Is Iran's Nuclear Program Really Getting a 24-Day Pass?

08/06/2015 03:39 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2016

No. Iran's nuclear program does not get a free 24 days to hide nuclear weapons or attempt to build weapons. This 24 days issue has been a talking point of many opponents of the JCPOA. However, I believe that it is because either the opponents who have this idea have not read and understand the 24 day issue, and/or they are letting politics get in the way of accepting this necessary and fair provision.

Known Nuclear Sites Have Anytime Access

First, all 'known' nuclear sites listed in the JCPOA have anytime inspections under Section 15. Iran agreed to this. If the IAEA is not permitted to inspect any of the known nuclear sites, that could trigger the "Dispute Resolution Mechanism", which at the end of the day could 'snap back' the sanctions.

Section 15 specifically gives the IAEA access to all known nuclear sites:

Iran will allow the IAEA to monitor the implementation of the voluntary measures for their respective durations, as well as to implement transparency measures, as set out in this JCPOA and its Annexes. These measures include: a long-term IAEA presence in Iran; IAEA monitoring of uranium ore concentrate produced by Iran from all uranium ore concentrate plants for 25 years; containment and surveillance of centrifuge rotors and bellows for 20 years; use of IAEA approved and certified modern technologies including on-line enrichment measurement and electronic seals; and a reliable mechanism to ensure speedy resolution of IAEA access concerns for 15 years, as defined in Annex I.

Additionally, sections 51, 71, 74 and 81 to name a few all address IAEA access to Iran's known or declared nuclear sites.

Undeclared Sites Are Different

Now that we know that all known or declared nuclear sites have anytime access, what about undeclared sites that may raise suspicions? That is a good question.

The burden of proof is on the IAEA or the West to make a strong case that they should have access to a site not originally listed in the JCPOA. Accordingly, the JCPOA address what the IAEA needs do while respecting Iran's sovereign rights as a nation. Section 76 of the JCPOA states that the IAEA:

may request access to such locations for the sole reason to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at such locations.

Section 77 continues and allows that Iran may propose to the IAEA alternative means of resolving the IAEA's concerns.

If the IAEA is still not satisfied with Iran's responses, the JCPOA addresses what to do next. This is where we come across this 24 day issue. However, there is nothing in the JCPOA that states '24 days'.

Section 78 is where we find that 14+7+3=24 days and this is referring to "undeclared" nuclear sites or materials (not known or declared nuclear sites). There is a process to gain access to these undeclared sites and rightly so. No country in the world would ever agree to anytime anywhere inspections, and Iran does not need to be an exception. Why not? Because 1) Iran would never agree to any deal with anytime anywhere access, and 2) because contemporary international order rests upon the sovereign rights and territorial integrity of all nations, including the ones the US doesn't like or trust.

Specifically, section 78 of the JCPOA states:

If the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA cannot be verified after the implementation of the alternative arrangements agreed by Iran and the IAEA, or if the two sides are unable to reach satisfactory arrangements to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at the specified locations within 14 days of the IAEA's original request for access, Iran, in consultation with the members of the Joint Commission, would resolve the IAEA's concerns through necessary means agreed between Iran and the IAEA. In the absence of an agreement, the members of the Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA's concerns. The process of consultation with, and any action by, the members of the Joint Commission would not exceed 7 days, and Iran would implement the necessary means within 3 additional days.

In summary, what Section 78 means is that if Iran and the IAEA can't come to an agreement on what is at or inspecting undeclared sites in 14 days, it then goes to a vote. Over the next 7 days, persuasive arguments are made by Iran and the IAEA. After the 7 days of arguments have passed, Iran has 3 days to implement the agreement . If Iran fails, the "Dispute Resolution Mechanism" is triggered, which can lead to a reimposition of sanctions.

Section 78 is not giving Iran a free 24 days to hide suspected nuclear activity at undeclared sites. It is a period to litigate positions. Opponents to the JCPOA overlook that if the IAEA and the West, and the US in particular, have concerns about an undeclared site, drones, satellites, HUMNIT and SIGNIT, as well nuclear forensics that are able to pick up trace amounts of nuclear materials would all be employed to determine if Iran was in fact cheating.

So, this notion that Iran gets a free 24 day period to hide alleged nuclear weapon activity is not taking into consideration 1) that it is not in Iran's interest to cheat and 2) what our capabilities are to detect cheating if Iran was trying to conceal something.

Conclusion

Part iii of the JCPOA, "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons." Iran's leaders have said many times that it is un-Islamic to pursue or acquire nuclear weapons. Some of Iran's leaders have said that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map, but let's get real about that - Israel has the capability to defeat Iran militarily, not the other way around.

Moreover, ever since the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate stated - We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons - there has been no evidence that Iran has or will be pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

The JCPOA is a good plan. It is not a perfect plan, but it is the best plan that France, Russia, England, the U.S., China, Germany, the EU and Iran could agree on. With that many sets of eyes and interests looking at this issue, I think it is safe to say that this is a better plan than any of the opponents could have gotten, even if there is a 24 day period full of checks and balances to resolve any suspected undeclared nuclear sites.

PAUL HEROUX is a state representative from Massachusetts who previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.