A Crisis of Compliance: The Cases of Syria and Iran

July 27, 2018

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Chemical

Yleem D.S. Poblete
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Washington, DC
July 27, 2018

Good afternoon. Thank you, Mark for affording me the opportunity to discuss some of the challenges posed to the United States and other responsible nations, by the Syrian and Iranian regimes, and to address their previous or current violations of legal obligations under either the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), as well as numerous resolutions of the UN Security Council. Iran continues to refuse to provide or acknowledge certain information regarding the military dimensions of its past nuclear activities. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has been in the forefront of efforts to keep these issues before the American people, and to support efforts by President Trump and his Administration to confront and impose costs on Syria and Iran for their malign activities.

Before delving into actions by the Syrian and Iranian regimes which constitute unusual and extraordinary threats to U.S. national security and to global peace and stability, I would like to share a few points of interest for this group about the history and mission of the Bureau I am fortunate to lead.

The Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC) is one of only a handful at the State Department mandated by the Congress with specific statutory authorities, the chief of which is principal responsibility within the Department of State for verification and compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements or commitments to which the United States is a party. Congress expressly created a position of Assistant Secretary for Verification and Compliance -- the statutory name for my post – to elevate verification to the same level as any official responsible for regional affairs, and to provide a specialist official within the Department of State in negotiations on arms agreements from the perspective of verifiability.

We help develop frameworks for inspection and verification and are required to evaluate the verifiability of any such accords and submit such assessments to the Chairmen of the relevant Committees of Congress. A cadre of policy and technical experts—physicists, chemists, biologists, seismologists, engineers, former missile commanders and inspectors — are to comb through information from a myriad of sources to arrive at determinations on verifiability and compliance—whether focused on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, their delivery systems, activities in outer space or under the sea, or other new domains of potential warfare.

AVC is responsible for the preparation, on behalf of the Secretary of State, of the Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, known as the Compliance Report. In order to fulfill this mission, AVC is the principal policy community representative to the intelligence community on verification and compliance matters. Via its Verification Fund, the AVC Bureau is able to drive development of monitoring and detection technologies that can help enable a determination on whether a party to a pledge or agreement is in compliance with or in violation of its obligations.

We take our mission seriously and view it as integral to advancing goals delineated in the National Security Strategy released in December of last year.


Under the rubric of defending our nation against weapons of mass destruction, the National Security Strategy notes how “The Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens undermines international norms against these heinous weapons, which may encourage more actors to pursue and use them.”

Both before and after becoming a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria has brazenly violated the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical agents as weapons – bringing a horror that blighted the onset of the 20th century into the current landscape.

Responsible states have reacted to these violations using mechanisms provided for in the Convention, in particular, to bring the Assad regime back into compliance. The United States was critical to ensuring the creation of a Fact-Finding Mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the organization tasked with monitoring CWC implementation – and a joint OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). These bodies’ investigations culminated in reports clearly establishing the Syrian Arab Republic was responsible for four cases of CW use and that the so-called Islamic State was responsible for another two. After Russia vetoed the extension of the JIM’s mandate in an effort to hide the Assad regime’s crimes, we worked assiduously with other CWC States Parties to give the OPCW the authority to fulfill the JIM’s old mission.

I would be remiss if I did not note U.S. efforts outside of the OPCW to bring pressure on the Assad regime over its use of CW, including Treasury Department sanctions on key figures within the Syrian government, State’s efforts to impede the flow of key dual-use supplies to the CW program, and, of course, the U.S. military’s airstrikes. I also do not want to minimize the important role our partners have played in the effort, from the EU’s long-standing dual-use export ban on Syria to France’s International Partnership Against Impunity, and French and British involvement in last April’s airstrikes.

