Verification and Trust: Vienna talks on Iran


On February 18th negotiations on a “comprehensive solution” concerning Iran’s nuclear program will begin in Vienna, Austria. In an interim agreement, or the “Joint Plan of Action”, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany convinced Iran to cease its production of 20 percent highly enriched uranium. The deal, however, allows Iran to enrich uranium over 5 percent for the duration of six months. The document also states that the comprehensive solution will “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters”. This formulation can be interpreted in two very different ways: On the one hand, Iran insists on full rights to peaceful nuclear technology with some degree of enrichment within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Moreover, during a CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif stated that Iran would not dismantle a single centrifuge. Others, on the other hand, such as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or some members of the US-Congress would regard only a level of zero enrichment as being acceptable.

The interim deal foresees “enhanced monitoring”, which is already being carried out by the “International Atomic Energy Agency” (IAEA), based in Vienna. So far these inspections have been in many ways a voluntary measure at declared facilities. Nevertheless, the Iraq experience has demonstrated that inspectors cannot prove the “negative”. Verification cannot guarantee that Iran does not hide facilities capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Inspectors can only examine whether there is evidence for nuclear weapons programs or not. Consequently, there will always be room for interpretation of Iran’s activities, for accusations of non-compliance, or even for provocations coming from hard-liners from within Iran's borders. In the end, any agreement must be based on trust.

Former US President Ronald Reagan’s advice “trust but verify” still remains a good one, but not entirely practicable anymore. Senator John McCain recently rephrased it at the Munich Security Conference to “don’t trust, but verify”. This does seem to have a hawkish sound to it. It overestimates the power of verification, while minimizing the importance of trust, however. The proper expression should rather be “verify, but also be aware that your agreement is eventually based on trust”.

Having this idea in mind, a central question ultimately arises, namely: What could Iran do to prevent an atmosphere of mistrust?

The most difficult part of the negotiations towards a comprehensive agreement will be the degree of enrichment of uranium. Iran can unilaterally increase and enhance the level of transparency and monitoring. One important element of the negotiations will be the implementation of the “Additional Protocol” granting the IAEA inspectors access to information about both declared and possible undeclared activities. This includes on-site inspections at anytime and anywhere. Of course Iran could declare in Vienna that it will ratify and implement the Protocol before a final agreement has even been reached. Javad Zarif said that Iran wishes to fully cooperate with the IAEA, something which he can demonstrate in Vienna. Such an outcome would most definitely act as a tremendous confidence-building measure.

One way or another, one thing remains clear: a comprehensive solution will have to be based on confidence and trust.

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