In early 2012, the U.N. nuclear watchdog asked to inspect a site inside an Iranian military base suspected of once housing part of a secret nuclear weapons research program. Tehran refused. Soon after, commercial satellite imagery began recording apparent Iranian efforts to sanitize the area. Those efforts persisted through last month.
The International Atomic Energy Agency still wants to comb the site inside the sprawling Parchin complex near Tehran even though the land has been bulldozed and the buildings modified. At stake is more than the agency’s ability to collect samples. Backing down could set a precedent that would allow Iran to continue stonewalling on Parchin and bar the IAEA from other suspect military facilities.
“It’s unlikely that the IAEA is going to come up with a lot of incriminating evidence at Parchin. But at least it has to have access and have its questions addressed,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nuclear expert with the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a London-based policy institute.
As a Tuesday deadline looms, the outcome of 18 months of talks on a comprehensive accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions may hinge on Tehran’s readiness to address the IAEA’s concerns about its past nuclear work.
“This is one of the most important issues that have to be ironed out before a comprehensive deal can be struck,” Fitzpatrick said.
Hanging in the balance is President Barack Obama’s foremost foreign policy initiative. A failure would deal a major blow to Obama’s legacy, seriously weaken his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, who’s pledged to win an end to the economy-crippling sanctions, and reverse the steps that Obama and Rouhani have taken toward easing more than 30 years of U.S.-Iranian hostility.
A collapse of the negotiations also could intensify the tensions roiling the Middle East, with Obama coming under pressure to make good on his vow to use all means, including military force, to prevent Iran from developing a warhead, which Tehran repeatedly has denied seeking.
The issue of Iran’s past nuclear weapons research appears unresolved as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to join his British, French, Russian, German, Chinese and European Union counterparts in Vienna this weekend for a final push to seal a deal. U.S. officials said the negotiations could go beyond Tuesday, the deadline that was set for a final deal when a “framework” agreement was announced in April.
“This in the end is about Iran making some very critical choices about decisions they will have to make,” said a senior administration official who requested anonymity in order to discuss the talks. “We do require that Iran give the IAEA the access they need to resolve the possible military dimensions of their program.”
A central requirement of a final accord – designed to give monitors a one-year warning if Iran tries to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb – is the creation of a system to monitor every facet of a nuclear program that Tehran kept hidden from the IAEA until an opposition group revealed it in 2002.
To design a foolproof system, the IAEA must have a full picture of the research that the agency believes Iran conducted until at least late 2003 on a nuclear warhead and a missile to loft it. That means examining the sites, including Parchin and other military facilities, where work is suspected to have taken place and quizzing the top scientists involved.
“You have to understand what was . . . the project they were running,” said Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who served as a senior IAEA official until 2010. “It cannot be done in just a few months. You need to feel comfortable with their statements, you’ve identified the major elements, they are consistent with your information and therefore you can establish a baseline.”
Richard Nephew, a former White House and State Department official who served on the U.S. negotiating team until the end of last year, said that it’s more critical for the IAEA to inspect suspect sites than to question scientists, because they’d be expected to deny researching a bomb.
“You don’t do a nuclear deal unless you have access to places,” Nephew said, noting that the broad parameters of a deal that Iran accepted in April require Tehran to implement an accord with the IAEA – called an additional protocol – that gives the agency access to any sites, including military facilities, that it wants to inspect on 24 hours’ notice.
“Parchin is totally insignificant at this stage, but it’s all about precedent,” Nephew said.
Publicly – perhaps in a bid to gain bargaining leverage for his negotiators – Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly ruled out IAEA access to military sites and interviews with top scientists. On Tuesday he went further, saying that Tehran shouldn’t have to satisfy the agency’s concerns as a condition for the lifting of U.N. sanctions.
“The removal of sanctions should not be tied to the fulfillment of Iran’s obligations,” Khamenei told top Iranian officials, according to a statement on his website.
In the United States, meanwhile, critics of the deal being hashed out with Iran by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – known as the P5+1 – charge that the administration has retreated from a pledge to require Iran to come clean to the IAEA before the final deal is struck.
“The administration should walk away and make good on their promise that no deal is better than a bad deal if there is anything less than full disclosure up front from Iran and the ability to conduct inspections anytime, anywhere,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a June 19 statement.
Kerry fueled perceptions of a flip-flop by asserting on June 16 that the United States is “not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt.” Except that the United States doesn’t know all the details of the warhead research.
Administration officials scrambled to reassure U.S. negotiating partners, lawmakers and the public that the U.S. position remained that Iran must satisfy the IAEA’s questions about the research as a condition for lifting the U.N. sanctions.
But the damage was done, with some experts fearing that Kerry’s comments indicated that he was prepared to pare down a list of at least six sites and 10 Iranian scientists to which the administration believes the IAEA should have access.
“Kerry created a mess,” said David Albright, a former IAEA inspector whose Institute for Science and International Security has been publishing the commercial satellite images chronicling the apparent sanitation of the Parchin site. “When Kerry made that statement I thought it was a predicate for weakening. But I’m worried. I think the U.S. wants this more than Iran.”
Despite agreeing to a so-called work plan to resolve the issue, Iran has refused to address the most troubling questions about the research that the IAEA says Tehran conducted on a missile-borne nuclear warhead.
Iran rejects the authenticity of documents and other intelligence provided to the agency by the United States and other countries and outlined in a November 2011 IAEA report. According to that report, information obtained by the IAEA alleged that the site inside Parchin housed a large steel chamber designed to test conventional explosives for use in nuclear bomb triggers.
Though mentioned in only two brief, nebulous sentences, the U.S. “factsheet” outlining the broad parameters of an agreement reached in April makes clear that U.N. sanctions won’t be eased until Iran implements “a set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns” with the warhead research, and takes other actions to foreclose its ability to develop a weapon.
Some critics believe those measures should include a confession by Iran that it was pursuing a warhead. But that would mean Tehran admitting that it has for years lied that its program was strictly for civilian purposes and that it violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international system designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, such an admission would expose as bogus Khamenei’s 2003 religious edict prohibiting the development of nukes, something that Iran will never do and that the White House isn’t seeking.
“We have always said that the U.S. in particular is not looking for a confession because we’ve long made our own national judgment” that Iran was trying to develop a nuclear warhead until late 2003, said the senior administration official.
What’s most important, accord advocates asserted, is for the IAEA to gain enough information from inspections and interviews to be able to conclude that whatever research it was doing, Iran is no longer conducting those activities.
“I don’t think that the (possible military dimensions) aspect is as big a problem as long as the IAEA gets to go where it wants to go,” said Nephew. “To me, it’s all about access.”