U.N. Nuclear Watchdog To Congress: Let Us Do Our Job In Iran

"Imagine if a country provides me with confidential information or agrees to implementation and I do not honor the commitment."

WASHINGTON -- Yukiya Amano, head of the U.N. agency responsible for monitoring Iran’s compliance with the recently negotiated nuclear agreement, attempted to convince U.S. senators on Wednesday that his organization was up to the task of investigating Iran's possible past attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, spoke for approximately one hour with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a closed meeting. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, was among those who were not persuaded.

“This was not a reassuring meeting, but his presence is much appreciated,” Corker told reporters as he exited the briefing.

“I would say that most members left here with even greater concerns about our ability to carry out these inspections in an appropriate way," Corker added, referring to the IAEA's plan to probe allegations that Iran previously attempted to develop nuclear weapons. 

When Iran, the U.S., and five world powers reached a deal on July 14 that would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, Iran made a separate agreement with the IAEA to resolve remaining questions about the country's questionable nuclear past. Opponents of the deal have criticized the IAEA for refusing to share the text of two agreements with Iran -- one that allows the agency to inspect Parchin, an Iranian military site suspected to have once hosted nuclear weapons development, and another that defines the framework for a broader investigation into possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program in the past.

To critics in the U.S. Congress, the two confidential agreements directly violate legislation passed in May, which requires the Obama administration to provide lawmakers with the complete text of the nuclear agreement, including classified annexes. 

But when Amano emerged from the briefing on Wednesday, he refuted the idea that his agency could plausibly share its agreements with lawmakers.

“Imagine if a country provides me with confidential information or agrees to implementation and I do not honor the commitment,” he told reporters after the meeting. “No country will share the information with us and I cannot implement the safeguards.”

Skeptics of the Iran deal were clearly disappointed with the tight-lipped IAEA official. “We couldn’t even get him to commit to whether we would get physical presence -- listen to that, physical presence -- inside Parchin,” said Corker. His comments referred to the outstanding question of whether Iran or the IAEA will be responsible for collecting samples at the Parchin site to be tested for traces of nuclear activity.

“It was worrisome,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a leading Democratic critic of the deal, said of Amano’s briefing. Menendez specifically took issue with the fact that Iran rejected previous requests by the U.S. and its negotiating partners to interview a group of six Iranian scientists who worked on the nuclear program in the past. (It is unclear whether the IAEA will conduct its own interviews of the scientists.)

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) have led the charge demanding that the Obama administration turn over the text of the agreement. But U.S. officials insist that these agreements are separate from the broader nuclear agreement and say they don’t have access to the documents in question.

"I didn't see the final documents. I saw the provisional documents, as did my experts," Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs and one of the lead negotiators of the Iran deal, said during a Wednesday hearing with the Senate Banking Committee, of which Corker is also a member. Sherman defended the IAEA’s refusal to share the documents with the U.S. as standard confidentiality protocol, noting that the agency maintains secret safeguards agreements with other countries, including the U.S.

<span>Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, discussed the Iran deal with the Senate Banking Committee
Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, discussed the Iran deal with the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday.

Sherman said she would brief senators on what she knew of the IAEA’s arrangement with Iran when she spoke at a closed briefing for the full chamber, scheduled for Wednesday evening. But it is unlikely that she will be able to disclose anything beyond what Amano already shared with members of the foreign relations panel in the morning -- which clearly did not meet lawmakers’ expectations.   

Addressing the concern about the six scientists, Amano told reporters that it would be premature at this point for his organization to request interviews with specific people, but indicated that he could ask for access to documents, people or sites if Iran fails to resolve the agency’s questions through written responses.

“I can tell you that the content in the separate agreement is consistent with the IAEA verification practice,” Amano said. He added that the agency’s board of governors, which includes the U.S., will have access to the agency’s final assessment on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear program, which will be completed by December 2015.