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Former inspector explains how a nuclear deal with Iran would work

A former International Atomic Energy Agency official explains why verification of an agreement with Iran is a role the agency has been preparing for since 1957.
In this Oct. 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr. 
In this Oct. 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr. 

The latest reports indicate that Iran and six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) are close to signing an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. In return for removing the sanctions imposed on it according to terms set out in the deal, Iran would limit its nuclear activities, give up its uranium enrichment capabilities, accept unprecedented inspections, and permit ongoing supervision of all relevant imports and exports.

Critics of a deal say Iran can't be trusted. But inspections, when done correctly, don't require trust. And as a former safeguards official at the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the international organization that would be tasked with ensuring Iran is in compliance with the agreement -- I believe the agency is up to the job.

Here's what you need to know:

"Verification of an agreement with Iran is a role the IAEA has been preparing for since 1957."'

The IAEA has been in business since 1957, and its responsibilities and resources have only continued to expand. Today, its primary safeguards mission is to verify that 186 states honor their obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Each of these 186 states, including Iran, has concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement based on a standard model. 

When clandestine nuclear weapon programs were discovered in Iraq and North Korea in the 1990s, the international community acted to bolster the safeguards system so that it could detect hidden materials, equipment and factories. Some of the new requirements were not within the scope of the existing safeguards agreements, so an add-on “protocol” was developed and, as of today, 124 states have an “additional protocol” in force. Iran would make its additional protocol official in keeping with the new agreement.

These two documents would provide the legal authority for most of the activities that the IAEA would carry out in Iran. It is likely that a new United Nations Security Council resolution would provide the IAEA with the needed authority for the added Iran-specific safeguards measures. 

Although Iran is more than twice the size of Texas, the IAEA uses a number of sources to determine the steps any state would take if it were to pursue a nuclear weapons program, including: 

  • Inspections that may reveal suspicious information
  • Political dissidents who have in the past revealed information on hidden nuclear facilities in Iran
  • Intelligence findings that are provided to the IAEA (more than 10 nations have already done so)
  • Suspicious export requests

The IAEA then interprets this information in relation to steps a state would likely choose, and organizes inspections to look at evidence that either supports a suspicion, or resolves it. Here's a quick look at how the agency would tackle some of those issues:

Clandestine facilities, undeclared materials and equipmentCommercial satellite imagery is purchased by the IAEA to look for new activity or changes over time. When the agency has identified a suspicious site, it sends inspectors and collects environmental samples that may show illicit activities or materials. 

Misuse of declared nuclear facilities The IAEA works to anticipate if centrifuge enrichment plants could be misused, for example, should Iran pursue nuclear weapons, and monitor operations to detect any undeclared activities. The agency would also verify nuclear materials to confirm declarations made by the government, preventing the diversion of dangerous materials. Inspectors verify approved imports and their use, and also look for undeclared imports of controlled items.  

Nuclear material and environmental samples are analyzed at the Safeguards Analytical Laboratory.

Agreed operational limitsThe IAEA would verify the terms of the agreement are not exceeded, including the manufacturing and installation of centrifuge machines.

As an international organization, the IAEA must be very certain not to falsely charge Iran or any other nation with non-compliance with any agreement. At the same time, the IAEA will need to balance the risk of prolonging its findings which could limit the ability of the international community to respond in time to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, if it is in fact attempting to do so.  

For IAEA verification to be effective, the agency must continue to receive the political, financial, technical and operational support necessary to succeed. Moreover, it must be allowed to carry out its activities, unimpeded.

Verification of an agreement with Iran is a role the IAEA has been preparing for since 1957, and one in which it will succeed.

Thomas E. Shea, Ph.D., is a former IAEA official who served 24 years in the Safeguards Department. His work on this issue is supported by Search for Common Ground and the Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security.