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Failure to Rid Syria of Chemical Weapons Provides Lesson for Nuclear Deal with Iran

In an exclusive report last week, Reuters recounted how the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad foiled chemical weapons inspectors from locating and removing all of its chemical weapons stockpiles as dictated by a 2013 agreement.

The Reuters report began with one such incident:

In the spring of 2015 a Syrian major general escorted a small team of chemical weapons inspectors to a warehouse outside the Syrian capital Damascus. The international experts wanted to examine the site, but were kept waiting outside in their car for around an hour, according to several people briefed on the visit.

When they were finally let into the building, it was empty. They found no trace of banned chemicals.

“Look, there is nothing to see,” said the general, known to the inspectors as Sharif, opening the door.

Reuters called the incident “just one example of how Syrian authorities have hindered the work of inspectors and how the international community has failed to hold Syria to account” for the regime’s chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb that killed more than 1,400 people.

While Syria agreed to the Russian-sponsored deal to forestall United States air strikes, “many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that promise was a ruse.”

It appears that while pretending to cooperate with inspectors, the Assad regime, “gave them incomplete or misleading information,” while they “secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability” and used chlorine bombs when other chemicals were not available.

The new Reuters report actually echoes a similar account that was reported by The Wall Street Journal two years ago.

The report in the Journal explained the dynamic at work:

Because the regime was responsible for providing security, it had an effective veto over inspectors’ movements. The team decided it couldn’t afford to antagonize its hosts, explains one of the inspectors, or it “would lose all access to all sites.” And the inspectors decided they couldn’t visit some sites in contested areas, fearing rebels would attack them.

Under the terms of their deployment, the inspectors had access only to sites that the Assad regime had declared were part of its chemical-weapons program. The U.S. and other powers had the right to demand access to undeclared sites if they had evidence they were part of the chemical-weapons program. But that right was never exercised, in part, inspectors and Western officials say, because their governments didn’t want a standoff with the regime.

Russia, Mr. Assad’s longtime ally, had used its clout at the U.N. and the OPCW to limit the mandate of the inspectors, preventing them from accusing the regime directly of using chemical weapons, such as in the 2013 sarin attack.

Though those who arranged for the deal claim that they rid Assad of most of his chemical weapons, they cannot claim that the deal accomplished its stated goal: to rid Syria of its complete chemical weapons stockpile.

But the problem illustrated by the failure of the international community to rid a war criminal of his deadly weapons isn’t just a lesson for Syria. It is also a lesson for Iran and its nuclear program. So far Iran, which was initially sanctioned by the UN in 2006 for its failure to comply with its obligations under terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has, like Syria, refused to give inspectors unfettered access to all possible nuclear sites.

In an early test of how effective the 2015 nuclear deal could be, the nations involved (United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germay, collectively known as P5+1)  allowed Iran to provide samples to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from its Parchin military site, where, it is suspected, Iran carried out nuclear weapons research.

The final inspection of Parchin, before implementation of the nuclear deal, yielded two particles of uranium, which the Obama administration later acknowledged likely came from an Iranian nuclear weapons program. But instead of pressing for further clarification of the source of the particles, the P5+1 nations shut down the IAEA investigation and proceeded with implementation of the deal.

During negotiations and even after the deal was agreed to, Iran insisted that it would never allow inspectors to visit any of its military sites.

The inability of IAEA inspectors to physically inspect Parchin has hampered the agency’s ability to ascertain the full extent of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work. Without that knowledge it is also impossible to conclude with certainty that Iran’s nuclear work has no military dimensions.

As former weapons inspectors Olli Heinonen and David Albright wrote in a paper earlier this month,what happened in Parchin showed that “Iran’s strategy of denial, site modification, refusal of access, and obfuscation successfully worked to prevent the IAEA from making a clear determination.”

The question of inspections of military sites surfaced again this week, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley traveled to the Vienna to meet with officials of the IAEA. Among the questions Haley had for the nuclear watchdog was whether it intended to inspect Iranian military sites in the future.

Following the meeting, Haley expressed concerns that the IAEA would not be getting access to Iran’s military sites.

Iran reacted to the meeting, not by saying it had nothing to hide, but charging the U.S. with unduly influencing the IAEA. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif wrote that Haley’s meeting with the IAEA undermined “the independence and credibility” of the inspectors.

Iran’s response to Haley’s meeting with the IAEA appears to be a preemptive political attack to prevent IAEA inspections of its military sites, but it also suggests that Iran has something to hide.

Iran’s refusal to allow physical inspections of its military sites for suspected nuclear weapons research gives Iran, what The Wall Street Journal termed (with regard to Syria) “an effective veto over inspectors’ movements.” This was was one of the tactics employed by Assad which allowed him to keep some of his chemical weapons and continue to terrorize the citizens of his country.

In an interview with NPR following the agreement on the nuclear deal in 2015, then Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iran’s refusal to allow inspections of military sites would constitute a “material breach of this agreement.”

One of the lessons of Syria is that if a rogue regime is given control over the terms of inspections, there is no way to ensure that they are not, in fact, cheating. That is why, even Kerry, who negotiated the nuclear deal, said that an Iranian refusal to allow inspections of military sites would constitute a “material breach” of the agreement.

President Donald Trump is reviewing the nuclear deal ahead of an October deadline to certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal.

If Iran continues to refuse the IAEA access to military sites, including Parchin, it will be cause for Trump not to certify Iran’s compliance.

[Photo: BBC News/ YouTube]