No Iran Deal? No Problem

If plans for a comprehensive agreement fall through—a likely outcome—the present arrangement isn't bad.

Late last year, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—plus Germany) reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and even roll back some of its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. The arrangements went into effect on January 20 and will expire after six months. According to the "Joint Plan of Action" of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, 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.

This comprehensive final deal will be very challenging to negotiate because of the very different expectations of the end state held by Tehran versus the P5+1 powers. Essentially, the interim deal is a halfway house to very different destinations, depending on which side of the table the negotiators are sitting at. Iran and the P5+1 powers remain on fundamentally different trajectories.

The P5+1 nations—or at least the Western faction of the P5+1—are expecting the arrangements of the interim deal to be ratcheted up such that Iran's nuclear program is even further constrained. Meanwhile, the Iranian side sees the interim deal as part of a confidence-building measure that would generate goodwill and eventually lead to their country being treated like any other non-nuclear weapons state of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Ultimately, Iran would like to be treated like Argentina or Brazil—NPT non-nuclear weapons states that also enrich uranium, but with far more lax nuclear inspections. In fact, the Joint Plan of Action explicitly says that following the implementation of the comprehensive deal, “the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”

So in the spirit of “hoping for the best while preparing for the worst”, one should be ready for a breakdown in future talks due to the divergent visions of the end state.

But while the final comprehensive deal may prove elusive, this ought not be a cause for alarm or for a rush to military action. The negotiations, after all, are about agreeing on equitable mechanisms to make sure Iran's nuclear program continues to remain peaceful. They are not about stopping Iran from weaponizing, because—while nuclear technology can be dual-use—there is no evidence whatsoever that Iran is on a mad rush to make nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, several well-meaning commentators, in their enthusiasm for further negotiations—and understandable opposition to piling on more sanctions just yet—have cast the alternatives far too starkly. Writing in the New York Times, Senators Carl Levin and Angus King, Jr. state that “There are only two ways to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon: negotiations or military action.” The president of the Carnegie Endowment, Dr. Jessica Mathews, in the New York Review of Books, echoes “There are...two remaining choices: an agreement or an attack.” Even the usually sober and carefully fact-checked New York Times editorial board miscasts the alternatives: “if negotiations fail...Iran is likely to embark on an even more aggressive search for a nuclear weapon. And that could leave war as the only option.” Such hyperbolic binary war/no-war statements are probably a bigger threat than Iran's nuclear program ever will be: should negotiations fail, such statements could be disastrously misused.

According to U.S. intelligence, Iran is not searching for a nuclear weapon—aggressively or otherwise. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said in 2011 that he had a “high level of confidence” that Tehran had not decided to restart its nuclear weapons program. And in his testimony on January 29 of this year, he again repeatedly distinguished between what Iran was capable of and what it had actually decided to do. The DNI's confidence is not based on an absence of evidence but on highly credible information that whatever weaponization research Iran may have been doing up to about 2003 was wrapped up a decade ago. The nuclear negotiations are not about stopping Iran from getting a bomb but about the methods used to verify that Iran's program continues to remain peaceful.

Dr. Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, recently stated: “So far Iran has not violated the NPT,” adding, “and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.” And Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, is on record stating he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. “All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran,” he concluded.

Even if a final deal is not struck, IAEA inspectors will remain on the ground and continue to provide extensive oversight of Iran's nuclear program. Out of all the countries it inspects, the IAEA spends the second-highest amount on Iran's nuclear inspections—Japan, with a vastly greater nuclear infrastructure, accounts for the biggest chunk. About 12 percent of the IAEA's $164 million inspections budget is spent on Iran. This is due to go up to about 19% during the period of the interim deal because of the even more intrusive—and thus expensive—inspections to be carried out during this time.

Deal or no deal, the IAEA will continue to conduct in Iran one of the most thorough and intrusive inspections it carries out anywhere.

If we—or our allies—bomb Iran just because we could not reach an agreement on the parameters of Iran's nuclear program, the IAEA inspectors would almost certainly be expelled, Iran would likely leave the NPT, and Tehran would probably kick off a full-blown nuclear weapons development project.

