The Section T Canard: The Drive for Decertification and ‘Bomb Iran’ Redux

October 12, 2017

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Some opponents of the Iran nuclear deal feel the need to consistently mischaracterize the nature of the deal and Iran’s adherence to it in order to advance their point of view. They seem to believe that lies about matters of policy are justified given the stakes, which for many of them are clear: the toppling of the Iranian regime. And they also understand their most important audience: President Donald Trump, a man who clearly has little familiarity with the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but hates anything associated with his predecessor and requires only the shoddiest of excuses to bin the deal.

And that seems to be what is happening now.

In accordance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the U.S. president is required to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. According to Politico:

Donald Trump’s national security team has unanimously recommended that he decertify the Iran nuclear deal — but that he stop short of pushing Congress to reimpose sanctions on Tehran that could unravel the agreement.

The waiving of certain U.S. sanctions was an important component of the JCPOA’s implementation. The threat of new nuclear-related sanctions is intended to gain leverage to renegotiate the deal on terms the administration believes are more favorable. However, it also risks upending the agreement, a result that would please a select few, but be detrimental to American nonproliferation interests.

This plan seems to have been taken wholesale from Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and one of the leading critics of the deal. Dubowitz and other JCPOA opponents are calling to “aggressively enforce” the deal, and are focused in particular on Section T, Annex 1. This part of the agreement clearly defines what activities a country would undertake to build a nuclear weapon, including the modeling of shock waves, the manufacture of explosive lenses for implosion, and the use of specific diagnostic equipment to monitor hydrodynamic testing — all of which are used for weaponization experiments. The argument is that Iran could still be conducting some weaponization experiments and thus violating the agreement. To assure the international community of Iranian compliance, JCPOA opponents argue, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should demand more access to suspected sites to “aggressively enforce” the deal. The IAEA will, at some point, want to inspect Iranian military sites. And Iran could object. The challenge for the United States is how it can use Section T to its advantage, not as a bludgeon to force a crisis to help kill the agreement.

Verification of this section would require the proving of a negative: The IAEA would be tasked with verifying that Iran is not conducting weaponization experiments by insisting on access to military sites. The push to do more to verify Section T is a canard. The intent is not to actually verify Section T, but to cause an inspection crisis that critics can then use to suggest Iran is not complying with its obligations. This crisis, of course, would prompt discussions about a more muscular U.S. response, or about abrogating the deal in its entirety based on supposed Iranian intransigence.

To be sure, the IAEA’s verification process of JCPOA will require that inspectors visit some military sites in Iran. But there is a difference between demanding inspections to try and prove a negative (that Iran is not doing something nefarious) and ensuring that Iran’s declarations to the agency about its nuclear program are complete. Moreover, in the event of a suspected violation, the United States does have an interest in winning support from the international community and the IAEA to — together — ask to visit suspected facilities. This slow and steady approach may not be as gratifying as roving inspectors going anywhere and everywhere they please, but it is the best way for the IAEA to continue its work in Iran. And that work is important to verify Iran’s current compliance with the JCPOA and to continue the process of learning more about Iran’s pre-2003 weaponization program.

The Section T Fever Dream

 The debate about Section T sounds technical, but it is not hard to understand. The provision is found in Annex 1 of the JCPOA and serves a specific purpose: It defines what was once undefined and gives the IAEA ammunition as it continues to confirm the accuracy of Iran’s declarations to the agency about previous nuclear work. 

Section T obligates Iran “not [to] engage [in] activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.” This seems obvious, but its inclusion in the agreement is legally important. As a party to the NPT, Iran already has an obligation:

not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

However, the NPT does not define what “manufacture” means. Absent a clear definition, some in the arms control community have argued that Iran never violated its NPT obligations. Instead, the logic goes, the IAEA overstepped its mandate by trying to determine whether or not Iran had a nuclear weapons program. Iran latched on to this argument and, for years, dismissed IAEA efforts to get to the bottom of its weaponization experiments as illegal.

Section T is aimed at undercutting this dubious Iranian argument by defining in detail what it means to “manufacture a nuclear weapon.” The intent is not to arm the IAEA with the power to prove a negative, but to give it the means to continue to assessing Iran’s declarations as part of its obligations under the JCPOA. This is important.

