FPI Bulletin: Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian Nuclear Program

August 3, 2015

Before Congress can render judgment on the nuclear deal with Iran, it must fully understand how the agreement will address Iran’s previous efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calls these activities the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program, and they include everything from covert tests of nuclear detonators to designing warheads. However, although Iran has agreed to a Roadmap to address the IAEA’s concerns, the document does not explicitly condition sanctions relief on the resolution of PMD, effectively giving Tehran little incentive to fulfill its obligations.

Elements of the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program

In November 2011, after three years during which “Iran [had] not engaged with the Agency in any substantive way” to resolve longstanding concerns about PMD, the IAEA released a public dossier specifying its concerns. The analysis was based on information provided by “a wide variety of independent sources,” including IAEA member states, IAEA investigators, and the Iranian government.

The IAEA concluded that Iran had carried out a wide range of activity “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” This included the procurement of materials by Iranian military organizations, the development of a covert pathway for the production of enriched uranium, the clandestine acquisition of weapons design information, and “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.”

The IAEA observed that whereas some of the Iranian activities also had civilian applications, “others are specific to nuclear weapons.” Furthermore, through the end of 2003, Iranian nuclear activities “took place under a structured program. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”

Both U.S. officials and independent experts have emphasized that a comprehensive accounting of Iran’s previous nuclear weapons work will be essential for an agreement. As former IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen testified the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, a failure to resolve the PMD issue would “render difficult for the IAEA to determine with confidence that any nuclear weapons activities are not ongoing – a necessary ingredient for a long term deal.”

In contrast, Iranian leaders have repeatedly denied that they seek a nuclear weapon. “They fabricated the nuclear weapon myth to say that the Islamic Republic is a threat,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in April. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in April called Iran’s nuclear program “exclusively peaceful.” At the same time, chief Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi in May called the PMD issue a “strong pretext” for the West.

PMD and the Interim Nuclear Deal

In November 2013, Iran and the P5+1 reached a Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), also known as the interim deal. Rather than addressing PMD directly, this agreement left the IAEA to deal with the issue in a parallel set of negotiations, which yielded a Framework for Cooperation, also in November 2013.

At the time, Obama administration officials hailed the agreement’s ability to address the PMD question. Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman noted in Senate testimony that “we have required that Iran come clean on its past actions as part of any comprehensive agreement.” For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House that “Iran will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern… [which] is the formula language for the IAEA and Iran in addressing possible military dimensions.”

This past March, in contrast, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano commented on the lack of progress made toward resolving his organization’s concerns. “The Framework for Cooperation worked for the first few months to help improve our understanding of Iran’s nuclear program,” Amano said, yet “progress has been very limited in clarifying issues with possible military dimensions.”

PMD and the Final Nuclear Deal

The text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) does not require Iran to resolve concerns about PMD prior to receiving relief from sanctions or any other benefits provided by the deal. As a group of experts at the Institute for Science and International Security have observed, “There are no explicit requirements that Iran must cooperate sufficiently so that the IAEA can report that its concerns are addressed.”

Paragraph 14 of the JCPOA specifies that Iran must “fully implement” its Roadmap agreement with the IAEA by October 15. The JCPOA further instructs the Director General of the IAEA to provide, no later than December 15, “the final assessment on the resolution of all past and present outstanding issues.” It is not clear whether this assessment must conclude that Iran has resolved all outstanding issues.

The JCPOA further instructs that, following the submission of the Director General’s December 15 report, the P5+1 “will submit a resolution to the Board of Governors [of the IAEA] for taking necessary action, with a view to closing the issue.” Again, it remains unclear whether the Board of Governors must find that all PMD concerns have been resolved in order to close the issue.

Section 15 of Annex V to the JCPOA lists all measures that Iran must implement prior to the lifting of sanctions. There is no reference in this section to the Roadmap or any other matter related to PMD. As a result, Iranian negotiator Ali Akbar Salehi has argued that sanctions relief will proceed regardless of the resolution of PMD.

Shifting U.S. Policy on PMD

It is not clear why the Obama administration shifted its policy so dramatically with regard to the full disclosure of PMD, but this change became pronounced in the final weeks before the conclusion of the JCPOA.

In the same February 2014 testimony in which Ambassador Sherman testified that “we have required that Iran come clean on its past actions as part of any comprehensive agreement,” she stated that “all the sanctions on over 600 individuals and entities targeted for supporting Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program will remain in effect until those concerns are addressed.” As recently as April 2015, Secretary Kerry insisted: “They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal; it will be done. … It will be part of a final agreement. It has to be.”

The administration’s position, however, shifted significantly at a June 16 press availability when Secretary Kerry said that “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.” Rather than focusing on the past, the Secretary continued, “What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped.”

This new approach allowed the final text of the JCPOA to sidestep the PMD issue, an approach the administration has fully embraced. In a confidential assessment for Congress, the administration states, “An Iranian admission of its past nuclear weapons program is unlikely and is not necessary for purposes of verifying commitments going forward.”

Putting PMD Back on the Table

Prominent experts have consistently stated that the resolution of PMD concerns is an indispensable prerequisite for verification of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. In response to the Obama administration’s decision to ignore this issue in the JCPOA, they recommend several options.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security recommends that sanctions relief should not move forward until there is a comprehensive accounting of Iran’s previous nuclear military efforts. Albright and his colleagues write: “The United States appears to be fully within its commitments and obligations under the JCPOA to refuse to end sanctions on Implementation Day if Iran does not address the IAEA PMD’s concerns. This position should be stated clearly, often, and publicly, and it should encourage similar policies by its European partners.”

Former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen has similarly testified that “Sample analysis, verifying information, and seeking additional clarification is a time-consuming process.” This is a process that will uncover new leads, which should be thoroughly investigated before Iran is rewarded for its compliance. This is why Heinonen has previously observed that “the IAEA investigation into PMD should be iterative. That means that new persons, sites, and documents may arise during the discussions.” Until those persons, sites, and documents are thoroughly addressed, Iran should not receive sanctions relief.

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