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Iran Was Building a Nuclear Bomb. So What?

What “closing the file” on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program really means.

Iranian technicians remove a container of radioactive uranium, 'yellow cake', sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to be used at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facilities (UCF), 420 kms south of Tehran, 08 August 2005. Iran looked set to resume sensitive nuclear fuel work imminently after the arrival of UN inspectors at a uranium conversion plant, a move that would put it on a collision course with the West.       AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian technicians remove a container of radioactive uranium, 'yellow cake', sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to be used at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facilities (UCF), 420 kms south of Tehran, 08 August 2005. Iran looked set to resume sensitive nuclear fuel work imminently after the arrival of UN inspectors at a uranium conversion plant, a move that would put it on a collision course with the West. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iran nuclear deal is nearing another mile marker, this one relating to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached in Vienna — or, as I like to call it, Der Wienerplan — requires Iran to implement the steps outlined in a road map negotiated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It also requires that the IAEA provide, by Dec. 15, a “final assessment on the resolution of all past and present outstanding issues” and the IAEA Board of Governors to submit a resolution “with a view to closing the issue.” In short, the terms of the deal require the IAEA to reach a conclusion on the allegations that Iran had a nuclear weapons program.

The IAEA director-general submitted his “Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme” on Dec. 2. And now, a draft resolution by the Board of Governors to close the issue — dated Dec. 7 — has been circulated and leaked to my friend Andreas Persbo. (He placed it online at some disreputable blog that traffics in such leaks.) The resolution will likely pass in the next few days, moving the parties closer to an “implementation day” as early as January, at which point the United States, the European Union, and Iran must implement the bulk of their obligations.

Of course, the steady implementation of the deal is being met with the same opposition as every other step of the process. Some people hate the very idea of a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear standoff with Iran — though they will insist it is only this very specific deal to which they object — and they hate each and every step along the implementation path with the same passion. They’d probably tell you that Dec. 7 is a day that will live in infamy if that weren’t, like, already taken.

Others, too, are unhappy. My friends at the Institute for Science and International Security (aka The Good ISIS), though officially neutral on the merits of Der Wienerplan, are crying in their coffee over the draft resolution. Here is wishing them a speedy transition into the final phase of the grieving process: acceptance. The “Possible Military Dimensions” file is closed.

Closure of the file, however, has not brought emotional closure. Iran didn’t confess to a pre-2003 weapons program, though the evidence assembled by the IAEA should convince all but the most hardened Internet troll that Iran was working to build a bomb before 2003. Not that Tehran would ever confess such a thing. As I have argued before, a confession wouldn’t have improved the IAEA’s understanding of Iran’s past efforts to build a bomb, but it would have been used by those who wanted to undermine the agreement. I call this the cookie problem: “Drawing attention to something unwelcome often overwhelms any credit you get for taking steps to address that problem. Even if other people are objectively better off, you will only suffer for bringing it up.”

As a result, sovereign states rarely submit to a ritual humiliation, which is why South Korea and others haven’t acknowledged the nuclear weapons program behind their safeguards violations. The IAEA isn’t the Scooby Doo Gang and Iran’s supreme leader was never going to say: “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.” That only happens on children’s television. Life as a grown-up is rather less satisfying.

The final IAEA report does, however, deliver a verdict — and it is damning. While noting Iran’s denial of a “coordinated programme aimed at the development of a nuclear explosive device,” it makes no bones about what it thinks was actually going on. “[A] range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” the IAEA found, “were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort.”

Apart from the passive voice, that is a straightforward assertion that Iran attempted to build a nuclear weapon prior to 2003.

In the main, the IAEA confirmed U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program until 2003 — as well as reports that only limited work continued until 2009. I summarized the unclassified estimates in one of my first articles for Foreign Policy in response to questions about the post-2003 work.

The scope of the IAEA’s report is also pretty damning, by the way. It describes Iran’s program management structure; procurement efforts; efforts to acquire unsafeguarded nuclear material, cast uranium metal, develop detonators, test high explosives, conduct hydrodynamic experiments, model nuclear explosions, and develop a neutron initiator; plans for a nuclear test site; steps to integrate a bomb into a missile; and work on its arming-firing-fusing system. Some of my colleagues claim that Iran must have done more, but honestly, that’s basically the complete starter kit for a nuclear weapons program. Unless they were building a hydrogen bomb, too, there isn’t much more for them to have done.

Iran doesn’t have to confess for the IAEA to have gotten to the bottom of its nuclear weapons program, any more than a criminal needs to confess to be convicted. Closing the file doesn’t give Iran a clean bill of health or remove prior offenses; it allows the parties to move toward implementing the terms of the nuclear deal, which imposes limits on Iran’s nuclear program and provides additional transparency.

Part of the problem may be the term “close the file,” which is a colloquial phrase often used by states that have violated their safeguards and want to move on. But let’s take a moment to ponder what it means to have opened the file.

