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Exclusive to the Trib: Verification is the elephant in the room in the Iranian nuke deal

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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Verifying compliance with nuclear arms-control and nonproliferation agreements is undeniably a worthy objective. But verification is no panacea.

It is never completely comprehensive or effective. It cannot convert a bad deal into a good deal. It cannot change vague phrases into precise language, close glaring loopholes or resolve even honest disputes between the parties. And, most importantly, verification provides no guarantee that an unwilling, duplicitous country cannot successfully evade constraints.

So we should immediately be wary when President Obama trumpets stepped-up verification as a major achievement of the Geneva agreement between Iran and the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members (plus Germany). Simply asserting that the Geneva deal provides for “enhanced monitoring” (the term actually used) says nothing about its true substance, durability or effectiveness.

On their merits, the Geneva “Joint Plan of Action” verification provisions are utterly inadequate. Significantly, the agreement does not acknowledge the legitimacy of “national technical means,” the euphemism for spying first approved in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile and SALT I treaties. If Iran's nuclear intentions are “exclusively peaceful,” as it asserts, Tehran should welcome any technique to prove its point.

Of course, there are high levels of mistrust between Iran and America. But that is no reason not to acquiesce to “national technical means.” Mistrust was never greater than at the height of the Cold War. But Moscow and Washington nonetheless agreed “not to use deliberate concealment measures which impede verification by national technical means of compliance” with the ABM Treaty. Not so in the Geneva deal.

Intelligence gathering is always America's principal source of verification. And even the Obama administration will surely rely on our capabilities (unfortunately diminished by five years of relentless budget cutting). The White House insists, however, that its real basis for confidence in assessing Iranian compliance is increased effort by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). True, the IAEA does a respectable job within its limited mandate. It has respected technical capabilities and, after facing years of Iranian obstruction and concealment, IAEA inspectors are highly skeptical of Iran's façade of peaceful research. Moreover, Director-General Yukio Amano is a vast improvement over his predecessor, who was essentially an apologist for Tehran.

Nonetheless, the IAEA is not an intelligence agency. Its main inspection function is to verify the non-diversion of nuclear materials from its member countries' declared facilities. When the United States or others provide intelligence, the IAEA uses that information to enhance its own investigations. Because, however, there are no clandestine agents lurking at its Vienna headquarters, the IAEA alone is most unlikely to discover Iran violating the Geneva deal.

The joint plan's specifics regarding enhanced IAEA inspections basically just return it to its access levels of several years ago. For example, Iran must submit updated design information and negotiate further agreements with the IAEA concerning access to the Arak heavy-water reactor, the near-certain purpose of which is producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

This is hardly earth-shattering; Iran long ago declared Arak to the IAEA. During the years Iran barred IAEA inspectors from Arak, Tehran regularly gave verbal reports on construction at the site. When IAEA inspectors return to Arak under the deal, they will either find that the construction is as reported or it isn't. They will not discover caches of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. They will probably not discover much about Arak that Washington doesn't already know from our intelligence. This is what the IAEA does. It focuses on declared sites, a technique that, unfortunately, works only until IAEA inspectors are expelled from a country, as North Korea did in 2003.

In fact, it is the utter absence of provision for stepped-up verification of undeclared Iranian sites that shows how deficient the joint plan is on verification. Amano's Nov. 14 report to the IAEA board of governors makes plain that Iran continues to stall — as it has for well over two years — on providing information about its program's military dimensions. Tehran continues blocking any access to the Parchin military base, where Iran has long worked on the weaponization aspects of nuclear weapons, particularly the shaping of high explosives to compress plutonium or enriched uranium into the critical mass necessary for an atomic explosion.

Obama's joint plan is absolutely silent on verification at Parchin, other military and undeclared facilities and Iran's active and growing ballistic-missile program. Indeed, like the entire agreement, the verification provisions rest entirely from Iran's contention that its program is peaceful; only those aspects that Iran is prepared to open to IAEA inspection will be inspected. The real elephant in the room is simply ignored.

The Geneva deal is flawed throughout, and its flimsy verification provisions are not even its most grievous defects. The next time Obama quotes Ronald Reagan saying “trust but verify,” remember that Reagan actually meant what he said.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His exclusive column to the Trib appears the second Sunday of every month.

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