Syria’s blatant disregard for its international obligations, of course, is not limited to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Syria also remains in continued noncompliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and Syria’s safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a result of its clandestine efforts to construct an undeclared plutonium production reactor in the Dair Alzour region of eastern Syria. While the Dair Alzour reactor was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007, Syria has persistently refused to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation and denied the Agency’s requests for information and access to address outstanding questions regarding its activities at the site and other related sites. Syria’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA remains a matter of ongoing concern for IAEA inspectors and the IAEA Board of Governors and indeed should be for all of us.

Moreover, Syria’s efforts to impede the IAEA’s investigation illustrate the degree to which the Assad regime is prepared to go to conceal its clandestine nuclear activities from international inspectors. Rather than responding in good faith to the IAEA requests for information and access, Syria continues to go to great lengths to deceive, obfuscate, and distract international attention from its perennial noncompliance. We have been clear that we cannot allow Syria’s NPT and IAEA safeguards noncompliance to merely fade into our collective memory. All outstanding questions regarding Syria’s noncompliance must be resolved.

Clearly, the behavior of the Assad regime with respect to the CWC and the NPT present a stark challenge to all other parties to these agreements – or at least those who remain in compliance – and to the role these agreements play in the maintenance of international peace and security. Within the region, the ongoing conflict fueled by Assad’s determination to remain in power through any means necessary adds to instability that provides opportunities for even larger threats to develop.

Syria has provided Iran an opportunity to expand its influence in order to threaten the security of Israel, Lebanon, and even other targets around the entire Mediterranean region. The case of Iran’s previous pursuit of a nuclear weapon is well documented, as illustrated by the recent revelation by Israel of an enormous cache of documents related to Iran’s past nuclear weapons program – documents that suggest Iran contemplated reconstituting its weapons program at some point in the future.

In a moment, I will discuss the flaws of the JCPOA and why the United States was fully warranted to withdraw from it. If Iran is indeed determined to remain true to its NPT obligations and declared commitments not to develop nuclear weapons, it should negotiate and accept a new agreement that provides the heightened assurance the United States and others require.


The JCPOA was flawed at both the technical and political levels, and at the practical level.

First, technically: It allows Iran to continue to conduct certain research and development activities on more efficient centrifuge machines that, if deployed on a larger scale, would significantly reduce the number required to produce highly enriched uranium, and could make clandestine enrichment facilities more difficult to detect. It also does not provide irreversibility of limitations imposed on existing centrifuge equipment. For example, IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz in excess of JCPOA limitations are stored, not destroyed.

President Trump has underscored the dangers posed by the Sunset provisions in the JCPOA. Technical examples include ending the limit on Iran’s stockpile of uranium hexafluoride enriched to 3.67%, installing infrastructure for the advanced IR-8 centrifuges at Natanz, and eventually ending containment and surveillance of centrifuge rotors and bellows, and ending of the prohibition to operate additional heavy water reactors or accumulation of heavy water.

Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement provides the IAEA the authority to verify the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declaration of its nuclear facilities and materials. The Additional Protocol to that agreement provides the IAEA with expanded access to nuclear fuel cycle-related information and locations in Iran so that the IAEA can provide assurances of the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities. In addition, the JCPOA is supposed to provide the IAEA with access and measures that go beyond that enabled by Iran’s CSA safeguards or AP obligations. Iran, however, has made repeated public statements denying important aspects of the IAEA’s authorities there, and although the IAEA reports that it has not yet been denied access to any site it has requested to visit, the IAEA has suggested publicly that Iran may not always have given “timely and proactive cooperation” in response to such requests.

The verification provisions of the JCPOA did not go far enough. Given Iran’s history of clandestine nuclear activities and extensive sanitization campaigns to conceal the nature and scope of these efforts once detected, effective verification in Iran requires an intrusive inspection regime that helps ensure the paramount objective of permanently denying Iran any pathway to nuclear weapons.

At the political level, the conditions under which Iran’s noncompliance had been addressed prior to the negotiation and implementation of the JCPOA have drastically altered. Unanswered questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear activities still loom large in our assessment of the potential threat Iran represents. Playing on the other parties’ evident desire to keep the JCPOA alive, Iran is now attempting to throw a scare into them over continued compliance in order to prompt them to provide the economic benefits Iran believes are due under the JCPOA.

