In a development that incited more opposition in Congress to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has given Iran the rare benefit of using its own analysts to inspect a site where it is suspected of working on atomic weapons.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the condition is part of a secret bilateral agreement between Iran and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. Inspections of Iran’s closely guarded Parchin nuclear site will be ceded to the Iranians as part of the overarching deal reached by the U.S. and five other world powers in Vienna in July, the AP reported.
The side agreement, worked out between the IAEA and Iran, allows Tehran to employ its own analysts and equipment to search for evidence of activities that it has consistently denied — that it has been trying secretly to develop nuclear weapons.
Reaction in Congress was swift. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said it was unbelievable that the U.S. would “allow Iran to police these sites themselves” after Tehran denied the existence of a nuclear weapons program for years.
“This is a very serious development and should concern every member of Congress who supports or is thinking about supporting this deal,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement. “President Obama said that this deal is ‘not built on trust,’ but on verification. This side agreement shows that true verification is a sham, and it begs the question of what else the administration is keeping from Congress.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the administration has some explaining to do.
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“The administration’s briefings on these side deals have been totally insufficient — and it still isn’t clear whether anyone at the White House has seen the final documents,” Mr. Boehner said. “Why should Iran be trusted to carry out its own nuclear inspections at a military site it tried to hide from the world?”
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said, “This type of unorthodox agreement has never been done before by the IAEA and speaks to the great lengths our negotiators took to accommodate the ayatollah despite repeated assurances from the administration that this deal is not based on trust.”
White House confidence
The White House wouldn’t comment on details of the side deal but said it is confident of the IAEA’s ability to monitor Iran.
“We are confident in the agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former program, issues that in some cases date back more than a decade,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. “Just as importantly, the IAEA is comfortable with arrangements, which are unique to the agency’s investigation of Iran’s historical activities.”
Mr. Price said the IAEA has developed “the most robust inspection regime ever peacefully negotiated to ensure Iran’s current program remains exclusively peaceful,” which he called “the overarching objective” of the nuclear deal.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said U.S. negotiators had seen the IAEA’s confidential bilateral inspection agreement with Congress and briefed lawmakers about it in classified meetings.
Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the Iran probe as deputy IAEA director general from 2005 to 2010 and opposes the Iran deal, said he could think of no instance in which a country was allowed to perform its own investigation.
Iran has refused access to Parchin for years and has denied any interest in — or work on — nuclear weapons. Based on U.S., Israeli and other intelligence and its own research, the IAEA suspects that the Islamic republic may have experimented with highly explosive detonators for nuclear arms at that military facility and other weapons-related work elsewhere.
The IAEA has repeatedly cited evidence, based on satellite images, of apparent attempts to sanitize the site since activity stopped more than a decade ago.
The document seen by the AP is a draft that one official familiar with its contents said doesn’t differ substantially from the final version. He demanded anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss the issue.
It is labeled “separate arrangement II,” indicating that Iran and the IAEA have another confidential agreement governing the agency’s investigation of the nuclear weapons accusations.
The document suggests that instead of carrying out their own probe, IAEA staff will be reduced to monitoring Iranian personnel as they inspect the Parchin site.
Iran will provide agency specialists with photos and videos of locations that the IAEA says are linked to the suspected weapons work, “taking into account military concerns.”
That wording suggests that — beyond being barred from physically visiting the site — the agency won’t even get photo or video information from areas that Iran says are off limits because they have military significance.
Fight over side agreements
Mr. Obama and his top advisers have denied there was a “secret” side agreement, saying the IAEA routinely establishes its own deals with countries undergoing such inspections. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said the Parchin document is like other routine arrangements between the agency and individual IAEA member nations.
But as lawmakers pressed for more information, administration officials have said they don’t have the text of the side agreement and could offer an outline of it only in closed-door briefings. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told Republican senators in a secret briefing last week that he is obligated to keep the document confidential.
IAEA inspectors would normally take environmental samples for evidence of any weapons development work, but the agreement stipulates that Iranian technicians will do the sampling.
Inspectors are limited to seven samples inside the building where the experiments are believed to have taken place. Additional samples will be allowed only outside of the Parchin site, in an area still to be determined.
“Activities will be carried out using Iran’s authenticated equipment consistent with technical specifications provided by the agency,” the agreement says. Although the document says the IAEA “will ensure the technical authenticity” of Iran’s inspection, it does not say how.
The draft is unsigned, but the signatory for Iran is listed as Ali Hoseini Tash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for Strategic Affairs, instead of an official of Iran’s nuclear agency. That reflects the significance Tehran attaches to the agreement.
Congress will vote next month on a resolution of disapproval of the nuclear deal, which would limit Iran’s atomic program in return for lifting international economic sanctions. Congressional Republicans, some Democrats and Israel are criticizing the deal, saying it won’t stop Tehran from building a nuclear weapon and will give the country more cash to sponsor terrorist acts in the region.
Critics also say Iran, under the accord, was allowed to keep its nuclear research, personnel and production facilities in place and that international inspections will not be able to detect violations.
Mr. McCarthy said the revelation about Parchin justifies lawmakers’ concerns about the deal.
“For weeks, my colleagues and I have demanded to know the details of these secret side agreements,” he said. “It is absolutely unacceptable, yet telling, that we are finding out the details of these agreements through The Associated Press.”
If the resolution passes and Mr. Obama vetoes it as promised, opponents will need a two-thirds majority to override the veto, including a sizable number of Democratic defections in both chambers. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has suggested that Mr. Obama’s veto is likely to be sustained.
A top official in Tehran this week announced plans to construct a string of special schools to train the next generation of nuclear scientists and technologists.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, made the announcement Tuesday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a “nuclear high school” in the Iranian city of Mashhad, according to a report in the Iranian FARS news service.
Mr. Salehi emerged as a key player in the final nuclear accord negotiated by the Obama administration and five international partners with Iran last month. He and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a fellow physicist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were credited with nailing down many of the technical details on inspections and nuclear enrichment in the agreement.
“Building specialized nuclear schools across Iran [is] among the AEOI’s plans,” Mr. Salehi said, according to the FARS report.
Iranian officials have insisted that their nuclear programs are intended for peaceful, civilian uses, and Mr. Salehi said one of the first projects will be to build a special hospital to treat patients who need nuclear medicine, which uses small quantities of radioactive material in drugs for treatment and diagnosis.
Mr. Obama said the deal will keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb for the next decade and severely curtail Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Two Senate Democrats — Charles E. Schumer of New York, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — have come out against the deal. Mr. Menendez said this week that he doesn’t believe Mr. Obama’s argument that the deal will block Tehran’s quest for a bomb or that the alternative to rejecting this deal would be war.
“If Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it,” Mr. Menendez said.
The two Democratic senators from Rhode Island, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, announced support for the deal this week. Mr. Reed’s announcement was particularly important to the White House because he is the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
• David R. Sands contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.