Before getting carried away with war talk, it is useful to review how we got here, and just how much of a threat Iran's nuclear program really poses. Most importantly, Iran has never been accused of manufacturing nuclear weapons. The IAEA did determine, in 2005, that Iran was in “non-compliance” with its safeguards agreement. But this finding has to do with technical nuclear material accountancy matters—“non-compliance” does not mean Iran was making nuclear weapons. Back then, Iran did not even have the material needed to make a nuclear bomb factory, even if it wanted to do so.

Because of this technical non-compliance finding, the IAEA referred Iran's nuclear 'file' to the UN Security Council. In an unorthodox and controversial application of international law, the Western faction of the Security Council then pressedand eventually succeededin applying Chapter 7 sanctions on Iran, when normally such a step is reserved for situations when there is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. Such a finding was, in fact, never officially made.

Objectively, the non-NPT states that covertly developed nuclear weapons—Israel, India, and Pakistan—are far larger “threats to the peace”, but due to flawed IAEA-UN bureaucratic practice their cases never percolate up to the Security Council. The net result is that NPT member nations with nuclear material accountancy errors are treated more harshly by the Security Council than non-NPT states that covertly make nuclear weapons. This practice is a disincentive for nations to remain in the NPT and, unless rectified, will discourage countries from signing on to future nonproliferation pacts.

By 2008—according to the IAEA itself—all substantial safeguards issues had been resolved in Iran's favor. As of 2008 Iran was again largely in compliance with its safeguards agreement yet Iran's nuclear file continues to remain hung-up in the UN Security Council. The main issue outstanding is the so-called “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) dossier supplied to the IAEA largely by third-party intelligence agencies.

Even if it is mostly authentic, the substance of this dossier may not be relevant to IAEA safeguards. But according to Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector and a 30-plus-year veteran of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, at least some of the evidence purporting to show weaponization research work continuing past 2004 may be less than compelling:

“[The] evidence, according to the IAEA, tells us Iran embarked on a four-year program, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign.... Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the agency’s director general, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity...”

Kelley wrote elsewhere that,“By openly providing a questionable technical basis for inspections the IAEA is leaving itself open to a serious loss of credibility as a technical organization.”

Similarly, while at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Dr. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress and I analyzed a graph that was leaked to the Associated Press by “a country critical of Iran's atomic program”, in an effort to implicate Iran's nuclear program. We found that the graphwhich is evidently part of the IAEA's case against Iranamounted to nothing more than a “slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax.

Former UK ambassador to the IAEA Peter Jenkins in reviewing a new book on Iran's nuclear program recently weighed in on the PMD issue: “Since early 2008 the case against Iran has rested mainly on material stored on a laptop. The material came into US hands in 2004, and was passed to the IAEA in 2005. For two and a half years IAEA officials regarded the material as dubious and made no use of it. It was only in 2008 that they started to press Iran to answer for it.” It is important to note that Iran has not “refused to cooperate” on these accusations but has cooperated to the extent that it has said that the accusations are false and the evidence fabricated. This may well be the case, at least for some part of the PMD issues.

Much is also made of Iran's reluctance to let IAEA inspectors into the Parchin military site. Less well known is that the IAEA already visited this site twice and found nothing of concern. As Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA put it: “Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site...In a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be.” Regarding Parchin, former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley has stated that, “[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.” Similarly flawed environmental analysis by the IAEA may have occurred in Syria also.

When, in 2008, all the substantial safeguards issues had been resolved, the UN Security Council could have annulled the UN sanctions and returned Iran's file to the IAEA. Unfortunately, the IAEA and Security Council practice has been far from objective and continues to be susceptible to politicization. Like Iran, South Korea and Egypt both violated their safeguards agreements in 2004 and 2005 but these US allies were never referred to the Security Council.

Interestingly, the very meaning of IAEA safeguards “non-compliance” is still debated by experts. Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director of safeguards at the IAEA, has weighed in on this serious problem:

“It is hard to believe that, more than 35 years after the adoption of the model Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the meaning of ‘non-compliance’ is still uncertain and subject to debate. Over the last few years, several questions have been repeatedly raised: What is non-compliance? How does one distinguish non-compliance from ‘minor reporting oversights’? What happens if the ‘mistake’ is a one-time incident? Who decides that a state is in non-compliance? [...] It is time for the IAEA Board of Governors to address these questions, [and] set the record straight[.]”

