How Diplomats Avoided Resolving Questions About Iran’s Past Nuclear Work

Separate agreement spells out how Iran will address its nuclear past.


During the intense negotiations to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, an important question of history hung over the talks: Would Iran be required to come clean about its alleged work in the past to develop a nuclear weapon? On Tuesday, international diplomats elaborately dodged the question.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful, despite lingering suspicions among Western intelligence agencies that prior to 2003, Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon. Hard-liners in Europe and the United States have argued that what they describe as Iran’s “history of deception” makes any nuclear agreement with the country suspect on its face. Forcing Iran to answer questions about the so-called “past military dimensions” of its nuclear program represented a necessary step for sanctions to be lifted, they argue.

With the agreement in hand, those looking for answers on Iran’s past weapons work are going to be disappointed. The deal artfully shunted questions about past military work onto a second agreement, signed by Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which lays out a road map to “to address the remaining outstanding issues.”

According to the terms of that agreement, Iran promises that it will provide — by Aug. 15 — a set of answers in writing along with related documents in response to a set of questions posed in the annex to the 2011 IAEA report by the agency’s director-general. The IAEA will then review that information and send Iran its questions. That review process will likely be followed by future meetings to remove what the agreement calls “ambiguities.”

Critically, the successful resolution of this process — that IAEA inspectors determine Iran is providing complete answers — is not a requirement for sanctions to be lifted on Iran. While Iran has to comply with a long list of restrictions on its nuclear program that have to be certified by the IAEA before sanctions are lifted, fully answering questions about past nuclear weapons work is not one of those requirements. The separate agreement between the IAEA and Iran merely requires that Iran provide answers to those questions, regardless of whether the IAEA finds them satisfactory.

Moreover, the agreement between the IAEA and Iran contains a provision about access to a site at Parchin — long-thought to have at one point been the site of nuclear activity — that remains confidential. “Iran and the IAEA,” the agreement notes, “agreed on another separate arrangement regarding the issue of Parchin.” In a Tuesday press conference, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano refused to disclose the terms of that arrangement, saying only that it furthered his agency’s mandate of getting to the bottom of Iranian nuclear work.

Having pledged to the IAEA that it will answer these questions, there’s reason to believe that Iran will come clean about its past weapons work, but it’s far from a guarantee. And separating the IAEA’s investigation into this particular piece of history from the lifting of sanctions removes the punitive aspects of the Western sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table in the first place.

One can see this development one of two ways: either as a dangerous concession to Iran’s military or as an elegant diplomatic maneuver. Iranian negotiators have always maintained that coming completely clean about past weapons work was a bridge too far. If those allegations are true — which there is good reason to believe they are — the revelation that Iran had at one point pursued a nuclear weapon would contradict a fatwa issued by none other than Iran’s supreme leader that nuclear weapons are against Islam. Meanwhile, Western diplomats — most importantly, Secretary of State John Kerry — preferred to focus on the future, rather than a past that is quite well-known to Western intelligence agencies, even if Iran isn’t willing to throw open its nuclear history books.

According to the best assessment of U.S spies, Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons work in 2003, and the White House has long maintained that the agreement reached Tuesday, which includes extensive access for IAEA inspectors, will give the international community the best insight it has ever had into Tehran’s nuclear program.

That argument is probably true, but nuclear historians are sure to lament Tuesday’s fudge.

Photo credit: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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