Can a U.S. Deal Force Iran to Fess Up to the Military Dimensions of Its Nuke Program?

Can a U.S. Deal Force Iran to Fess Up to the Military Dimensions of Its Nuke Program?

At the core of the Iran nuclear negotiations, there are two fundamental questions: what work has Iran already accomplished towards a nuclear weapon and how can the United States guarantee that it has stopped and will not resume? If these questions are not answered correctly and completely before the negotiations conclude, the resulting agreement will be little more than an illusion. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has spoken forcefully and repeatedly on the so-called “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, and its director general, Yukiya Amano, has frequently implored Iran to respond to agency inquiries on the matter.

The “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program consist of 12 sets of activities that are the building blocks of a clandestine nuclear weapons development program. They include: military direction of nuclear-related activities; undeclared procurement activities; detonator development; hydrodynamic experiments to test weapons designs; work on warhead integration into a missile delivery vehicle; and fuzing, arming, and firing system efforts.

When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was announced last April, Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the “possible military dimensions” issue would be resolved before a final deal is completed. He was emphatic in an interview aired by PBS’s NewsHour:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, another issue; the International Atomic Energy Agency has said for a long time that it wants Iran to disclose past military-related nuclear activities. Iran is increasingly looking like it’s not going to do this. Is the U.S. prepared to accept that?

JOHN KERRY: No. They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal; it will be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because it’s not there now.

JOHN KERRY: It will be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that information will be released before June 30th, will be available.

JOHN KERRY: It will be part of a final agreement. It has to be.

However, according to a May 2015 IAEA report, Iran continues to stonewall Agency inquiries on the matter. The limited progress has been slow, grudging, and incomplete. Worse, the agency concludes that actions by Iran intended to sanitize part of its Parchin base, one of the places suspected of military nuclear activities, “are likely to have undermined the agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.” Thus, far from cooperating with inspectors to resolve the matter, Iran is working actively to sabotage them.

In response, Kerry seems to have taken a completely different position on what needs to be done to resolve the “possible military dimensions” matter. He was asked at a press conference on Tuesday, “Do these concerns need to be fully resolved before sanctions are eased or released or removed or suspended on Iran as part of that agreement? Is that a core principle or is that also negotiable?” He answered,

[T]he possible military dimensions, frankly, gets distorted a little bit in some of the discussion, in that we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way. That clearly is one of the requirements in our judgment for what has to be achieved in order to have a legitimate agreement. And in order to have an agreement to trigger any kind of material significant sanctions relief, we would have to have those answers.

This construction is wrong on several levels.

1. We do not “have absolute knowledge” of what Iran did with “no doubt.” The hubris of this statement is breathtaking. Given Iran’s longstanding denial and deception efforts with respect to its nuclear activities, and manifest flaws in U.S. intelligence capabilities with respect to nuclear proliferation, the point should require no additional evidence. But IAEA Director General Amano confirms that his agency has no such certainty:

“But what [sic] we don’t know whether they have undeclared activities or something else. We don’t know what they did in the past. So, we know a part of their activities, but we cannot tell we know all their activities. And that is why we cannot say that all the activities in Iran is in peaceful purposes.”

2. A complete and correct understanding of all of Iran’s military nuclear activities is imperative for effective verification. To verify that nuclear weapons-related activities in Iran have ceased and will not resume, requires knowledge of who undertook them, where, with what equipment and materials, and what procurement channels were used. This is necessary to build a mosaic of the program, which will reveal to inspectors inconsistencies, incomplete facts, or fabrications. IAEA inspectors will need to review procurement documents, lab notebooks, material balances, organization charts, and personnel files to ensure that Iran is not hiding more such work, and to keep track of the people and organizations capable of undertaking it to prevent its resumption. To strengthen nonproliferation goals, this work must be internationally accepted, not simply knowledge possessed by the U.S. government.

3. Iran’s unwillingness to resolve the “possible military dimensions” issue is direct evidence regarding its willingness to comply with a future nuclear deal. Not being “fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” as Secretary Kerry put it, sets a dangerous precedent that incomplete and incorrect declarations to the IAEA are acceptable. It subverts the agency’s credibility and authorities when they are most needed. In short, it fatally undermines the very agreement the administration is trying to achieve. For this reason, that it would also be imprudent to defer resolution of the “possible military dimensions” issue to a joint implementation commission created by a final agreement (and to its credit, the administration has already rejected such an option).

How then should Congress judge whether or not the “possible military dimensions” issue has been successfully resolved? Four points would mark resolution of the matter; that the IAEA could report:

1. It has a complete and correct understanding of the full extent of Iran’s nuclear activities, including any military dimensions;

2. All activities related to any military dimensions have ceased;

3. All nuclear material in Iran is exclusively in peaceful programs; and,

4. It can monitor the people, places, equipment, and materials involved in any military dimensions to ensure timely detection of any resumption of work.

In February 2014 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman insisted that, “We raised possible military dimensions. And in fact in the joint plan of action, we have required that Iran come clean on its past actions as part of any comprehensive agreement.” That must remain the standard to which Tehran is held accountable. Anything less would produce an agreement dangerously hollow at its core.