2.1 The Issue
The Islamic Republic of Iran has an elaborate nuclear infrastructure that features enrichment plants, centrifuge production facilities, and uranium mines. At the same time, it is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the bedrock agreement governing nuclear technology, and the Additional Protocol, which gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) enhanced authority to inspect nuclear facilities.
In the past, the IAEA has had concerns about access to Iranian facilities and scientists. During the 1990s, as Iran began to put together a covert nuclear program and to purchase illicit nuclear technologies from the black market, it often withheld information from the IAEA. The IAEA protocols call for member states to disclose plans for building new facilities and to offer a catalog of all their nuclear assets. Iran rarely complied fully with these and other such procedures.
The United States has long been concerned not only about Iran’s possible violations of the NPT but also about the broader security threats it poses in the Middle East. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement among Iran; China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany (known collectively as the P5+1; the first five being permanent members of the UN Security Council); and the European Union—therefore contains a mechanism for inspecting suspect facilities. The agreement states that if the IAEA is not granted access to a facility, it can appeal to an arbitration committee composed of eight representatives, one each from the P5+1, Iran, and the European Union. At that time, Iran will have twenty-four days to grant access or face potential sanctions at the United Nations. If the arbitration committee does not approve the IAEA’s request, however, Iran will not have to provide access to the agency.
One complaint from Israel and the Gulf Arab states is that, given the scale of Iran’s nuclear program and its probable expansion, the inspection mechanisms are too lax and cumbersome to function effectively. These countries fear that the world will be too slow to react to an Iranian violation of the agreement and that any meaningful sanctions imposed on Iran will be too little, too late, especially if Iran is racing to build a bomb.