Opinion

The Great Debate

Getting to ‘yes’ on the Iran nuclear deal

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.

Is Iran being victimized by sanctions it doesn’t deserve?

A security official stands in front of the Bushehr nuclear reactor

Iranian officials met this week with their six-power counterparts to try to hammer out the outlines of a comprehensive nuclear deal set to last for several years. But its precise duration remains undecided.

Reaching an agreement will be a monumentally challenging task because all the parties have veered away from international law and are trying to make ad hoc arrangements. They should instead aim for a permanent, straightforward and legal solution whose basis already exists. Successfully sealing a deal with Iran may also help Western efforts to stabilize the situation in Iraq, where Iranian and Western interests align.

Late last year, the United States, Britain, China, Russia, Germany and France reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and roll back some of its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. These interim arrangements are set to expire July 20. According to the agreed “Joint Plan of Action,” another six-month stopgap deal may be signed after the first one expires. But a comprehensive long-term agreement should be reached within a year, by late January 2015.

IAEA conduct complicates Iran nuclear deal

The world powers in November reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and even roll back a portion of its nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief. The arrangement went into effect on Jan. 20 and is set to expire in six months. Another interim deal may be signed then, according to the agreement’s “Joint Plan of Action,” but the proposal calls for a comprehensive long-term solution by late January, 2015.

Though Iran is often painted as the only party at fault here, the situation is far more complicated. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and even some of the “P5+1” powers — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany — that are now negotiating with Iran, are also guilty of misconduct and unprofessionalism.

As the agency in charge of monitoring the Iranian nuclear program, the IAEA’s conduct should be beyond reproach. Unfortunately, it is not. As former IAEA inspector and 30-plus year veteran of the U.S. weapons complex, Robert Kelley has stated, “[t]he IAEA work to date, including the mischaracterization of satellite images of Parchin, is more consistent with an IAEA agenda to target Iran than of technical analysis.”

Danger and delay on dirty bombs

When highly radioactive material that can be used in a “dirty bomb” is moved to or from a hospital in New York City, it is done in the dead of night on cordoned streets with high security.

In Mexico two weeks ago, a truck moving a large canister containing radioactive material was hijacked at a gas station — where it had been parked with no security. The cobalt-60 that was stolen from the vehicle and then extracted from its protective lead shield is so potent that it is considered a significant national security threat under U.S. guidelines.

There are now no international mandatory requirements for how to control these dangerous materials — including how they should be transported. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, has only issued recommendations, in the form of a voluntary Code of Conduct.This disconnect between how nations manage extremely dangerous nuclear materials sought by terrorists creates significant security vulnerabilities. If a dirty bomb is exploded anywhere in the world, it would cross the nuclear terrorism threshold and open the door to further attacks.

Broaden the peace process with Iran

 

High-level Geneva talks with Iran adjourned November 11 without reaching an agreement. Lower-level talks are to scheduled to reconvene Wednesday. The Western objective is a pause in Iran’s nuclear program — stopping the clock and allowing more time to reach a permanent agreement.

Is stopping the clock a good idea? It was done once before. In 2004-5, Iran stopped enrichment temporarily. President Hassan Rouhani was then secretary of the Iranian National Security Council and negotiated the pause. A permanent agreement proved impossible at that time. So Iran started enrichment again and has now expanded its capacity.

That could happen again. But a pause that provides time for negotiation of a more permanent agreement is necessary. If Tehran goes much farther in enlarging its enrichment capacity and beginning production of plutonium, it will be a very short step from obtaining all the material it needs for nuclear weapons.

IAEA and Iran: Resolving the nuclear impasse

President Hassan Rouhani generated a positive buzz yesterday with his United Nations General Assembly statements about Iran’s determination to resolve the nuclear impasse with the international community. Though he argued Tehran was not prepared to give up its enrichment program, the new president declared “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security,” adding that his government was now committed to “time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency” to resolve any doubts.

While this lays the basis for the resumption of negotiations with the United States and its allies, we need not await the results to test Rouhani’s sincerity. That can begin Friday, September 27, when Iranian and International Atomic Energy Agency officials sit down in Vienna in a long-scheduled meeting to break the protracted deadlock over unanswered questions about the breadth of Tehran’s nuclear enterprise.

Director General Yukiya Amano summed up the stakes in his September 9 statement to the IAEA’s board of governors: “The agency has not been able to begin substantive work with Iran on resolving outstanding issues, including those related to possible military dimensions on Iran’s nuclear programme.” The Vienna talks now provide the best opportunity to make progress.

  •