The standoff with Iran began with the revelation that Iran was constructing an underground enrichment facility near Natanz. Although Iran, under the terms of the then-existing safeguards agreement and subsidiary arrangements, was not yet obligated to declare the facility, the circumstances surrounding its construction strongly suggested that Iran never intended to declare it. This resulted in a number of IAEA activities to determine the completeness and correctness of its safeguards declarations. The first milestone was a finding by the IAEA director-general, at the time Mohamed ElBaradei, that Iran had violated its safeguards obligations and that efforts to verify completeness and correctness were ongoing. Colloquially, one might call this the “opening” of the file.

As the IAEA worked with Iran, the director-general released regular reports to the Board of Governors on the “implementation of safeguards” in Iran. Unlike with other states that have violated their safeguards agreements, such as South Korea, Egypt, and Taiwan, the IAEA didn’t like the answers it was getting from Tehran. The IAEA was able to resolve one measly issue before the Board of Governors referred the metaphorical file, in 2006, to the United Nations Security Council. The file moved from the Vienna International Centre, where the IAEA is headquartered, to Turtle Bay.

The Security Council subsequently demanded that Iran cease enrichment-related activities (among other activities) and imposed sanctions in a series of resolutions: UNSCR 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, and 1929. It was these sanctions that eventually brought Iran to the negotiating table. And it is the Security Council on whose behalf the E3/EU+3 (or P5+1) countries were negotiating to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions by Tehran pursuant to the terms of the JCPOA.

So, what does it mean to “close the file”? Well, first, let’s be clear about what that does not mean.

First, it does not mean that the matter is out of the U.N.’s hands. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, states that the Security Council “Decides to remain seized of the matter,” which is the grandiloquent language for saying it’s still the Security Council’s bag. If Iran does not comply with the terms of the JCPOA, the Security Council is the ultimate arbiter of any dispute and is where the so-called “snap-back” procedure to reimpose sanctions would play out.

Second, closing the file does not mean that Iran is no longer subject to unusual scrutiny by the IAEA. Quite the opposite, the IAEA is charged with verifying Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JCPOA and to this end has, under the terms of the agreement, extraordinary access to Iran’s nuclear program that extends beyond the access provided for under a routine safeguards agreement and the more extensive “additional protocol” safeguards that Iran must implement. The JCPOA provides for enhanced safeguards that extend into centrifuge workshops and uranium mills, as well as a number of prohibitions on activities linked to weaponization. And the IAEA will have a team of 130 to 150 designated inspectors for Iran, at a cost of about 9 million euros a year. The IAEA is not packing up and going home. It is moving in. Oh, and the IAEA director-general will continue to provide quarterly reports on Iran’s implementation of the terms of the JCPOA. So, you’ll have another column to read over Spring Break.

And finally, closing the file does not mean that the IAEA is prohibited from investigating any new information about misdeeds in Iran, past or present, relating to its safeguards agreement or weaponization activities.

What closing the file does mean is that the IAEA has reached final judgments about the list of activities that constituted “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear program. The IAEA remains, however, charged with reaching a “Broader Conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities.” The last remaining sanctions will not be removed until the IAEA reaches this conclusion — or for eight years after adoption day.

The IAEA is unlikely to reach this conclusion anytime soon, if it ever does. This means the next eight years should be interesting, particularly as the deadline to lift remaining sanctions even without an IAEA “broader conclusion” approaches. The eight-year thing is a strange provision, I will admit, though perhaps not as strange as the rider allowing the Wu-Tang Clan and/or Bill Murray to plan one heist or caper to steal back from Martin Shkreli the only copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. (Seriously, why isn’t that in Der Wienerplan? I know the story isn’t true, but come on — the idea of RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray trying to make off with an IR-8 centrifuge could surely bring a smile to the tear-stricken faces of our friends at The Good ISIS.)

The eight-year provision is a compromise — Iran was concerned that the IAEA would drag out the process indefinitely, while the other parties, principally the United States, France, Britain, and Germany, rightly concluded that Iran’s cooperation is likely to be grudging. If the IAEA can’t reach the broader conclusion that all of Iran’s nuclear material remains in peaceful uses after eight years, the United States and its allies will have a tough decision to make.

But tough decisions are what happens when your other options are things like “an Iranian bomb” or “bombing Iran.” The reason that we have a diplomatic agreement with Iran is not because they are Boy Scouts, but rather the opposite: We know Iran violated its safeguards agreement. We know Iran had a bomb program. We know Iran is still lying about that to this very day. The IAEA report makes that clear. If Iran weren’t a threat when it comes to building a nuclear weapon, the Security Council wouldn’t have imposed sanctions, the U.S. State Department wouldn’t have been renting hotel rooms in Lausanne and Vienna, and we wouldn’t have limits on Iran’s nuclear program and the extraordinary access for the IAEA that goes beyond the Additional Protocol. In other words, if Iran were run by Boy Scouts, we wouldn’t have any need for a nuclear deal in the first place.

Photo credit: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

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. @ArmsControlWonk

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. @ArmsControlWonk

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