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U.S. Reportedly Caves to Iranian Refusal to Come Clean about Past Nuclear Work

The United States and the other Western nations involved in the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran are prepared to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program despite Iran’s refusal to fully come clean about all of its past nuclear research, the Associated Press reported today.

After a November 2013 interim accord, the Obama administration said a comprehensive solution “would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program.”

But those questions won’t be answered by the June 30 deadline for a final deal, officials said, echoing an assessment by the UN nuclear agency’s top official earlier this week. Nevertheless, the officials said an accord remains possible. One senior Western official on Thursday described diplomats as “more likely to get a deal than not” over the next three weeks.

Much of Iran’s alleged work on warheads, delivery systems and detonators predates 2003, when much of Iran’s nuclear activity first came to light. But Western intelligence agencies say they don’t know the extent of Iran’s activities or if Iran persisted in covert efforts. An International Atomic Energy Agency investigation has been foiled for more than a decade by Iranian refusals to allow monitors to visit suspicious sites or interview individuals allegedly involved in secret weapons development.

The AP pointed out that “compliance with any accord can only be measured if Tehran provides a complete accounting of all its previous nuclear efforts.”

Earlier this week, both the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that Iran’s explanation of its past nuclear research was essential for any deal.

Last October, Omri Ceren, The Israel Project’s managing director for press and strategy, explained in The Tower that knowing the full scope of Iran’s past nuclear research was essential to ensuring any nuclear deal with Iran would be verifiable.

At stake are international concerns over the so-called possible military dimensions (PMDs) of the Iranian nuclear program, the central significance of which has sometimes been underplayed by voices within the foreign policy community. While the P5+1 is charged with negotiating over Iran’s uranium work, its plutonium work, and its ballistic missile work – all of which the Iranians are obligated by half a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions to roll back – the IAEA seeks to establish the scope of Iran’s overall atomic program, including in those three more specific areas.

The mandate stretches beyond full-blown weaponization work, and into military involvement in uranium mining, centrifuge construction, and so on. Full Iranian disclosure is considered a minimum to establishing a robust verification regime: The IAEA can’t verify that Iran has met its obligations to limit uranium work, for instance, unless it knows the full scope of the uranium work that’s being done. PMD-related transparency is seen as not just another issue – say, one that Iran could refuse to trade away by making concessions in other areas – but as a prerequisite to verifying Iranian compliance across all issues.

The Israel Project publishes The Tower.

David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a leading non-proliferation think tank, explained at a panel discussion last year why knowing about Iran’s past work is so essential to verification.

David Albright: And it’s a very big mistake, in our view, if you don’t deal with these past, these past questions about Iran’s work on nuclear weapons. And particularly when you note in the IAEA reports, they say it could be ongoing, at least parts of it. Not a structured nuclear weapon program as [inaudible] existed prior to ‘04, but parts of it go on, and in the verification scheme, it’s, the IAEA has learned through very hard experience — a dramatic failure in the Iraqi case in 1991 — that you cannot let, you have to know the history. If you’re gonna know the present, and know the risk, know if there’s undeclared facilities, activities, you have to know the history. And there’s a risk that this agreement is gonna push aside, in a sense we would say throw the IAEA under the bus. And that is a very bad idea because if Iran is able to weaken the IAEA, then how is the verification going to go in the future when it’s the IAEA that’s going to have to verify the long-term agreement? And so I would say no deal until Iran has shown concrete progress on addressing these past military nuclear issues. Doesn’t have to come clean in the sense that South Africa did or Iraq did in 1995 about its past program, but it’s gonna have to show concrete progress including allowing the IAEA to visit military sites and to try to start to address this concern, addressing all the concerns that the IAEA can be delayed until after the agreement, but I would say don’t get an agreement until Iran has demonstrated concrete progress.
Lee Smith: I’m sorry David. Excuse me for interrupting, I’m just very curious. Is that one of the sticking points right now, do you believe, in the negotiations?
David Albright: It was, I don’t know what the U.S. position is right now. It has been, they want, I’m not saying anything that would differ from the U.S. position on this. Whether, whether that’s one of the compromises,there’s certainly been a clamor in Washington, let me just call it that, of people saying the past doesn’t matter, all we have to do is have good verification from here on out, but I can tell you the IAEA learned that’s a big mistake and a recipe for failure. And it was a recipe for failure in South Africa. That’s what South Africa demanded when it gave up nuclear weapons, and the IAEA quickly reached a point it could not verify that South Africa had given up, had abandoned all its nuclear weapons. It had to know the past in order to reconstruct what had actually taken place and to declare in the end that South Africa gave them up.
Although Iran was required by the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (.pdf) to work with the IAEA “to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern, it has consistently stonewalled the IAEA, prompting the agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, to say repeatedly that he couldn’t confirm that “all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
It was first reported last November prior to the extension of the Joint Plan of Action, that the West was ready to concede on this point. The West over the course of negotiations has conceded several other points including the number of centrifuges that it would allow Iran to use to enrich uranium, that it would allow Iran to continue operating centrifuges – though not for enriching uranium – in the underground bunker at Fordow, and not in any way curbing Iran’s ballistic missile program.
According to the IAEA, there are twelve unanswered questions about Iran’s past nuclear work.
This latest concession comes in the wake of the administration publicly defending Iran despite its failure to reduce its enriched uranium stockpile; a report that the United States and other nations are looking the other way when Iran violates existing sanctions; and reports that the administration is seeking to expand the scope of sanctions relief for Iran.

[Photo: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres / Flickr ]