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What A U.S. Refusal To Certify Might Mean For The Iran Nuclear Deal


This week could mark a turning point for the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries. President Trump is expected to decline to certify Iran's compliance with the agreement. To find out what that could mean for the deal, NPR's Peter Kenyon went to Vienna. It's home to the agency in charge of inspecting Iran's nuclear program.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: An October wind scatters spray from a fountain in front of the Vienna International Center. Many of these offices are taken up by the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA inspectors are the ones tasked with verifying that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Since the deal went into effect, the agency has grown even more cautious and controlled than usual. Nuclear experts say its reports contain less information, and interviews have been less frequent.

No current IAEA official agreed to speak on the record for this piece. But former officials did speak up, and they're worried about what might happen to the Iran nuclear inspections should President Trump de-certify and Congress then reimpose American sanctions on Iran.

LAURA ROCKWOOD: Disaster. It would teach any other proliferator that now's their opportunity.

KENYON: Laura Rockwood basically wrote the book on inspecting a country's nuclear program, especially under the so-called Additional Protocol, which allow inspectors to make more intrusive visits. After 28 years as an IAEA lawyer, she now directs the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. She says the current system in Iran allows nuclear inspectors to see inside places they simply couldn't get to before.

ROCKWOOD: Sure, a classic case would be a place that manufactures centrifuges, which are useful for enrichment, which is one of the ways to get to fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

KENYON: Before Iran agreed to the Additional Protocol, inspectors could only check out sites where nuclear material was present. That left big holes in the inspection regime where critics say the Iranians could gain crucial know-how about producing nuclear weapons in secret.

Some critics are still unhappy with the new beefed-up inspections, saying there are still too many limits, for instance, on how quickly and easily inspectors can get to certain sites, such as military bases. Another former IAEA official, Tariq Rauf, says while no inspection regime forged in negotiation and compromise will ever be perfect, the agency has set a new standard in Iran.

TARIQ RAUF: For the first time, a country agreed voluntarily to daily inspection of its uranium enrichment plants, which is the only country in the world where this is happening. But it sets a good precedent for other countries. It has allowed the IAEA to use its latest technology. And generally there's a much greater level of transparency and accountability for Iran.

KENYON: All that and more could be at risk if Washington doesn't certify Iran's compliance with the deal or finds it's not in the national security interest of the U.S. and Congress then restores sanctions.

RAUF: The U.S. decertification would show that the United States is an unreliable partner, and this would be a big negative for the future of nuclear arms control.

KENYON: It's by no means clear that Congress is eager to reimpose sanctions on Iran with another nuclear crisis brewing in North Korea. It's also possible the other five countries involved in the deal might decide to keep right on doing business with Iran. Former IAEA Attorney Laura Rockwood says that would probably keep the deal and the inspections alive.

ROCKWOOD: God help us. I hope that's exactly what happens.

KENYON: One thing is clear. Nuclear inspectors and their current and former bosses will be watching this week's White House announcement with extreme interest. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Vienna.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORO Y MOI SONG, "SAY THAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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