Section T is a summary of how a country would build a basic nuclear weapon. More specifically, it summarizes the activities Iran is reported to have conducted as part of its weapons program before it was halted in 2003. The intent of this section, as odd as it sounds, was not to verify that these activities were not taking place. Some things in Section T are indeed impossible to verify — and that is okay. As my colleague Dr. Jeffrey Lewis likes to say, complete verification of Section T is like trying to confirm that married people have sex. Everyone knows that married people have sex, but do we actually have to be in the bedroom to watch? No. It’s not necessary to prove what we already know. Iran had a nuclear weapons program. How do we know this? The IAEA has basically said so.

Take, for instance, the issue of computer modeling. Section T precludes Iran from “designing, developing, acquiring, or using computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices.” Verifying that Iran is not doing this is impossible for two reasons: First, there are a lot of computers in Iran and second, the computer models Iran is accused of using, in certain instances, have civilian applications or can be applied to conventional military explosives. The Iranians used this excuse when the IAEA asked them about it in late 2015.

Iran never could answer the IAEA’s questions in a way that made sense, choosing to pretend that its efforts were to enhance “conventional weapons.” Eventually, Iran said it was not in a position to discuss the issue any further. The IAEA’s subsequent assessment was unequivocal: “Based on all the information available to the Agency, including from the implementation of the Road-map, the Agency assesses that Iran conducted computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device prior to 2004 and between 2005 and 2009” [emphasis added] . The necessity of proving this again using Section T is unclear. What will it prove? That Iran used widely available computer models to learn about nuclear detonations?

The question, then, is: Can the international community force an inspection of suspected military sites to learn if Iran is still up to no good? Of course. As part of the IAEA’s mandate, it is tasked with ensuring that Iran’s declarations as part of the JCPOA are complete. To do this, the agency relies on the Additional Protocol, an inspection regime in excess of the basic comprehensive safeguards arrangement, that Iran has implemented as part of the nuclear deal.

The agency’s work to verify Iran’s declaration is currently ongoing and will take time. There is a general misunderstanding about this process: The IAEA is verifying that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA’s limits, but does not have the legal authority to determine if Iran is in “compliance.” The agency is not a party to the agreement. Instead, the agreement tasks the IAEA with verifying the agreement. In addition, the agency is working to verify that Iran’s declarations about its nuclear program are complete and that information about its past weaponization work has been resolved. This process moves in parallel to the JCPOA, which imposes excess limits on Iran’s nuclear activities to give the international community greater assurances about Iran’s nuclear agreement.

Upending the agreement, or constantly “crying wolf” about the need for more inspections, could upset this process and result in the IAEA losing a critical tool to learn more about Iran’s nuclear program. And even if one does what the critics want — and demands inspections for the sake of demanding inspections at a large number of military sites — there’s the risk that those inspections won’t reveal anything. What happens if Iran complies with the inspections because it knows there are no Section T violations? And, after a few inspections, it gets fed up and says no more?

And what happens if the United States is, at the same time, making dubious claims about non-compliance and its president decertifies the deal on the basis of these claims ? The United States is left with a credibility problem that weakens any potential future Section T verification issue. On the other hand, if Washington were to trust in the process and only cry out when it really does have the goods on Iranian non-compliance, the pressure is placed on Tehran — which could lead to an inspection of the suspected site or an outcome where sanctions can be reapplied.

This issue isn’t just theoretical. The expected decertification risks upending the 18-month-old effort to determine whether Iran’s declarations to the IAEA about its nuclear program are accurate. According to Mark Hibbs:

The process for getting to that conclusion would begin by the IAEA’s initially focusing on, and, as appropriate, requesting access to, nuclear sites that have been declared by Iran. Over time, the IAEA would zero in on locations that host Iran’s nuclear fuel-cycle industry, and thereafter, on myriad universities, laboratories, and other R&D installations — including military sites — that may be involved in doing work that is pertinent to Iran’s nuclear program. Doing verification this way may disappoint critics looking for instant results, but it may build confidence while at the same time posing incrementally greater risk that Iran may not cooperate.

