The vast majority of the arguments pushed by opponents of the international nuclear agreement with Iran are wildly unpersuasive. Some are stale bumper-sticker slogans, written by ideologues who haven’t even read the deal, and some of them hardly even count as “arguments” at all.
But looking past the partisan nonsense and knee-jerk opposition to all diplomatic solutions, there is one criticism that, at face value, seems harder to dismiss. If the United States and our partners suspect Iran is violating the agreement, the apparent “24-day window” seems like it might give Iranian officials an opportunity to cheat.
In a new Washington Post op-ed, Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tackled the point head on.
If the international community suspects that Iran is cheating, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can request access to any suspicious location. Much has been made about a possible 24-day delay before inspectors could gain access to suspected undeclared nuclear sites. To be clear, the IAEA can request access to any suspicious location with 24 hours’ notice under the Additional Protocol of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran will implement under this deal. This accord does not change that baseline. In fact, the deal enhances it by creating a new mechanism to ensure that the IAEA gets the required access and sets a firm time limit to resolve access issues within 24 days. […]Most important, environmental sampling can detect microscopic traces of nuclear activities even after attempts to remove evidence.
It’s a credible response, though I’ll confess that I don’t know anything about “environmental sampling” and its ability to “detect microscopic traces of nuclear activities.” Given how important this is to the entire debate, it’s important to know whether this is accurate.
So, as it turns out, the Department of Energy did some interesting testing. Politico reported last night:
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said for the first time Wednesday that the Obama administration has experimental proof to allay one fear about its nuclear deal with Iran – that it might allow the Iranians ample time to hide certain violations from international inspectors.Critics of the deal have latched onto a provision that requires inspectors to give 24 days’ notice before examining sites suspected of harboring undisclosed nuclear-related activities. They say that’s long enough for Iran to conceal or dismantle the activity – or as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius put it this spring, “in 24 days a lot of things can disappear.”But Moniz, President Barack Obama’s salesman-in-chief on the agreement’s technical aspects, says Energy Department specialists conducted experiments to gauge how hard it would be to detect the radioactive residue left behind. The result, he said, was that three weeks wouldn’t be enough time for Iran to be sure it had covered its tracks – by a large margin.
Moniz told Politico the Department of Energy literally used “very limited quantities” of uranium to explore “the limits of trying to clean it up.” Moniz, who was a nuclear physicist at M.I.T. before joining the administration, concluded, “It is essentially impossible, certainly with confidence, to believe that you’re going to do this kind of work with nuclear materials and be confident at having it cleaned it up.”
It’s a detail the diplomatic agreement’s critics should keep in mind.