.”

The White House and the State Department swiftly denied Albright’s charges, saying Iran has not exceeded the cap of 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.

This image made from video broadcast on Iranian State Television shows trucks outside Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (AP)

Waving a blue, bound copy of the voluminous agreement that took effect Jan. 16, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters there had been no “moving of the goal posts.”

“There has been no loosening of the commitments,” Kirby said, repeatedly refusing to use the word “exemptions” that Albright used to describe the Joint Commission’s work. “Iran has not, and will not under the JCPOA, be allowed to exceed limits spelled out in the JCPOA.”

The assertions immediately became campaign fodder. The National Republican Congressional Committee issued news releases citing the report and criticizing Democratic candidates who supported the nuclear deal.

Albright is a physicist who participated in U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, and he has become a watchdog over the deal that imposes curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Albright has repeatedly raised doubts about whether it is being implemented as promised.

Under the agreement, the Joint Commission’s deliberations are confidential. Although the commission could make decisions public, it has not. As a result, it is difficult to verify the criticism or the administration’s denials.

Albright said he first heard of the exemptions from a government official from a country involved in the negotiations, but he would not identify the country. Albright said the official was responsible for assessing Iran’s compliance but heard about the exemptions third-hand, not from his government.

“The fundamental issue, there’s a lot more happening in secret than we ever signed up for,” Albright said in a telephone interview.

The report said that if the Joint Committee had not granted exemptions, some of Iran’s nuclear stockpiles and facilities would have exceeded permissible levels when the deal was implemented.

But Iran was allowed to go over the 300 kilogram limit of low-enriched uranium that is collected as scrap material and also as lab contaminant, the report said. In addition, it continued operating 19 “hot cells,” which are used for medical purposes but also for plutonium separation, at four sites.

Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said that the agreement permits hot cell exemptions with Joint Commission approval and that the existence of hot cells is not necessarily evidence of Iran’s evading restrictions.

“When implementing any highly technical agreement, ambiguities will arise from time to time,” she said. “What is critical is that the Joint Commission established by the nuclear deal remains vigilant in overseeing implementation of the agreement, and distinguishes between attempts to circumvent the deal’s restrictions and technical issues.”

Robert Einhorn, a nonproliferation scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the confidentiality surrounding the Joint Commission is understandable but potentially problematic.

“A case can be made for keeping the deliberations of the Joint Commission private,” he said. “Although when those deliberations produce decisions materially affecting the implementation of the JCPOA, then a case can be made for making those results public.”