This process is supposed to be consensual and relies, to some extent, on Iran to provide information to the IAEA for review. The agency then collects this information, examines it, and makes determinations about whether it wants to follow up on certain things. This process could result in an inspection, or simply interviews with Iranian officials for further clarification. From an arms control standpoint, it is widely accepted that having more access to a nuclear program is good and less access is bad. But this assumes the goal is nonproliferation.

The Real Policy: Regime Change

JCPOA opponents truly believe the only way to have any confidence in a consensual arms control arrangement with Iran is to topple the regime in power. After doing so, the new guys — critics assume — will be more amenable to America’s vision for the region and therefore adopt a similar view about the enrichment of uranium. After this, the United States won’t have anything to worry about and won’t have any need for arms control. Problem solved.

Since Iraq, overtly advocating for regime change has become taboo in Washington. So instead, people invent euphemisms or, as is the case with JCPOA opponents, come up with unreasonable demands to force a crisis over the deal’s implementation and create cassus belli with Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) at least has the courage to dispense with the deception:

[L]et’s understand the Iranian threat. It’s not the deal’s technical flaws, though there are a lot of those. The threat is not the nature of Iran’s weapons; it’s the nature of Iran’s regime …

Yet, if the ayatollahs do quit the deal, let them bear the consequences. President Trump can immediately reimpose all sanctions under U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. We can go further and impose a de facto global embargo: oil exports, foreign-currency accounts, insurance across all industries, and access to SWIFT and other foreign financial institutions, among other things. Those embargo-like conditions will likely create economic chaos and destabilize the regime before its estimated 12-month breakout. And, if not, it will at least buy time for more devastating military action.

Indeed, regime change is the only light in which these proposals make sense. In the context of arms control, their arguments are re-packaged nonsense. The assumptions underpinning these criticisms are easy to follow. The deal is temporary and, once restrictions expire, Iran could develop nuclear weapons. Thus, the only real solution is to topple the regime either through military action or, as Dubowitz calls for, “coerced democratization.” In the interim, we are told, Washington should push back against Iranian aggression in the Middle East and impose sanctions to foment internal dissent that could contribute to the regime’s toppling.

This logic is fallacious, completely incongruent with the real drivers of proliferation, and based on the mistaken assumption that pressure can thwart an Iranian drive for the bomb. Iran can build a bomb. It has made the political decision not to and subjected itself to inspections to let the international community verify this decision. This is something to be encouraged because, after all, who trusts Iran? It had a nuclear weapons program and continues to cause problems across the Middle East. Isn’t it in the best interests of the United States to ensure Iranian compliance with a restrictive arms control agreement while, in the meantime, policymakers get creative and find another way to push back against Iranian actions that are detrimental to American interests in the region? Why does one have to rip up an arms control agreement to pressure Iran? The United States can, of course, do both. The president is simply choosing not to.

The Big Picture

And this is really the problem for JCPOA opponents. The deal is a political agreement that Iran accepted. The United States, too, made a critical political decision: The Obama administration agreed to accept an Iranian enrichment program. The deal also ostensibly took regime change off the table because, for the first time in a long time, the United States was engaging in a consensual give-and-take with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington is also clear-eyed about Tehran’s abilities. In 2017, the only real restraints on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon are that its leaders have decided to stop short, and that the IAEA is monitoring to make sure that ability does not advance further.

Iran can build a bomb. It is time we get used to that and focus on ensuring that, if its leaders do decide to cheat, we know about it, have the credibility to call them out on it, and can marshal an effective response. This is why the decision the president is about to make is so short-sighted. Iran can always change its mind. The next Iranian supreme leader could withdraw, citing the American precedent. Or he might not. We don’t know. But weakening the JCPOA in favor of a policy of sanctions and pressure (which essentially boils down to the much-maligned Obama policy of strategic patience) would remove the restraints Iran has agreed to accept on its nuclear program. The last provision in the deal will not expire until 2040, a timeline that gives ample time for the international community to continue learning more about Iran’s past weapons program and verifying that Iran does not build up such a program again. The alternative risks forgoing unprecedented international access to Iran’s nuclear program in favor of a policy of waiting — that is, waiting for the regime to collapse. And while we wait, Iran will continue to spin centrifuges, while its leaders debate what to do next.


Aaron Stein is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: U.S. State Department via Wikimedia Commons

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!