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HomeMiddle EastAwaiting Iran Deal, Nuclear Sleuths Gather Sophisticated Tools

Awaiting Iran Deal, Nuclear Sleuths Gather Sophisticated Tools

Metallic seals like this one have long been used to prevent unauthorized access to nuclear equipment. New electronic and fiber-optic seals beam back confirmation that they remain intact.
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
July 6, 2015

VIENNA — On the outskirts of this graceful city, the Iran Task Force of the International Atomic Energy Agency is preparing to move quickly if American and Iranian negotiators here manage to cut a deal on Iran’s nuclear program in the coming days.

The 50 or so members of the agency’s most elite inspection unit are readying an array of new surveillance gear that is far more sophisticated than anything used before in Iran. It includes laser sensors, smart cameras and encrypted networks that would let the inspectors closely monitor Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, in real time, from their command post overlooking the Danube.

In many corners of the world, the agency’s nuclear sleuths went digital years ago. But in the 12 years since the West began focusing on — and at times sabotaging — Tehran’s atomic program, the inspectors have struggled to monitor the complex with older technologies. The rules of nuclear inspection let nations influence the means of surveillance used on their soil, and Iran has often limited inspectors to relatively backward gear that often forced them to gather imagery and other data manually, then ship it back to Vienna for analysis, a process that can take days or weeks.

“There’s real-time monitoring, and then there is Iran-time monitoring,” one of the atomic energy agency officials deeply involved in the inspections said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the agency has clamped down, in these final days of talks, on even the most basic descriptions of inspection regimes.

“And if we are going to have any assurance that Iran will stick to its new commitments,” the official added, “our inspections in Iran are going to have to move beyond the world of film and little wire seals.”

Though it is rarely discussed in public — in large part for fear of spooking Iranian military and religious figures who view the international inspectors as thinly disguised cutouts for Western intelligence agencies — beaming real-time inspection data from Iran’s nuclear plants is central to enforcing an accord.

In April, President Obama claimed that the preliminary agreement with Iran demanded “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.” One point of friction in the negotiations is a detailed “access agreement” that would allow inspectors to go well beyond the requirements of atomic energy agency protocols used elsewhere.

In interviews, federal officials described the wave of new surveillance gear as critical to assuring the world that Tehran is not cheating on complicated terms that call for heightened surveillance for up to 25 years.

Interactive Feature | Key Developments on Iran Nuclear Deal An outline of major developments since the framework agreement in April that could influence the final round of talks.

“It’s in everybody’s interest to be part of this,” Ernest J. Moniz, the United States energy secretary, said in an interview in his hotel suite here between meetings with Ali Akbar Salehi, who runs the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. “It requires less manpower and is more efficient, raising confidence, which is especially critical for the Iranians.”

Mr. Moniz called the planned inspections “quite robust,” adding that the verification regime would involve “extraordinary steps.”

Over the past 20 months, as Iran curbed its nuclear work under a temporary accord in place during talks, inspectors have had wide access to 18 of the Iranians’ major atomic sites. Almost every day, the inspectors have driven into the main complex at Natanz, a facility ringed by barbed wire and antiaircraft guns. They regularly visit another complex, called Fordo, which is below a mountain.

These and other Iranian labs and factories bristle with millions of valves, machines, storage tanks, mixing vats, pumps, compressors, voltage regulators, pressure sensors and fuel rods, as well as miles of piping and tons of deadly materials, including the radioactive kind.

The job is so daunting that the agency’s inspectors frequently describe themselves as overwhelmed, monitoring a modern nuclear infrastructure with Betamax-era equipment.

The Iranians have a different view, calling the inspections “the most intrusive and robust” that any nation has faced, and they have barred some inspectors, especially Americans, who they have said are spies.

Ariane M. Tabatabai, an Iran specialist at the Foreign Service School of Georgetown University, said the Iranian claim had nothing to do with high technology. “What they mean is that they have inspectors there all the time,” she said.

But being there all the time is different from inspecting all the time. Olli Heinonen, who ran the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections in Iran, North Korea and other hot spots from 2005 to 2010, said the Iran sleuthing could “look impressive on paper” but too often involved “sitting around and playing cards” as teams waited for facility access or technical results.

In the realm of the upgrades, consider the humble seal, one of the agency’s most basic safeguards. For decades it worked like a cable lock on a laptop — a wire loop running through a cap, latch or machine part. A metallic seal with unique markings would indicate if a piece of machinery for purifying ore or a cylinder containing radioactive fuel had been subjected to tampering.

To sniff out deceit, inspectors would have to go to the site, remove the seal and return it to Vienna for analysis. Now, in countries from South Korea to France, inspectors have installed electronic and fiber-optic seals that regularly beam back a “health report,” confirming that they remain intact.

Old cameras, too, hampered inspectors’ work in the past. “We started with 35-millimeter Minolta cameras that advanced one frame every few minutes,” said Tom Shea, a former atomic energy agency official. “We had Super 8s configured to start and stop. The quality was pretty bad.”

More recently, cameras stored data on electronic cards that inspectors had to physically retrieve for analysis. In contrast, new systems can transmit data to remote sites.

“It lowers the requirement for human inspectors going in,” Mr. Moniz noted.

Ms. Tabatabai of Georgetown suggested that setting up new surveillance in Iran might initially be costly, but could end “making things cheaper in the long run.”

Mr. Heinonen, the onetime inspection chief, sounded a note of caution, saying it would be naïve to expect that the wave of technology could ensure Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. In the past, he said, Tehran has often promised much but delivered little.

“Iran is not going to accept it easily,” he said, referring to the advanced surveillance. “We tried it for 10 years.”

Even if Tehran agrees to high-tech sleuthing, Mr. Heinonen added, that step will be “important but minor” compared with the intense monitoring that Western intelligence agencies must mount to see if Iran is racing ahead in covert facilities to build an atomic bomb.

He said that possibility, considered remote but not beyond the pale, “is the biggest challenge.”

William J. Broad reported from New York.