Getting to ‘yes’ on the Iran nuclear deal

July 16, 2014

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media during a news conference in Vienna

Iran’s past nuclear efforts are among the many thorny issues in the continuing Iran nuclear talks. But focusing on the past is a mistake. Instead of insisting on knowing all about what Iran’s nuclear program looked like 10 years ago, the United States and its allies should focus on preventing Tehran from building a nuclear weapon in the future.

Though discussions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are proceeding in parallel to the six-power nuclear negotiations with Iran, some argue that Tehran must “come clean” on past military experiments before it can be trusted to make new commitments. But reaching and implementing a nuclear agreement should not be held hostage to resolving all the complicated questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear programs.

We have good reason to believe Iran has been engaged in prohibited activities. In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community issued an assessment that, for a number of years, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” But intelligence indicated that these activities had ended in the fall of 2003.

Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif holds a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in ViennaThe International Atomic Energy Agency has been investigating these allegations, which are based on information from the United States and other sources. The agency reported in detail about the specific activities of concern in November 2011.

Until this year, Tehran had denied the truth of any accusations suggesting it had engaged in nuclear weapons activities. It would not cooperate fully with the agency’s efforts to investigate, which only added to suspicions. For its part, Iran (joined by some in the West) argued that the atomic agency has not provided enough information about the basis for its allegations and is, in any event, far from being a neutral arbiter.

In November 2013, Iran and the atomic energy agency finally reached a framework agreement for moving forward to resolve outstanding concerns. This includes 18 actions that Iran must complete in three installments before August 25.

So far, Iran has carried out the required actions, including providing information about its work on explosives. This is an important step. It is too early to judge, however, the adequacy of the information provided or the degree of success follow-up discussions will have in allaying suspicions of weapons-related activities.

It is clear that the atomic energy agency’s due diligence on the possible military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program will continue beyond the July 20 goal for the comprehensive deal between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany. So the question is: Can an Iran nuclear agreement be finalized before concerns about Iran’s past activities have been resolved?

IAEA Director General Amano addresses a news conference after a board of governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in ViennaThe IAEA, which had a much better track record than the United States in assessing Iraq’s involvement with weapons of mass destruction in 2002-2003, has presented a credible case that Iran may have conducted experiments with specific application to developing nuclear weapons. Some of these actions may have been authorized from the top — but some may also have been independent initiatives taken by shifting elements in Iran’s complicated power structure.

While it is appropriate to investigate these matters, it is also naïve to expect a religious government, which has consistently proclaimed the immorality of such activity, to provide full disclosure if its nuclear program’s past includes deviations from its publicly expressed religious obligations.

In the end, the International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to report its assessment of Iran’s past nuclear program without Tehran’s endorsement. Even when there is agreement that certain activities occurred, Iran may have alternative explanations.

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactorThis will not be an ideal outcome, but it also need not be a deal-breaker for the nuclear talks between Iran and the six powers.  Persuading Iran to reveal its past militarization activities could yield valuable information for creating a monitoring system in a comprehensive deal. It would enhance our understanding of Iran’s nuclear program today and build confidence in the atomic energy agency’s ability to monitor it in the future.

But the success of the comprehensive deal in preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons depends first on the degree to which Iran’s future nuclear program is transparent and, second, on the extent to which its “breakout” capability is limited.

Achieving an Iranian confession of past sins is not going to happen, nor is it essential to preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons. What is essential are strict limits on Iran’s nuclear capability and intrusive verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Both these elements would be included in a comprehensive agreement.


PHOTO (TOP):Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media during a news conference in Vienna, July 15, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) holds a bilateral meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry (R) on the second straight day of talks over Tehran’s nuclear program in Vienna, July 14, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

PHOTO (INSERT 2): International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano addresses a news conference after a board of governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

PHOTO (INSERT 3): A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi


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There is only one thing you need to know about Iran’s nuclear program. They are building a nuclear weapon and have no intention of curtailing that activity. Talk is cheap.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

EXACTLY! Diplomacy has no place here. No talking softly and big sticks anymore. Just “big stick”, as big and hard as possible. It’s all they understand.

Posted by OrphanAnnie | Report as abusive

National Council of Resistance of Iran, a broad coalition of democratic Iranian organizations, groups, and personalities, was founded in 1981 in Tehran, Iran on the initiative of Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the Iranian Resistance. For more information visit

Posted by JessicaParker | Report as abusive

[…] Greg Thielmann in this op-ed in Reuters […]

Posted by Past "Possible Military Dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program | Report as abusive