FPI Bulletin: U.N. Watchdog Confirms Iran’s Nuclear Stonewalling

December 10, 2015

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has formally confirmed its longstanding suspicions: Iran repeatedly concealed, and continues to conceal, efforts to weaponize nuclear material. In a December 2 report assessing the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program, the U.N. watchdog declared that Tehran not only sought nuclear bomb technology as recently as 2009, but also still refuses to answer key questions about its research. The inquiry is not academic: A full accounting of Iran’s past behavior remains indispensable for the success of any future verification and inspections regime.

According to the report, which precedes a December 15 vote by the IAEA Board of Governors on a resolution to close the PMD file, Iran enabled the IAEA to draw partial conclusions only on two of the 12 alleged elements of Iran’s PMD — and denied, refused to discuss, or cited conventional military justifications for the remaining 10. In five cases, the IAEA noted that PMD occurred despite Iran’s claims to the contrary.

The report’s conclusion that it lacks evidence of Iran’s suspected weaponization activities after 2009 thus relies only on the limited credible information Tehran presented. At the same time, the IAEA’s findings remain sufficient to invalidate a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Nevertheless, the United States and its international partners have already submitted a draft resolution that would close the PMD file to the IAEA Board of Governors, which will likely vote to approve it.

The Obama administration, which once argued that Iran must come clean on PMD to reach a final deal, now denies the necessity of such disclosures for two reasons. First, it contends, the United States already possesses complete knowledge of Tehran’s prior weaponization activities, making new admissions superfluous. Second, the success of the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), depends on Iran’s future behavior rather than a confession of past misdeeds. The JCPOA itself, claims the White House, already provides sufficient safeguards to prevent the resumption of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

“An Iranian admission of its past nuclear weapons program,” the Obama administration told Congress in a formal statement on July 19, “is unlikely and is not necessary for purposes of verifying commitments going forward.” “The JCPOA is, by definition, a forward-looking document. We do know what they were doing” in the past, a U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal on December 2, echoing a June 16 statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that the United States possesses “absolute knowledge” of PMD. Moreover, asserted State Department spokesman Mark Toner on December 2, the JCPOA itself, once implemented, provides “assurance that these kinds of past activities cannot occur again. We’ll have that kind of transparency, that level of access.”

The White House failed to explain, though, how it came to acquire closely guarded nuclear secrets that even the IAEA, by its own admission, has failed to extract from Iran. It neglected to demonstrate how the JCPOA’s putative “transparency” requirements dovetail with the regime’s refusal to permit IAEA inspectors to access its military sites, including Parchin, which the agreement allows Iran to self-inspect. And it cited no new information to justify the reversal of its earlier insistence that Iran’s disclosure of PMD constitutes a prerequisite for any agreement.

The White House’s approach stems from a misleading compartmentalization of the three steps required to develop a nuclear bomb: producing fissile material, such as uranium or plutonium, that can generate a nuclear chain reaction; creating a device to induce that reaction (i.e., weaponization); and building a delivery system, such as a ballistic missile, to carry the nuclear payload to its target. The administration maintains that it only needs to prevent Iran’s production of fissile material to halt Iran’s nuclear pursuit, since the other two steps could not proceed without it. For this reason, the White House also failed to insist upon the inclusion of binding obligations on Iran’s ballistic missile development in the JCPOA and the U.N. Security Council resolution that followed it, and has declined to penalize Tehran for its continued missile tests.

This argument fundamentally misunderstands the significance of PMD and underestimates the potential avenues at Iran’s disposal to cheat on its obligations. Iran’s weaponization efforts amount to a key indicator of Iran’s ambitions to obtain a nuclear weapon, and serve as a baseline for any effective verification and inspection regime. The absence of full disclosure, noted the Institute for Science and International Security in a June 2014 report, would create “clear precedents to deny inspectors access to key facilities and individuals. … Tehran could declare a suspect site a military base and thus off limits. And what better place to conduct clandestine, prohibited activities, such as uranium enrichment and weaponization?”

Iran’s previous efforts to conceal its nuclear facilities strengthen this concern. U.S. and allied intelligence agencies only exposed the existence of Fordow, the heavily fortified uranium enrichment plant buried underneath a mountain, in 2009, even though its construction had begun as early as 2006. The primary enrichment facility Natanz, which began construction in 2000, only came to light in 2002 thanks to the efforts of an Iranian opposition group.

In this context, Iran’s stonewalling not only suggests that it has something to hide, but facilitates its concealment of the very resources and facilities it would use to resume its nuclear weapons program. In effect, the Obama administration treats the absence of evidence — or, more precisely, Tehran’s deliberate efforts to conceal evidence — as evidence of absence.

A failure to disclose PMD would also eviscerate the credibility of the JCPOA itself, sending Tehran the message that the P5+1 will overlook any future Iranian violations of the deal to ensure the facsimile of cooperation. America’s position on PMD, like its reticence on Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile development, thus invites further Iranian intransigence, and suggests that the JCPOA has fundamentally failed to alter Tehran’s ultimate goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon. In fact, by the time restrictions on uranium enrichment at Iran’s known facilities begin to expire after the agreement’s 10th year, Iran may already have dramatically advanced its technical abilities and know-how elsewhere.

The P5+1 should make clear that it will not support any resolution closing the PMD file — or the lifting of sanctions — unless Iran fully comes clean on its past behavior and provides access to all relevant military sites and personnel. Otherwise, it should not be surprised if the possibility of a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program — now confirmed as a certainty by the IAEA report — ensures that Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon becomes a corresponding certainty as well.

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