After learning of the existence of these side deals and later learning that even the Obama administration has not had access to the text of the documents, members of the US Congress, especially Republicans, have cited this issue as the latest in a long list of grievances related to last month’s nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.
While the newest arrangements between Iran and the IAEA are materially separate from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, many lawmakers and experts assert that one affects the other and that they should be considered in tandem. Indeed, the P5+1 negotiations and the IAEA probe into Parchin and other past military dimensions were also technically separate but were regularly discussed together on the assumption that the results of the IAEA probe would affect the outcome of the nuclear talks.
That appears to not have been the case, as Iran ultimately failed to provide sufficient answers to most of the dozen key questions that the IAEA posed to it as part of that probe. The “side deals” ostensibly set up the two parties to complete the work that was begun around the same time as the negotiations. But the questionable nature of those agreements is sure to heighten the skepticism that many already felt regarding Iran’s compliance when the IAEA failed to complete its probe ahead of the JCPOA.
A further analysis of the side deals put out by the AP on Thursday noted that the new reports are likely to further fuel concerns that the UN organization may be willing to do what critics accuse Western powers of doing already – giving undue concessions to the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the AP report was preceded on Tuesday by an article in the Washington Free Beacon which suggested that pressure from Iran may have had something to do with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano’s refusal to make the content of the side deals public.
Amano’s public statements say otherwise, although it is not clear that he has heard, much less responded to the accusations directly. What Amano has said is that he is legally obligated to keep the content of the side deals between the signing parties, as has been the case with other bilateral agreements. Nonetheless, he has rejected the characterization of provided by the AP for the deal with Iran.
Amano has been quoted as saying that the newly signed agreement is “technically sound.” But the Fiscal Times adds that he has declined to share any relevant details to definitively refute the emerging criticisms. While Amano insists that the content of the deal is in keeping with standards established by prior IAEA probes, the AP quoted Olli Heinonen, former IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards, as saying that there is no precedent for an agreement that allows the country being investigated to control as much of the probe into its activities as is being alleged in this case.
The AP’s synopsis of the agreement is based on its having obtained an earlier draft, and one that is not substantially different from the signed final agreement, according to an unnamed source close to the probe. It reveals that Iranian inspectors will be tasked with taking photographs and video of the Parchin site, which will then be analyzed elsewhere by the IAEA. And even these materials will apparently be limited in scope, as the draft allows for “military concerns” to be taken into account, suggesting that Iran may exclude portions of the site from even remote inspection by claiming that they are sensitive to national security.
Even prior to the AP report, some opponents of the nuclear deal had lodged complaints that the IAEA probe would reportedly allow for Iran to take its own soil samples from Parchin. The draft text seems to confirm this, and UPI noted on Thursday that the IAEA had neither contradicted that claim nor publicly responded to the accusation.
Given the early awareness of this provision in the side deals, it seems that the White House may have been aware of it on the basis of an IAEA briefing on the probe last month. Congress subsequently received a similar briefing amidst early demands for access to the text of the IAEA documents.
Whatever the content of those briefings, it is clear that the White House is satisfied by them, at least as far as its public statements are concerned, while congressional opponents of the deal are not. The Times of Israel notes that White House officials have said they are “comfortable” with the confidential agreements and “confident” in the IAEA’s broader power to probe possible military dimensions and enforce Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement.
Congressional Republicans, by contrast, have had particularly harsh words for the side deals and the nuclear agreement in light of the AP revelations. Breaking Israel News collected together several such reactions on Thursday. It noted that Texas Senator John Cornyn regards the new information as proving that the nuclear agreement depends upon “naïve and incredibly reckless” trust in the Iranian regime.
California Representative Ed Royce adds that the side deals underline the “dangerous farce” of the nuclear deal, which many critics regard as being built upon a series of unearned concessions to the Islamic Republic. Perhaps most importantly, these concessions are seen as leaving the West without a serious means of verifying that Iran is holding up its arguably light end of the deal.
“This side agreement shows that true verification is a sham, and it begs the question of what else the administration is keeping from Congress,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In light of such suspicions, opponents of the deal are pushing harder than ever for transparency from both the White House and the IAEA. South Carolina senator and Republican presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham even went so far as to threaten last week to defund the IAEA if the text of its agreements remains unreleased.
But the Wall Street Journal notes that that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which was signed into law in May, seems to have already established the current lack of transparency as a complicating issue in the congressional review. The law requires Congress to have access to all documents associated with the nuclear agreement, including side agreements. Although the IAEA probe is considered separate, some may argue that the relevance of Iran’s past military dimensions makes those so-called side deals fair game for congressional review.
In either case, the Fiscal Times notes that the AP report may create even stronger opposition to the nuclear agreement – something that could have powerful affects amidst a purported 20 million dollar lobbying effort by AIPAC and other pressure groups to overturn the deal. And even if that report’s claims are never fully verified, previously reported aspects of the side deals have already solidified a great deal of opposition and skepticism.
The Wall Street Journal notes, for instance, that Iran has made it clear that it won’t allow American and Canadian inspectors to participate in the continuation of the probe. What’s more, any undisclosed provisions of the deal that actually do put serious demands on Iran cannot realistically be enforced by the UN body alone, as it has no power to penalize Tehran for non-compliance.
This latter point may justify efforts by some critical lawmakers to formally recognize the linkage of the nuclear agreement and the side deals, and thus to make the IAEA documents a more serious topic of discussion in the wide-ranging debate over approval and implementation of the JCPOA.