‘World’s most robust’ nuclear inspection program under fire as Trump tries to rewrite the Iran deal

 In World
Inside two curved glass towers on the outskirts of this elegant capital, analysts pore over satellite imagery and tests of environmental samples collected from nuclear sites in Iran.

Two thousand miles away, at Iran’s main uranium enrichment complex near the city of Natanz, a small team of international inspectors studies information transmitted around the clock by surveillance cameras, online monitors and fiber-optic seals on nuclear equipment.

The International Atomic Energy Agency — the United Nations watchdog monitoring Iran’s nuclear program — describes it as the toughest and most technologically advanced inspections regime ever put in place to prevent a country from developing an atomic bomb.

Critics, including some in the Trump administration, say the agency is not inspecting Iranian facilities aggressively enough. And they argue that the 2015 agreement under which Iran accepted limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from crippling sanctions has not reined in its provocative behavior elsewhere — including testing ballistic missiles, imprisoning Americans and allegedly arming Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen.

Trump’s attacks on a deal that he has called “an embarrassment” have focused attention on the IAEA, a 60-year-old agency staffed largely by scientists, engineers and data analysts that has battled to protect its neutrality while working in some of the most volatile environments in the world.

In August, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, visited Vienna and urged the agency to inspect Iranian military bases that are not among the 18 declared nuclear sites to which monitors have regular access under the agreement. Although Haley said she was “impressed” with the IAEA, many read her comments as a critique of the agency’s cautious approach under Director General Yukiya Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat.

In an interview, Amano defended the agency and what he has called the “world’s most robust” nuclear inspection effort.

“We have the strongest verification regime in Iran,” Amano said in his office overlooking the Danube River. “We have experienced, well-trained inspectors and we are doing our job impartially, objectively and factually.”

Seven times, the IAEA has reported that Iran is meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal, which caps its stockpiles of enriched uranium and other materials in order to extend the time the country would need to manufacture a nuclear bomb.

Separately, a U.S. law requires the president to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance, which Trump has done twice — the last time after a contentious White House debate. Trump has threatened to declare Iran in violation of the deal by Oct. 15, when his next report is due.

If he does, Congress could decide to reimpose sanctions, likely provoking a backlash from Iran and opening a rift with allies who argue that the hard-won deal has shed light on a nuclear program that Tehran long tried to hide from the world. By decertifying Iran’s compliance, Trump would also contradict the advice of senior aides including Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who said this week that maintaining the deal was in the United States’ national security interest.

“We have more confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s current activities than we did a few years ago,” said one Western official in Vienna who requested anonymity under diplomatic protocol. “How much more it is hard to say. But the level of access and the sorts of things the agency is able to measure now give you increased confidence.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that he would be giving Trump “a couple of options of how to move forward” on the nuclear deal, but did not indicate what those would be.

Current and former IAEA officials describe an inspections regime that is far more intrusive than what existed before Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany — began implementing the agreement in January 2016.

“It provides for the strictest IAEA verification and monitoring to date anywhere,” said Tariq Rauf, who led the agency’s verification and security policy coordination office until 2011.

Iran used to bar inspectors from certain Western countries and would occasionally deny visas to IAEA personnel investigating the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. Now Iran issues long-term, multiple-entry visas to inspectors. Diplomats briefed on the program say that six to 12 agency personnel are in Iran every day, some based at a small working space provided by authorities at Natanz.

Inspectors have daily access to Natanz and Fordow, a former enrichment site built under a mountain outside the holy city of Qom, Rauf said. Two-thirds of the more than 15,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges once installed at Natanz have been removed since the agreement. Nearly all the centrifuges at Fordow were taken offline or placed in storage, leaving about 300 to produce isotopes for medical purposes.

The remaining equipment at both sites is under constant surveillance, reducing the need for in-person inspections, officials said. An old system involving home movie cameras — modified to start and stop in order to provide months of footage — has been replaced by high-speed color cameras with fisheye lenses that the IAEA says has helped produce a 90% increase in images.

The agency has installed an online monitor that instantly measures uranium enrichment in gas flowing out of the centrifuges at Natanz, a process that used to take upward of three weeks because samples had to be shipped to Austria for analysis.

“The actual work of the inspectors has evolved significantly,” said Thomas E. Shea, a former agency official. “Iran actually doesn’t have that many sites to be monitored. It’s a very politically sensitive program but not so technically challenging.”

But inspectors still face restrictions. Worried about the possibility of espionage, Iran does not allow surveillance data to be transmitted directly back to IAEA headquarters. Iran still blocks American inspectors, although some U.S. personnel work in Vienna as part of the agency’s beefed-up Iran Task Force of about 80 inspectors and analysts.

With an annual budget of only $425 million — less than half that of the Los Angeles Police Department — and no in-house intelligence-gathering capability, the agency relies heavily on information from member states. The satellite images projected onto walls at its headquarters are usually purchased from commercial sources.

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