And most concerning of all, as it relates to broader U.S. nonproliferation objectives, the JCPOA did not cover Iran’s missile programs or its chemical weapons program.

At the practical level, the JCPOA’s most significant flaw is that it fails to prevent Iran from ever having fissile material production capabilities that would permit it to rapidly breakout into weaponization. This, along with its failure to address Iran’s aggressive misbehavior in the region, is why President Trump has accurately described the JCPOA as a “terrible” deal. Iran asserts its perceived so-called “inalienable right” under the NPT to enrichment, but the NPT must be viewed in its entirety. Article IV speaks of the States Parties’ right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but it connects this right to conformity with Articles I and II as well as the safeguards described in Article III. This is an explicit requirement to confirm the peaceful nuclear programs of all Parties. Iran has not yet demonstrated to the world that it has rectified its egregious record of noncompliance with Articles II and III, which led to the IAEA Board of Governors referral of Iran to the UN Security Council and the passage of 10 resolutions between 2006 and 2014.

Iran is also using the JCPOA to justify its renewed acquisition of equipment and materials – ostensibly for its “peaceful” nuclear program – that have dual-use. The recent disclosure by Israel of its discovery of thousands of documents preserved and in storage in Iran related to its past nuclear weapons program – including, according to recent press reports, plans for the design of a nuclear device -- should leave no one in doubt that Iran has not yet clearly put its unlawful nuclear weapons ambitions forever behind it.

AVC experts are monitoring these and other developments that would inform our assessments on Iranian compliance with its obligations.

Looking Ahead

President Trump has made clear that we need to abandon the JCPOA “mindset”. In withdrawing from this deal, the President said: “It is the policy of the United States that Iran be denied a nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missiles;…and to counter Iran’s aggressive development of missiles and other asymmetric and conventional weapons capabilities.”

Secretary Pompeo has elaborated on how this policy will be pursued and has reiterated President Trump “is ready, willing, and able to negotiate a new deal. But the deal is not the objective. Our goal is to protect the American people” and we will “not renegotiate the JCPOA itself.”

Any new agreement must address the full spectrum of threats to U.S. security and interests presented by Iranian noncompliance with its international obligations. It should verifiably and indefinitely deny Iran all paths to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, rather than merely contain, control or delay it. As such it is incumbent upon the U.S. in moving beyond the JCPOA to seek effective verification. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report accompanying the legislation which created my Bureau, stated that effective verification “consists of (1) a high level of assurance in the United States’ ability to detect (2) a ‘militarily significant’ violation in (3) ‘a timely fashion’ and should provide ‘detection of patterns of marginal violations'.”

I would like to close with one observation: Nothing in the conduct of foreign policy is ever done in a vacuum. The end state that we must seek for the successful conclusion of any future deal with Iran must inform and be informed by the end state we are seeking for North Korea. Inconsistency in our approach to either negotiation will undermine our credibility and most likely doom the prospects for successfully dealing with the threats to our security posed by these and other actors, or to the proliferation challenges of the future.

The President noted in the National Security Strategy: “The scourge of the world today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate all principles of free and civilized states.” In response to these threats, the Strategy calls for the augmentation of measures to prevent the spread of and to eliminate WMD and related materials, their delivery systems, and technologies. It further underscores the need to hold state and non-state actors accountable for the use of WMD.

To do so, we must be semper vigilans -- always vigilant -- intensifying monitoring, detection, and verification of the activities of these pariahs. Wishful thinking cannot substitute for such vigilance, and hope cannot be allowed to replace rigor – as appears to have been done with the JCPOA. Noncompliance and blatant disregard of international norms must be dutifully and thoroughlyreviewed, documented, and assessed. This is where the AVC Bureau’s mandate comes into focus, with the Compliance Report, among other tools, serving as a predicate for action and accountability.

Thank You.