Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks Wednesday in the parliament in Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi / AP)
VIENNA — The U.N. will probably not begin expanded inspections under last weekend’s Iranian nuclear deal until early next year, officials said Wednesday. Even then, they will be limited to sites the Iranians have confirmed and not those critics suspect may exist secretly.
Any delay between agreement and implementation is significant because it could strengthen critics both in Iran and the U.S. who have questioned the deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has inspected Iran’s program regularly over the past decade, submitting its findings to the IAEA’s 35-nation board and the U.N. Security Council.
But the agreement sealed in Geneva on Sunday boosts the scope and significance of the agency’s monitoring activities, making it the chief arbiter of whether Iran is keeping its end of the bargain — capping its nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief.
Iran maintains its program is only for peaceful purposes although the U.S. and others believe it may have worked on a bomb.
Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told The Associated Press on Monday that implementation of the Geneva deal will begin in “a matter of days,” adding: “You’ll begin to see much more intrusive inspections of the Iranian program.”
But officials involved in negotiating the deal say there is still no start date. They say the IAEA must verify that Iran is keeping its end of the deal before the clock starts ticking down on the agreement’s six-month time frame and the start of sanctions relief.
That is likely to push things into next year.
The IAEA’s board meets Thursday and Friday, but will not focus on the deal. Diplomats who follow the agency say its head, Yukiya Amano, may not submit a plan on verification to the board for approval until January because of the upcoming holiday period.
Both the officials and the diplomats demanded anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss implementation plans.
Quick implementation is crucial. The U.S. and Iran are both facing pressure from skeptics back home, and any delay could give critics a greater platform to rally sentiment against the agreement.
Hard-line Iranian legislators lashed out against the accord Wednesday, which parliamentarian Hamid Rasai calls “a poison chalice.” A bill being worked on in U.S. Congress would require the administration to certify every 30 days that Iran is adhering to terms of the six-month interim agreement, adding urgency to an early start of the expanded IAEA role.
Iranian commitments include freezing uranium enrichment to its present level and stopping work on a reactor that would produce substantial amounts of plutonium if completed.
Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be used to make nuclear warheads. Iran insists both the enrichment program and the plutonium reactor are for medical and scientific use.
Even before the Geneva deal, IAEA experts had substantial inspection rights under other agreements with Iran. They have been visiting Tehran’s two uranium enrichment sites about once a week and had various amounts of oversight at the plutonium reactor and a dozen other facilities.
Under the Geneva deal, inspectors will be able to visit Iran’s Natanz and Fordo enrichment sites daily and have greater oversight elsewhere. They will monitor Iran’s commitment to dilute or downgrade its stock of enriched uranium that is closest to weapons grade; to enrich only to levels far lower than weapons grade, and to turn all material it is enriching into oxide, which is difficult to reconvert.
Even then, the agency’s expanded role has its limits.
The IAEA shares fears by Washington and its allies that Tehran worked on a nuclear weapons program until 2003. And agency reports, based in part on U.S. and other intelligence, say some activities may have continued beyond then.
Iran denies such work. But it still declines to answer related IAEA questions or give agency experts access to sites, people and documents allegedly connected to such activity.
And it refuses to give the IAEA authority to turn its inspectors into nuclear sleuths and allow them to roam the country in search of possible undeclared sites.
Repeating his concerns in a report this month, Amano said such lack of authority means his agency is “not in a position to … conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
Associated Press writers John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.