We Don’t Want to See Iran’s Full Monty

Why forcing Tehran to reveal all about its nuclear past is not only TMI but totally unnecessary and potentially devastating.


Not so long ago, the editors at Jezebel wrote a helpful guide for men entitled, "Should You Send a Lady a Dick Pic? A Guide for Men."

As you might guess, the answer is always no. Yes, the ladies know you have one. She still doesn’t want to see it, OK?

I do not raise this issue in relation to scandals of late, but rather the issue of PMD or "possible military dimensions" — specifically, the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. You know, the secret nuclear weapons program. I sometimes hear my colleagues argue that Tehran has to come clean about its past nuclear weapons activities before we agree to any nuclear deal with Iran.

This is a terrible idea. A full frontal of the Iranian nuclear weapons program is a guaranteed mood-killer.

Look, as I have written before, Iran very likely had a covert nuclear weapons program until at least 2003. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program describes a "halt" to that "covert" nuclear weapons program, which Iran carried out at something called the Physics Research Center (PHRC), located in the Lavizan neighborhood of Tehran and under the leadership of a fellow named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) became interested in Iran’s nuclear activities at Lavizan in 2003, Iran knocked down all the buildings and hauled away the dirt. The site is now a leafy park.

If you read between the lines in past statements, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has basically admitted that Iran closed down the PHRC to avoid admitting what had gone on there. Many of those who oppose making any kind of deal with Iran point to this as evidence that Rouhani is a liar and a cheat. But, really, what would you have done? Admit it: Any sane Iranian policymaker would quietly shut down the weapons program until negotiations with the West reached an end, one way or another. And, after a decade of twists and turns, that is pretty much exactly where we are today.

Now, as the United States and Iran close in on an agreement, some of my colleagues in the think-tank world are arguing that, as a precondition for any nuclear deal, Iran must come completely clean about the extent of its nuclear weapons activities. Some of these people are legitimate experts who are sincerely interested in making the strongest verification regime possible. But others are ideologically opposed to any deal at all because an agreement would "legitimize the Iranian regime." But in my judgment, demanding — and getting — a full Iranian disclosure will pretty much collapse the negotiations, putting us on the path to a futile bombing campaign.

The problem is that any deal with Iran is likely to depend on very fragile political coalitions within each of the countries. Moreover, the United States will have to sell any deal to skeptical allies. Iran must be forthcoming enough about its past nuclear weapons activities to show good faith, but a full accounting is likely to tear those coalitions apart.

We’ve seen this precise problem destroy other tricky diplomatic efforts. In the early 2000s, then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang to strike a deal with (the late) Kim Jong Il concerning the fate of Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped by North Korea from Japan and countries in Europe. As part of a deal, Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens, and issued an apology.

Which is when the fit hit the shan.

The Japanese public exploded in rage. As Japanese journalist Yoichi Funabashi later observed, "The Japanese people were driven much more by sorrow and anger over the deaths of the abductees than by happiness that some abductees were still alive." 

Of course, it didn’t help that many people believe there are still more victims and that North Korea’s apology was a pathetic evasion of responsibility. But by far the dominant effect of North Korea’s admission was to unleash emotions long suppressed by official denials. Once North Korea admitted that it had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens, public sentiment soured against Pyongyang and the deal. The depth of the feeling against North Korea, despite the return of some abductees, was so deep that many commentaries referred to it as "hysteria." Now, I don’t much like that term — it is gendered and seems to me to denigrate the completely justified anger of the victims’ families. I’d say the Japanese people were experiencing what Jules Winnfield might have called "great vengeance and furious anger." Rather than blaming an emotional public, I would say that Japanese and North Korean policymakers should have known better. Kim Jong Il admitting to kidnapping people. What did they expect would happen?

That brings us back to Iran. Iran has denied all interest in a nuclear weapons program, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. If Iran simply admits the full scope of its nuclear weapons program, dropping a few surprises here and there, public sentiment will turn against any deal very quickly. We told you they are liars! They’ve been fooling you all along!

This is precisely why the issue of activities at Parchin keeps coming up, over and over again. Plenty of evidence suggests that Iran conducted explosives experiments of the sort one might use to detonate a nuclear weapon there. Getting inside wouldn’t tell us anything we don’t know. It would, perhaps, embarrass the Iranians.

There are, of course, substantive reasons that any agreement to verify that Iran is not building nuclear weapons requires a detailed understanding of Iran’s past activities. But verification is, sadly, neither necessary nor sufficient for an agreement to work. When Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi committed to abandoning his weapons of mass destruction programs, then-Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter admitted that verification was never perfect, but observed what she thought was "a genuine strategic decision to walk away from the WMD world." Several years later, Qaddafi fell. Guess what we found? Hey, what’s two tons of undeclared mustard gas among friends, anyway? On the other hand, the international community had all the evidence in the world that Iraq’s WMD programs were in a shambles. Need I point out how that ended? 

Verification is important, but arms control deals can still work well with imperfect verification. And plenty of arms control agreements with perfect verification don’t work at all. It is far more important that any deal with Iran have strong enough incentives, as well as ways to resolve disputes, so that it will survive all the pressures that may undermine it. This includes not just suspicions that one side is cheating or dragging its feet, but all the other things that make the U.S.-Iran relationship so crappy — from Iran’s support for terrorist groups to its growing missile program. A nuclear deal can’t solve these problems; it has to endure them.

A full Iranian disclosure about the scope of its past, and possibly continuing, nuclear weapons programs is far more likely to kill any chance of an agreement. I am not the first person to raise this issue. My friend Mark Hibbs at the Carnegie Endowment has long wondered how to handle the issue of Iran coming clean in the context of a broader deal. Some observers, like former IAEA Director-General Pierre Goldschmidt, have argued for some sort of amnesty provision for Iran. While an amnesty is easy to declare, making it work is likely to require careful handling of the information that Iran releases to the IAEA and the so-called E3/EU+3 with which it is negotiating. Yes, Iran has to eventually come clean about its activities, but let’s not rush things.

Iran and the West are now as close to consummating a deal as ever. This is probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deal with the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. A failure likely means a military conflict, an Iranian bomb, or both.

It’s easy to imagine the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as a suitor, wooing the West. Iranian papers even refer to the "current atmosphere of romance" between Iran and the West. So, when I hear calls for Iran to bare it all as part of a deal, I find it hard not to think of Zarif staring at his cellphone, pondering the send button, and wondering, "Is this a good idea?"

Good lord, no. Don’t send the pic.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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