The verification provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the P5+1 and Iran are impressive. Not mentioned is that all the parties to the agreement have access to highly detailed photographs of the earth’s surface, updated frequently. Those photos are part of what the government calls National Technical Means. In the United States, it is run by the National Reconaissance Office (NRO).
But there’s yet another layer of verification. Satellite photos are easily available to the public. Look up your house on Google Earth or Google Maps. It’s fun, and a lot of people do it.
Under the JCPOA, IAEA inspectors will have access to Iranian uranium mines and mills, processing facilities, and centrifuge factories. All of these facilities can also be watched from above. Mines are easier to see than centrifuge factories, but the centrifuge factories have additional verification measures to open up their visibility. The JCPOA verification is tight enough that in order to make a bomb, Iran would have to open up a parallel chain from mine to centrifuge. Only one link in that chain, one facility, needs to be uncovered.
The NRO will be taking pictures, but now everyone can play. Analyzing overhead photos takes a bit of learning: how to deal with the optical illusions that shadows can cause, what structures and natural formations look like from above, and so on. Arms Control Wonk has been crowd-sourcing identification of Chinese submarines and Iranian uranium mines (top photo of the Bandar Abbas processing facility from here) for the last decade or more. Bellingcat came into being after the shootdown of MH17 a year ago. Both offer instruction and tips on photo analysis and on auxiliary software that makes things like measuring distances easy.
A number of think tanks also do photo analysis, with more money to buy the more detailed photos. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the then Monterey Institute, now Middlebury Institute, snapped up the Arms Control Wonk himself after his postdoc. ISIS Nuclear frequently hits the news with photo analysis of nuclear sites.
There is also a gaggle of free-lancers, some of whom are very good, who do this for fun. The motivation is the glory of being the first to find a significant site, like a clandestine Iranian uranium mine and mill. The site will be announced on Twitter or a blog, and the game will be on. A thousand pairs of eyes will swing to that spot on Google Earth or purchased photos, some of them behind government fences, some at the IAEA.
Those outside the fences will tweet what they see and measure. Those in the nongovernmental organizations will make three-dimensional virtual models and compare the dimensions to similar objects around the globe. They will talk to reporters.
It’s not clear how that will affect governmental agencies or the IAEA. They don’t say much to the rest of us.
If Iran builds a mine and a mill outside the limits of the JCPOA, we’ll know about it. Or another clandestine facility. The Volunteer Verification Corps will find it.
Update (July 23, 2015): The JASONs, an advisory group to the US Department of Defense, is beginning to recognize the VVC.