In agreeing to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran accepted extensive and intrusive verification measures that go beyond those made by other countries in either Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or in the Additional Protocol (AP) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Limits on heavy water production, research reactor operations, enriched uranium holdings and centrifuge operations, for example, are not derived from commitments made under the NPT. Instead they stem from Iran’s need to reestablish the peaceful bona fides of its nuclear program after years of covert development and to meet the insistence of its negotiating partners that Iran’s timeline to a weapon in case of a breakout scenario be longer than one year.
These new commitments engendered the need to develop and apply new means to confirm or verify them. The JCPOA specifies that these innovations will not be applied in any other context, which will make the political bar higher than otherwise would be the case for applying these techniques more broadly, but most observers do not believe that this provision will be indefinitely honored. The degree to which those new arrangements can be applied beyond the JCPOA can be considered for four cases.
Extension of Certain Provisions of the JCPOA Beyond Scheduled Endpoints
It is conceivable, depending on the implementation of the JCPOA, that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) could press Iran to agree to extend some or all of these provisions in order to resolve disputes over compliance or to gain additional benefits. While relevant officials agree that Iran is currently complying with the JCPOA, some of the agreement’s limits are subject to ongoing differences of opinion between Iran and the P5+1 partners. Such disputes might be resolved by Iran agreeing to extend the timeline for certain limitations – and the associated verification of its compliance with such limitations.
Resolution of Outstanding Compliance Disputes in Other Countries
The JCPOA offers a reasonable, if incomplete, model for some future agreement that returns North Korea to safeguards compliance. Because the DPRK has made much more progress on actually constructing nuclear weapons, the JCPOA’s provisions would need to be bolstered by verification of the elimination of the weaponization aspects of the DPRK’s program, but some of the techniques involving IAEA supervision of elimination of technical capability in Iran could be models for verifying weapons-related commitments. The verifiable elimination of South Africa’s much more modest weapons program may also offer some applicable concepts. The duration and intrusiveness of any agreement with the DPRK will depend, of course, on the political context, including the leadership of the country and the degree of coerciveness of the agreement to return to the NPT and reestablish safeguards.
Verifying Existing CSA/AP Commitments
Because IAEA safeguards are designed to verify national declarations under CSA/APs, some of the novel techniques could be applied to existing commitments. For example, while the NPT places no limits on uranium enrichment operations, once a member state declares the concentration produced by a safeguarded uranium enrichment plant, the IAEA has the opportunity to confirm that production matches the declaration. Typically, this confirmation is done by periodic sampling, but it could also be accomplished through the On-Line Enrichment Monitor (OLEM) developed for use under the JCPOA. Use of the OLEM combined with remote monitoring would provide a more timely indication of plant operations that are at odds with a member state’s declaration. A member state would need to agree to this technical approach. But judgments made under the IAEA’s State Level Concept may suggest that such timeliness would be especially beneficial in certain instances, and might result in a proposal from the IAEA to install such monitors, perhaps as a substitute for increasing the frequency of sampling.
More generally, the IAEA safeguards team may find that insights gained from implementing the JCPOA could increase efficiency of their application of standard safeguards under CSA/AP arrangements. Again, changes would need to be accepted by individual member states, but the IAEA’s policymaking bodies have frequently called for advances in the efficiency of safeguards applications.
Applying Some JCPOA Provisions to Non-nuclear Commitments
Some provisions of the JCPOA could have application to verification of commitments that might be made in other contexts. The Procurement Channel established under the agreement is a relatively flexible tool that could be applied to a number of potential situations. Returning to the DPRK case, it may be that limits on ballistic missile production are agreed as part of a comprehensive denuclearization arrangement. A procurement channel to review and approve (or deny) technology transfers relating to missile production could be established. If a future agreement with Iran limiting ballistic missiles were to be reached, the JCPOA’s Procurement Channel could be extended to cover those commitments. Perhaps a similar approach could be created through the UN Security Council to constrain Syria’s imports of chlorine or other commodities related to its manufacture and use of chemical weapons in contravention of Syria’s legally binding commitment under the Chemical Weapons Convention not to do so.
In each of these cases, there is a common thread that any additional commitments and associated verification measures would have to be accepted by a particular member state in a specific circumstance. It is highly unlikely that states with peaceful nuclear programs will collectively accept a wholesale effort to expand what is currently asked of member states in terms of programmatic limits or constraints to anything similar to Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA. This is especially true in the context of the failure of states with nuclear weapons to take further steps towards disarmament as well as the negotiations currently underway on a nuclear weapons ban treaty. The unusually intrusive verification measures contained in the JCPOA are a specific response to Iran’s decades of deception regarding its nuclear activities, so their broad application to countries whose nuclear activities are in compliance with their CSA/AP commitments would be seen as inappropriately punitive, and attempts to do so could well backfire and even undermine current participation in the voluntary Additional Protocol.
Ambassador Laura Holgate is a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and former US Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and to the Vienna Office of the United Nations.