Report

For Now, U.S. Ready to Shelve Iran’s Past Military Programs to Win Nuclear Deal

The Obama administration is ready to drop a long-standing demand that Tehran open up about its secret missile research, provided Iran agrees to tough inspections going forward.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) watches on a tablet as the US president addresses the US, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) on April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions. European powers and Iran on April 2 hailed a breakthrough in talks on reaching a deal to curtail Tehran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) watches on a tablet as the US president addresses the US, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) on April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions. European powers and Iran on April 2 hailed a breakthrough in talks on reaching a deal to curtail Tehran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, the United States and other world powers have demanded that Iran come clean about its past nuclear weapons research. But with a deadline for a landmark deal rapidly approaching, President Barack Obama’s administration is now saying such an accounting of prior military activity would be redundant, as the United States already possesses a detailed understanding of Iran’s illicit nuclear activities. It has the ability to devise a stringent U.N. monitoring system capable of preventing it from cheating down the road.

The shift in emphasis comes just two weeks before the June 30 deadline for what would be a landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States and its allies. Stymied on trade and other issues, the Obama administration sees a pact with Tehran that would freeze Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for relief from punishing Western sanctions as a legacy-defining moment for a president in desperate need of a win. Skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill worry that the White House will concede too much to the Iranians to nail down a pact.

The administration’s position on Iran’s past nuclear activity, outlined Tuesday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, is an attempt to split the difference. Washington, Kerry said, would no longer be “fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another.” Put another way, America’s top diplomat is saying the White House would accept a deal that didn’t require Tehran to immediately disclose details about its nuclear program. Iran has steadfastly denied trying to build a bomb and instead insisted that it was researching civilian uses of nuclear power.

At the same time, Kerry stressed that the administration wouldn’t agree to lift U.N. Security Council sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy and decimated the value of its currency unless Tehran came clean on its past efforts to develop nuclear weapons and agreed to “robust verification and monitoring mechanisms” designed to ensure U.N. inspectors had full and unfettered access to Iran’s nuclear facilities “going forward.”

The U.S. position reflects a calculation that Iran’s leaders, including the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will never publicly admit they have lied about their secret efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. That may be true, but the shift has already fueled criticism from some nonproliferation experts, who argue that the United States is yielding on a critical point of principle that accommodates Iranian intransigence and weakens the International Atomic Energy Agency. The shift also places the United States at odds with a key negotiating partner, France, which has argued recently that gaining a clear understanding of Iran’s secret efforts to design a nuclear warhead is vital for a deal.

France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, recently underscored the importance of securing an Iranian commitment to disclose its past efforts to weaponize a nuclear weapon before the deal is closed. “No agreement without solution to R/D [research and development] and PMD [possible military dimensions],” Araud tweeted in February.

Kerry said Tuesday that the United States has sufficient knowledge of the history of Iran’s nuclear military programs to devise a credible inspections regime capable of preventing future violations. Some outside experts weren’t as sanguine.

David Albright, the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said Kerry’s remarks were “very worrisome” and reflect what he sees as the Obama administration’s long practice of offering concessions to Iran. “Whenever confronted with Iranian intransigence, they fold,” Albright told Foreign Policy. “It’s going to be hard for a lot of people to support this deal if they give in on past military dimensions.”

Other experts who have been keenly watching the negotiations said the top American diplomat simply voiced the reality of what was, and what wasn’t, attainable in a final deal.

“There is no point in getting the deal hung up on forcing Iran to admit weaponization-related R&D [research and development] it was engaged in over a decade ago and has verifiably stopped,” said Jacqueline Shire, a former U.S. member of the U.N. Security Council panel of experts monitoring Iranian compliance with sanctions.

Shire said it remains vital that the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear investigators, have enough detailed information about Iran’s past programs to make sure illicit actions are not ongoing. Still, she said, “the idea that there must be some kind of full and frank public airing of all previous research was never realistic.”

For years, negotiators from Britain, China, the European Union, Germany, Russia, and the United States have insisted that a final deal would include unprecedented scrutiny of Iran’s approved nuclear activities to gain a detailed understanding of its past steps to acquire nuclear materials. Much of the world’s suspicions about Tehran’s nuclear programs dates back to the 2002 exposure of a secret enrichment facility near Natanz and a heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could be used to produce enough uranium or plutonium to build a nuclear warhead.

Iran has steadfastly denied it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb and insists it has the right to enrich as a member of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But Tehran has also refused to give IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, and last month, Khamenei said he would never allow inspections of the Islamic Republic’s military sites.

Negotiators in April hammered out a tentative agreement in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Kerry on Tuesday said that U.S. positions since then “have not altered one iota” on what he called its fundamental parameters — including investigating any past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

Yet just weeks after Lausanne, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano predicted a final deal might not include requirements that Tehran immediately relay information about its past efforts to develop nuclear weapons. At the time, Amano said doing so “has never been a precondition for reaching an agreement.” However, the Security Council has demanded that Iran fully cooperate with the IAEA, and the IAEA has repeatedly demanded Iran come clean on its past military program. The pact envisions Iran agreeing on an unspecified “set of measures” intended to address the IAEA’s concerns about Tehran’s path to military activities.

More recently, Amano this month told reporters that IAEA concerns about the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program could be quickly resolved — potentially within months — after a final deal goes into effect.

Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball said the IAEA investigation will “need to be resolved in order to lift key-related nuclear sanctions.” But, he said, it will not be necessary in order to seal the deal this month. “This is not a concession,” Kimball said.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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