UN Report Shows Need for Honesty and Improved Inspections

There was not much news in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran, which was distributed on February 19:  Iran continues to respect the restrictions of an interim nuclear deal struck with the United States and its partners; Iran also continues to stonewall the Agency’s long-standing investigation of “possible military dimensions” to the country’s nuclear program.  Yet the Agency’s report did highlight two essential elements of any acceptable nuclear agreement: intrusive inspections and genuine cooperation from Iran.

Iran has not offered such cooperation to the IAEA, despite a November 2013 agreement in which Iran promised to provide “timely information […] aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature” of its nuclear program.  According to the latest report, the Agency has been waiting since last August for Iran to explain “credible” allegations that it experimented with high explosives and conducted studies on neutron initiators – work which is “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”  Iran’s only response has been to call the Agency’s concerns “mere allegations” that “do not merit consideration.”  These questions remain unanswered to this day.

The reason is that, for Iran, talks with the United States are the center of gravity.  An agreement struck with the United States would dictate the degree to which Iran is required to come clean about any past weapon-related work.  Iran perceives no need to address weaponization questions separately with the IAEA, and has not been required to do so by the terms of the interim accord.

A “good deal” should compel Iran to account for its nuclear history and explain its past weaponization efforts.  This accounting requires genuine cooperation – the opposite of the obstructionist attitude Iran has had vis-à-vis the IAEA.  Such cooperation would be a sign of good faith from the Iranians.  And as a practical matter, the international community must understand the progress Iran has made in weaponization.  This progress is critical to estimating how long it would take Iran to “breakout” of any agreement and build nuclear weapons.  The time for “breakout” is central to the P5+1’s negotiating position.

The IAEA’s report also highlighted the need for intrusive inspections.  Iran is still barring the IAEA from visiting the site at Parchin, which has been linked to high explosives testing.  Also off limits has been Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a military scientist considered an essential source of information about alleged weaponization work.  And Iran is only providing “managed access” to key sites such as plants for producing centrifuges and heavy water.

Such inspections must also provide a way to find any secret sites, ones Iran could use in a “sneakout” attempt to make bomb fuel as well as the components of a nuclear device.  Most analysts believe that an Iranian “sneakout” is a greater threat than an overt “breakout,” which would be detected more quickly.  In its report, the IAEA re-iterated that it “is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”  In order to provide such a credible assurance, IAEA inspectors must have prompt access to any sites they suspect of forbidden activity and to any Iranian engineers and scientists they wish to question.  This would be a far more intrusive inspections regime than exists now.

Meanwhile, four days of nuclear talks wrapped up in Geneva on February 23 with momentum moving in favor of an agreement on general principles.  The New York Times reported yesterday that the two sides are discussing a “phased agreement,” in which Iran’s “breakout” capacity would be constrained for the first ten years of the deal, with the restrictions relaxed in the deal’s second phase.