Tehran pursued an organized nuclear weapons effort through 2003, and some activities continued into the first year of the Obama administration in 2009, according to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Moreover, Tehran’s cover-up activities “seriously undermined the agency’s ability to conduct effective verification” at the Parchin site, where Iran is suspected of hydrodynamic testing of implosion devices. Claims that this was all a misunderstanding or a fabrication — made in Iran and sometimes echoed in the United States — are now discredited.
The Iran deal and its side agreement did not condition sanctions relief on substantive resolution of the IAEA’s concerns about Iran’s covert nuclear weapons work — the so-called “possible military dimensions” issue. Rather, they simply set a procedural timeline for additional information exchanges, questions, discussions, and finally an IAEA report. Unsurprisingly, Tehran’s stonewall continued, and the agency now reports that it was unable to resolve its detailed and documented concerns.
So what are the implications of the report for the Iran deal and broader nonproliferation policy? A nasty Twitter war has erupted between American think tanks, which must amuse the Iranians. The lasting implications are, however, far more serious.
The bedrock of IAEA safeguards work is complete and correct declaration of all nuclear activities, and agency verification of the completeness and correctness, through access to sites, documents, people, and equipment. The latest IAEA report makes clear that Tehran’s declaration is neither complete nor correct, but Iran will be given a pass, because the Iran deal created a giant loophole on this issue.
Some say this does not matter — that we already have “absolute knowledge” of Iran’s nuclear program, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it in June. They also point to intelligence capabilities as the best means to detect Iranian cheating. They further claim that these issues are of the past, while the agreement is about the future. None of these arguments withstand casual scrutiny.
Intelligence information alone is subject to failure. The massive intelligence debacle in Iraq was caused in part by the absence of inspectors starting in 1998. Effective international monitoring and intelligence work are exponentially more powerful in tandem than either is alone. A baseline declaration is necessary for effective international monitoring. Moreover, this issue is about the future. Neither the IAEA nor the United States can be confident that Iran’s nuclear weapons development work will not resume if all aspects of the past activities are not well understood and dismantled. Where, for example, is the explosive chamber that was used at Parchin, and to what purpose is it being put today? Were other chambers fabricated and used? What became of the nuclear explosion modeling? Who was involved in it and what are they doing now?
The Iran deal will go forward. Sanctions will be lifted. The bedrock principle of safeguards work — a complete and correct declaration followed by IAEA verification — will be fractured (temporarily at least), with U.S. complicity. Why should future proliferators not invoke the Iran deal precedent, under which the Iranians pretend to comply with their obligations, and we pretend to believe them? Why even should Tehran take seriously all the administration’s huffing and puffing about the importance of compliance?
The July deal did not solve the Iran nuclear program. At best it delayed it. In 10 to 15 years the central provisions of the deal will fade away and Iran will be free to maintain unlimited inventories of centrifuges and low enriched uranium — reducing the metric of breakout time so cherished by the administration from 12 months to several days. Tehran’s reluctance to comply with its obligation to provide a complete and correct declaration today is compelling — although not dispositive — evidence that it continues to harbor nuclear weapons ambitions, which it will return to in the future. The political fight over the Iran deal is over. It will be implemented. America and her allies, however, must join together quickly to prepare for the day in a decade or so when this question will again be upon us.
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