A Postmortem for Failure of Nuclear Talks With Iran

A Postmortem for Failure of Nuclear Talks With Iran

Regarding nuclear talks with Iran, President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28: "These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed." Assume talks with Iran failed and Tehran were breaking out to become a nuclear-armed state. A postmortem would find inadequate incentives and insufficient human intelligence to monitor Iran’s noncompliance. If Obama had worked out a compromise with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on contingent sanctions, there would have been additional economic incentives to coerce Iran to comply with the Joint Plan of Action.

Menendez’s Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act contains a trigger, Section 301(b), that applies only if there were no agreement due to Iranian noncompliance with the Joint Plan of Action. In the "postmortem," the Obama approach had been to offer concessions to induce Tehran to reciprocate with its own concessions, which were not forthcoming. The president had stated, "If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it." But Obama received nothing in return from this concession on sanctions.

Regarding actions in the event of failure to reach a permanent agreement, a Brookings Institution report may provide an idea of contingency planning in the administration leading up to failure. It assumed, "If prospects for a negotiated outcome begin to look remote, we may soon find ourselves confronted by an aggressive Iranian effort to erode the sanctions in the absence of agreement and to move its nuclear program closer to the weapons threshold." But the way around such an effort by Tehran would have been to adopt contingent sanctions before negotiations were about to fail.

Brookings proposed to toughen the American posture at the permanent talks, going beyond a freeze of Iran’s nuclear activities to a major reduction of its nuclear infrastructure and inclusion tougher verification measures. The rationale for ramping up the U.S. posture would have been to detect and deter any Iranian decision to break out and move to build nuclear weapons. But the time to have stiffened the American position would have been in talks leading up to adoption of the interim accord.

The postmortem would reveal lack of human source intelligence (HUMINT) to complement signals intelligence, which Washington has in abundance while being weak on HUMINT within Iran. One source of HUMINT is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the main opposition organization that rejects clerical rule.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote, "The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear program did prove to be the trigger point in inviting the IAEA into Tehran for inspections." And such inspections led to sanctions on Iran and negotiations with the major powers.

In August 2002, NCRI intelligence exposed a secret nuclear facility near the city of Natanz. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) confirmed this revelation, identified the site as a uranium-enrichment facility, and released imagery of Natanz in December 2002.

NCRI intelligence was the source of the August 2002 heavy-water production facility at Arak, which led ISIS to state, "The existence of this facility was first revealed publicly by the Iranian opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in August 2002. ISIS then located the site in commercial satellite imagery after a wide-area search. By United Nations Security Council resolution 1737 (2006), Iran was to suspend all work on heavy water related projects."

Regarding a nuclear facility at Lavizan-Shian, the ISIS wrote: "This site first came to public attention in May 2003 when the Iranian opposition group, National Council for Resistance of Iran, announced … the site."

In December 2005, NCRI intelligence revealed a nuclear site near the city of Qom: Tunneling activity in the mountains was initiated in 2000 to construct an underground nuclear facility; Western allies publicly acknowledged the Qom site in September 2009.

NCRI intelligence revealed, during September 2009, two additional sites in and near Tehran, where the regime may be working on detonators for nuclear warheads, one of the points in dispute in the negotiations.

Prompted by such publicity, the Iranian regime admitted in September of that year existence of a uranium-enrichment facility about 20 miles north of Qom. And by January 2012, Iran stated it had begun enrichment at the heavily fortified site — the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. 

In short, insufficient incentives for Iran to comply and inadequate human intelligence constituted a perfect storm for failure of the negotiations. Given findings of the postmortem, adoption of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act and survival of the NCRI intelligence units in Iraq despite Tehran’s efforts to destroy them would have gone far to avert failure.