The real reason a controversial secret side deal involving Iran is so important

The Associated Press’s bombshell report that Iran will be able to carry out its own inspections on a facility where nuclear weapons research and munitions testing is believed to have taken place is an important development — but not for immediately obvious reasons.

The AP reported that as part of its “roadmap” agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency — which sets out the parameters for the IAEA’s investigation of the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program — Iran “will be allowed to use its own experts to inspect” Parchin, a military facility where detonators for a nuclear bomb may have been tested in 2003.

This revelation seems pretty damning: Parchin has been tied to a possible Iranian nuclear-weaponization program more definitively than any other facility inside the country. Now, it turns out that the IAEA will get less-than-optimal access to the site.

But experts believe that any evidence of nuclear-weapons activity at Parchin was wiped from the site years ago. A possible “large explosives containment vessel” used for nuclear-related munitions testing was probably removed from the site sometime in the middle of the last decade. “Parchin is a red herring,” Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute told Vox. “They won’t find anything there — it’s completely stripped of anything of value.”

Here’s the problem for the Iran deal moving forward: The AP’s Parchin report is based on one of two documents related to the implementation of the IAEA roadmap. Because the roadmap was signed between Iran and the IAEA, these implementation documents are not in the possession of US diplomats. As Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in congressional testimony, US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman has seen these side agreements, although he personally has not.

There’s already doubt as to whether the roadmap gives the IAEA enough time to fully investigate the scope of Iran’s weaponizaton history. The IAEA has until December to get answers to questions about the program that the agency has had for nearly a decade.

And determining the actual state of Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts is a crucial part of establishing an inspection baseline for the nuclear deal. The IAEA needs to be able to identify key personnel, facilities, supply chains, and past activities in order to establish exactly how far along Iran’s weaponization activities really are, and to recognise whether those activities have been restarted.

As Stein told Vox, the IAEA was “using Iranian language” in framing how these disclosure issues would be settled in the roadmap. Certainly the document pertaining to Parchin suggests that the roadmap is on somewhat favourable terms for the Iranians. But what about the second side-agreement — the one that might govern who IAEA inspectors can talk to and what facilities they can visit as part of their roadmap investigation?

The AP story isn’t necessarily important because of Parchin, which wasn’t going to be much of an information bonanza for inspectors anyway. It’s important for what it suggests about the overall inspection terms under the roadmap — and what it might say about the overall effectiveness of the international effort to investigate the extent of Iran’s nuclear weapnization work.

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