John Kerry has spent the better part of the past 20 months working towards the landmark July 14th nuclear deal with Iran, a stretch that included some of the longest continuous negotiations in the history of American diplomacy.
Nevertheless, there are parts of a major related agreement signed the same day as the deal that not even the US Secretary of State has seen yet.
During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on July 28th, and then again during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on July 29th, Kerry acknowledged that he had not seen the side agreements reached between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran on July 14th, 2015.
These agreements likely deal with the implementation of a “roadmap” meant to resolve nearly a decade of Iranian stalling on disclosing the extent of its suspected nuclear weaponization program.
That roadmap is public. It gives the IAEA until December 15th to issue a report on Iran’s disclosure of its previous weaponization activities, a process aimed at giving weapons inspectors much-needed knowledge of Iran’s illicit supply lines, level of expertise, weaponization infrastructure, and military oversight of components of its nuclear program.
The “roadmap” will help create an inspection baseline for future monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program and is considered crucial to the successful implementation of the nuclear deal, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The side agreements, which probably lay out the terms by which the IAEA will actually perform its 5-month investigation under the “roadmap,” aren’t public. And they’re so secret that the US Secretary of State isn’t able to read them.
Kerry told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he had been briefed on the documents but hasn’t had a first-hand look at them.
“No, I haven’t seen it,” Kerry said, adding that “we don’t have access to the actual agreement.”
Kerry also clarified that national security advisor Susan Rice had not seen them either.
On July 29th, Kerry told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a single US diplomat, possibly undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, “may have” looked at the side agreements during a meeting at an IAEA facility.
But he couldn’t recall whether that official had seen the final version: “I don’t know whether she read a summary or a draft,” said Kerry. “I have no idea.”
During both hearings, Kerry contended that the IAEA often enters into highly technical agreements with individual governments that are not made available to other states. In other words, the administration is advocating for the secrecy of documents that its top diplomats acknowledge they haven’t seen yet.
And Kerry’s logic implies that, on at least the narrow question of divulging its side agreements with the IAEA, Iran is entitled to the same treatment as any other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory. Neither does the importance of the broader nuclear deal seem to necessitate the utmost possible transparency.
In spite of the administration’s viewpoint, there were and still are ways of making these side agreements available to American diplomats — if Iran, the US, or one of its allies on the IAEA’s Board of Governors really wanted them disclosed.
“According to the IAEA rules and practices such documents could be made available to the Members of the IAEA Board,” Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the IAEA’s former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards, wrote to Business Insider in an email.
Heinonen explained that the IAEA secretariat can’t divulge these side agreements to other member states on its own initiative. But there are two ways US diplomats could access them.
In one scenario, Iran would agree to divulge the documents: “Iran can make it available by asking to distribute it as an [Information Circular] document to all IAEA member states as they did with the 2007 Work Plan,” Heinonen explained, referring to a publicly available agreement between the IAEA and Iran on nuclear safeguards.
US diplomats could also view these side agreements if a member state of the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors requests their distribution.
Such a move would stand a decent change of success: “If a Board Member asks it and others resist the distribution … this can be overcome by a vote. Simple majority is enough and no vetoes exist in the IAEA system,” Heinonen explained. “The board can also request the whole document to be made public. Such a request could be best done by a country which is not part of the JCPOA process; my favourite is Canada.”
The IAEA could conceivably have made the signing of the roadmap contingent on Iran’s willingness to distribute the entirety of the agreement. It’s little surprise the IAEA didn’t win this concession, as even analysts with a generally favourable view of the nuclear agreement have acknowledged that the roadmap was settled on terms favourable to Tehran.
In fact, the IAEA was “using Iranian language” in framing how disclosure issues would be settled, as the Royal United Services Institute’s Aaron Stein put it in an interview with Vox. And in a conference call with reporters a few days after the deal was announced, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nonproliferation expert George Perkovich, who has a positive view of the deal, speculated that “you’re never going to have many of these questions fully resolved.”
Already, US and Iranian diplomats appear to disagree on the status of the IAEA roadmap, and its relationship to the JCPOA.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, Ali Akbar Sahelhi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, recently said “the IAEA’s investigation was independent of the broader deal.”
At the same time, the Journal notes that the US and IAEA officials have said “that sanctions on Tehran won’t be lifted if the country doesn’t cooperate in the probe.”
Giving US officials access to the entirety of the agreement could provide much-needed insight into the extent of Iranian cooperation in the IAEA’s investigation, something that could help smooth over potential early challenges in how the broader nuclear deal is interpreted and implemented.
It may now be up to a US ally on the IAEA board to ensure that the agreement’s American negotiators have access to documents that might prove crucial to one of the most important US diplomatic agreements in decades.
“In my view, the document should me made available to demonstrate the credibility of the verification efforts,” Heinonen said.
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