There's Still a Lot We Don't Know About the Iran Deal

Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on April 19, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State

The deal has been marked by lack of transparency from the beginning.

The latest report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) reveals confidential exemptions that Iran was granted by the Joint Commission in order to meet its requirements for implementing the Iran deal last January. The report has sparked a debate over whether there were in fact exemptions, and what they entailed. But the more serious issue raised by this report—and emphasized by its authors—regards the question of secrecy and confidentiality surrounding elements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its implementation. From this perspective, the ISIS report is only the latest in a string of episodes over the past year in which issues involving secrecy (or lack of disclosure) have been exposed. Sometimes the issues have related directly to JCPOA provisions, and sometimes to the U.S. administration’s portrayal of events or policies related to the deal.

In their eagerness to block any criticism of the Iran deal, JCPOA supporters immediately denounced the ISIS report and attacked its credibility—not an easy task, considering David Albright is one of the most reputable voices on this topic. In a worrisome exchange with reporters, State Department spokesperson John Kirby denied any exemption for Iran, or that Iran had accumulated more than three hundred kilograms of “usable” low-enriched uranium—employing a new term that does not exist in the deal itself. On the question of secrecy, experts who support the deal have been arguing on social media that not only do they not view secrecy as a problem, but that it is a common element in arms-control agreements, citing U.S.-Soviet/Russian arms-control treaties as a case in point.

There are several problems with this line of argument. First, one cannot escape the irony that arms-control experts that have joined the camp of JCPOA supporters—and that now seem totally fine with secrecy—are the same people that for years hailed transparency as a key ingredient of successful arms control. But more substantively, the Iran deal was purposely devised as a very public arrangement (the full text is available online), and President Obama has stated on many occasions that he does not trust Iran, which is why its program must be transparent, and under constant scrutiny through an intrusive inspection regime. Finally, and most significantly, Iran is a known violator of the NPT—having worked on a secret and illicit nuclear-weapons program for decades while a member of the treaty. Because of its very troubling past record, openness and transparency—not only regarding all elements of Iran’s nuclear program, but including the terms of the deal and its implementation—are so essential. It makes little sense to grant a state like Iran confidentiality privileges—would anyone have thought to do so with Saddam Hussein after the extent of his illegal nuclear-weapons program was revealed in the wake of the 1991 war?

Those set on drawing a comparison between the JCPOA and U.S.-Soviet Cold War arms control are on particularly shaky ground. Beyond the fact that both agreements deal with nuclear-weapons capabilities, they have little in common. The latter experience involved two nuclear-armed powers that decided to introduce stability into their bilateral relationship through a political process where they called the shots. This is a fundamentally different situation than negotiating with a state that was caught cheating for decades on an international treaty that bans work on a nuclear-weapons capability. In the latter case, the P5+1 were actually negotiating on behalf of the nonproliferation regime that was violated by Iran. As such, the P5+1 and Iran were not on equal standing in the negotiation, and in light of its deceptive past behavior, there was no rationale for granting Iran confidentiality.

Over the past year, additional cases of secrecy, confidentiality and lack of disclosure have been revealed, each with its unique features, but all following a similar pattern: revelation of secrecy in the deal and/or lack of full disclosure by the U.S. administration, and then attempts by the administration to deny or cover up, bolstered by claims that everything was either already known, legitimately kept confidential or insignificant. Each additional case that has been exposed has had the effect of gnawing away at the Obama administration’s credibility regarding the nuclear deal, while eroding confidence that Iran will be firmly held to its commitments.

The first instance occurred already last summer, regarding the secret side deal between Iran and the IAEA for a one-time inspection of the military facility at Parchin. The question of whether, and under what conditions, Iran would in the future allow inspections of suspicious military facilities like Parchin was one of the more thorny issues negotiated by the parties. For the P5+1, the JCPOA satisfactorily resolved the issue by determining that any suspicion could be checked by the IAEA within twenty-four days. A close reading of the text of the agreement, however, reveals that the twenty-four-day timeframe could easily be stretched out by Iran—a true cause for concern, in light of emphatic statements issued by Khamenei and others that Iran would never allow inspection of its military facilities.