Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have conceded a key issue in the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran: whether Iran will have to account for alleged past activities related to nuclear weapons development.
In a video call with reporters at the State Department on June 16, Secretary Kerry said: “We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. […] It’s critical to us to know that, going forward, those activities have been stopped and that we can account for that in a legitimate way. That clearly is one of the requirements, in our judgment, for what has to be achieved in order to have a legitimate agreement.”
Despite Secretary Kerry’s confidence that the United States understands what Iran “did at one point or another” and can assess the direction of Iran’s nuclear program without an accounting of past activities, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has long hoped to complete its investigation into what it calls the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s program — alleged past research related to developing nuclear weapons.
It may be that the U.S. intelligence community has “absolute knowledge” of the alleged weaponization activities in question, though it’s a difficult point to confirm in an unclassified setting.
But even if answers to the IAEA’s long-standing questions would not yield any new intelligence for the U.S. government, here are four reasons why the PMD issue still matters:
1. An acknowledgment from Iran about its past nuclear-weapons-relevant work would provide a basis for IAEA inspectors to access military sites where such work occurred and to related documents and personnel — access that Iran has been reluctant to concede. Without such an acknowledgement, the authority for the IAEA to inspect military sites and other undeclared facilities is weakened.
2. Taking the PMD issue off the table undercuts the valuable work of the IAEA and its Director-General Yukiyo Amano, who have prioritized the PMD investigation and raised this issue more insistently than has the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners.
3. Unlike whatever classified intelligence the United States may possess, the IAEA investigation would yield public answers about Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work that could be scrutinized by countries without intelligence sharing agreements with the United States — and by the public at-large.
4. Transparency on the PMD issue would be a sign of good faith from Iranian leaders and an early test of whether Iran is serious about maintaining a peaceful nuclear program.
Secretary Kerry’s remarks signal that the P5+1 are prepared to ease sanctions on Iran before the full resolution of the IAEA’s PMD file. With the PMD issue no longer tied to the implementation of a final agreement, Iran may continue stonewalling the investigation, thus undermining the authority of the IAEA and weakening verification efforts by Agency inspectors – all while reaping the rewards of sanctions relief.