This is the third in a series of posts on an accidentally-published interview with Iran’s Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. This interview was conducted by regime insiders, and was meant to be provided only to highly placed loyalists. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is an outlet whose head is hand-picked by Iran’s Supreme Leader, and which is made up of political elites of proven loyalty. The publication of this off-the-record interview provides insight into what Iran is telling its own elites about the deal and how it was crafted.
The third claim we will investigate is his claim about the strong capacity Iran has to resist inspections. It is interesting, first of all, that a capacity to resist inspections is of immediate interest to this audience of hard-line elites. He is not being asked to explain safeguards intended to ensure the inspections are fair, or that they do not draw erroneous conclusions about Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities. He is being asked to explain, and does explain in some detail, the ways in which Iran will be able to resist being inspected. This is clear evidence that the people to whom he is speaking are interested in an ability to frustrate the inspections process.
His remarks are a mirror image of President Obama’s claim that the process is not based on trust, but on verifiable inspections. Araghchi also claims that the agreement is not based on trust, at least not trust between Iran and the international community. “To friends who ask us, I respond that we don’t trust the IAEA, nor the inspectors and nor the Westerners,” he says. “We trust in ourselves.”
Specifically, they trust in their capacity to frustrate inspections:
The IAEA has to present us with evidence as to why it thinks there have been illegal activities occurring. After this step, we need to negotiate. Other countries do the same. After the negotiations, if we are convinced, we might allow them access. In cases where their evidence is not entirely unfounded, we can even use substitute methods; for example, we will say we cannot allow you into the main facility but we can allow you access to the area behind it. The other method is for us to videotape it ourselves and present it to them. But if the IAEA refuses our offers and insists on access, this subject has been left unsaid in the Additional Protocol…. If Iran and the IAEA reach a dead end, the issue will be referred to a Joint Commission which will have seven to 14 days to clear the legal process … This process takes 24 days. Of course, any access will be managed by us, meaning in the same blindfolded manner that I had explained before and some had made fun of. But this is really not silly. This has happened before. We can take them in blindfolded.
How accurate and believable is this claim? The “24 days” is a well-known feature of the agreement, but it appears that it is both an overstatement and an understatement of the reality. In the case of certain agreed-upon nuclear sites, there is no 24 day delay: inspections are to be ongoing in those areas. Araghchi says that this is a feature Iran was happy to build in, as those sites it agreed to have inspected will not have anything interesting going on anyway:
Even before the Geneva agreement, the inspectors were in our sites four to five times a week. Therefore, we have no problems with inspections. Now in Natanz, they can not only stay there for 24 hours, but they may even sleep there if they so wish. In Natanz, there is nothing to be found so we have no problems with that. Mr. Kerry has to after all say something and aggrandize to be able to resist the pressures in Congress and to be able to confront the Zionists and the Zionist lobby.
The 24 days is about new suspect sites. Supporters of the deal state that 24 days is not that long given the existence of radiation. Opponents question whether the 24 day maximum is a real thing: the Wall Street Journal published an article explaining that the process can be dragged out for three months or more. Foreign Policy likewise published an analysis suggesting that 24 days is not at all the maximum delay possible under the deal.
Opponents also dispute the question of whether these sites can be sanitized quickly. Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director and 27-year veteran of the agency, says that the kind of sites Iran would need for nuclear weapons production will be easy to move and sanitize.
In a meeting with reporters, the Finnish nuclear expert said components for nuclear bombs or warheads can be put together in a relatively small space, some 239 square yards in size.
With a dispute settlement process that gives the Iranians 24 days before allowing inspectors in, hiding nuclear arms development work will be made easier, he said…. Large facilities such as Iran’s Natanz, where large numbers of centrifuges are kept, will be easier to monitor. But small, clandestine sites can be dismantled in 24 days.
“Much of this equipment is very easy to move,” Heinonen said. “So you can take it out over the night … and then there is this dispute settlement time which is 24 days—you will use that to sanitize the place, make new floors, new tiles on the wall, paint the ceiling and take out the ventilation.”
A large-scale enrichment plant would not be easily scrubbed in 24 days, but smaller covert facilities that are used toward the end of the nuclear weapons process can be hidden or sanitized in 24 days, he said.
Thus, it sounds as though Araghchi’s remarks are in line with the public details about the process. His expressed confidence about the ability of the 24-day delay to allow them latitude to frustrate inspections also lines up with Heinonen’s concerns.
We do have an opportunity here to evaluate the credibility of the leak as a whole. One concern about this story is that it might have been fabricated, as the source of the alleged translated text is an Iranian dissident. He is also a well-respected journalist, as well as a professor at Texas State University, so it would be unlikely that he fabricated the document himself. Might he have fallen for a fabricated document, however?
While that is not impossible, a reason to take the document seriously as a leak is in the attachment to the 24-day period versus the much-longer dispute process that the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy have identified. These are well-read publications whose conclusions are well-known among deal opponents (including this page). If this document were a fabrication, one would assume it would include some gloating commentary about how foolish the West had been to not notice that the 24-day delay was only the beginning of the wiggle room that Iran had bought for itself. Instead, Araghchi’s comments stay very close to the actual text of the negotiations, as might be expected from one of Iran’s team who had been mired in the details of the text for a long time. This increases the probability of the document being a genuine leak, and not a fabrication.
If so, the structure of his remarks are clear evidence that Iran’s elite are chiefly interested in frustrating the inspections. The only reason they would have that concern is that they intend to continue clandestine nuclear weapons work. Congress and others interested in the future of this deal should take that into consideration, and should perhaps hold hearings on these leaks to further investigate their validity and the dangers they expose.