Shadow Government

Testing a Nuclear Deal with Tehran

Before ink had been put to paper — let alone dried — on an interim nuclear bargain with Iran Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as "the deal of the century" for Tehran , noting that Iran would not have to dismantle even one centrifuge. If a deal is culminated, others will no doubt ...

JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images

Before ink had been put to paper — let alone dried — on an interim nuclear bargain with Iran Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as "the deal of the century" for Tehran , noting that Iran would not have to dismantle even one centrifuge. If a deal is culminated, others will no doubt defend it, arguing that Iran’s enrichment program is a fait accompli; that we can hope only to contain it, not to end it, or even to roll it back.

So over the next few weeks the argument will play out over whether or not Iran has been pushed farther from a nuclear weapons capability, and whether sanctions relief would then be justified. This highly transactional approach would offer scant evidence of a strategic decision by Tehran to forego a nuclear weapons program in favor of a better relationship with the international community. It would, however, be consistent with a pattern of deals Tehran has sought to buy breathing space, while continuing to expand its nuclear program.

A better test of the worth of an Iranian nuclear commitment has already been specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — how Tehran answers specific evidence of nuclear weapons development. Two years ago, the agency reported on what it called "possible military dimensions" of the Iranian nuclear program, stating:

"Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information." [pdf]

Despite the IAEA’s rather anodyne label, the November 2011 report raised allegations of work that can only be explained as part of a nuclear weapons development program, including efforts "pertinent to the development of an HEU [highly enriched uranium] implosion device," such as: 

  • a secret "green salt" project to "provide a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment program";
  • procurement activities for equipment "useful for triggering and firing detonators";
  • a "large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell";
  • information "that Iran has manufactured simulated nuclear explosive components using high density materials such as tungsten";
  • construction of a chamber to conduct hydrodynamic experiments to test conventional explosives applicable to a nuclear weapon;
  • "modeling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behavior at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield"; and,
  • a project consisting of "a structured and comprehensive program of engineering studies to examine how to integrate a new spherical payload into the existing payload chamber which would be mounted in the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile."

These are detailed allegations, directly related to nuclear weapons development, reported by multiple sources, and in many cases cross-checked against information developed independently by the agency. They give lie to Tehran’s plea that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

For years, the IAEA has sought Iranian cooperation in resolving the issues associated with these activities, but Tehran has stonewalled. Even Monday’s deal between the IAEA and Iran failed to address these matters. How Tehran deals with the IAEA’s allegation of "a possible military dimension" to the Iranian program is critically important. 

Openness would allow the IAEA to follow the leads — inspect facilities, analyze documents, talk with scientists, check procurement records. This would enable the agency to determine what the facts on the ground are, and to root out any Iranian nuclear weapons program, if one continues to exist.

It would also signal that Tehran has decided that the costs of developing nuclear weapons are too high and the benefits of an alternative path are worth pursuing.

Alternatively, if Tehran continues to stonewall the IAEA, refusing to clarify what it has done and not done despite credible and damning evidence, we will know that the deal is tactical, not strategic, that cooperation by Tehran is incomplete and grudging, and that given half a chance, they will cheat on it. 

Could such a deal still be worthwhile? Perhaps, but only if Iran is materially and verifiably farther from a nuclear weapons capability than it is today, and that would set the bar very, very high.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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