He continues, “On 26 November 2004, the board decided not to adopt a resolution on South Korea and, therefore, not to report the case to the Security Council, setting an unfortunate precedent motivated at least in part by political considerations [...] reporting South Korea would have been politically embarrassing since Seoul was a member of the Six Party talks underway to resolve the crisis created by North Korea's [...] withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003.”

Writing about the process currently used at the IAEA, Goldschmidt says, “there is a danger of setting bad precedents based on arbitrary criteria or judgments informed by political considerations.” Given that nearly half of the IAEA's budget is funded by Washington alone, it may not be surprising that the IAEA has been accused of politicization.

As Nicholas Wright and Karim Sadjadpour convincingly argue in the Atlantic, Iran is acting just like humans do in being prepared to pay a high cost—economic sanctions and international isolation—in rejecting what it sees as unfair play.

Fortunately, there is a simple way out of this byzantine and dangerous bureaucratic mess. The UN Security Council should now adopt a new resolution verifying that Iran is now technically in compliance with its safeguards agreement. Such a resolution would annul the previous UN resolutions calling for sanctions, and return Iran's file to the IAEA. Individual countries that wanted to maintain unilateral sanctions would, of course, still be free to do so.

Another reason that the current set of UN nuclear sanctions on Iran should be annulled is because their prescription of zero enrichment will not be met. The negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran center on limits to enrichment—not on outright suspension. The 2006-era UN Security Council demand that “Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities” is outdated. As written, the old UN sanctions resolutions are essentially irremovable because their demands will not be met. A new UN resolution superseding the older ones would better capture the current reality while returning Iran's file to the IAEA, the proper technical agency responsible for nuclear safeguards verification.

Peter Jenkins put it succinctly: “...talk of an 'Iranian nuclear threat' is [...] premature. Consequently, the draconian measures implemented by the US and its allies to avert that threat are unreasonable and unwarranted.”

To reach a comprehensive deal both sides should now own up to past mistakes and make amends. For instance, Iran should consider ratifying the Additional Protocol, which would provide more confidence that it would continue to abide by its safeguards agreement and minimize chances of future safeguards violations. Iran should also consider converting the Arak heavy-water reactor to a more—but still not perfectly—proliferation-resistant light-water reactor, or removing the spent fuel for disposition by a third country to prevent it from becoming a plutonium source. And Iran should be open to a frank discussion about whether it undertook weaponization research during the times of tension with Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s. Other countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, that had clandestine nuclear weapons programs—which continued to some extent even after their signing the NPT—are now in good standing with the world powers, so a resolution should not prove impossible.

In the spirit of reconciliation, the P5+1 states and the IAEA could admit to having used unorthodox procedures, partly motivated by political considerations, in handling Iran's case. They should now support passage of a new Security Council resolution that annuls the past UN nuclear sanctions, and better captures the current reality of what a realistic end-state of Iran's nuclear program would look like. Reforming the IAEA's management structure and funding streams should also be seriously considered to improve the professionalism of the Agency. Bringing in a new IAEA chief who is seen as more apolitical than the current one could also be very helpful. Given its historical misuse, the IAEA should also revisit whether it will continue to accept intelligence from third parties, especially non-NPT member states.

If the UN, in consultation with member states, expands the IAEA's mandate to include not just inspections but also investigations in signatory nations, then the IAEA budget and personnel should be correspondingly increased. Currently, there are only two staff members at the IAEA with backgrounds in nuclear weapons. This may be sufficient to fulfill the Agency's traditional inspections role, but is not enough to reliably carry out thorough nuclear-weapons investigations worldwide, as the Agency seems increasingly called upon to do.

In the longer term, possibly the best way to stop the propagation of dual-use nuclear technology would be to implement a revamped “NPT 2.0” that explicitly discourages the propagation of nuclear fuel-cycle and nuclear power technology and does not set up false expectations in signatory states.

Expecting too much from the Iran nuclear talks is likely going to result in their failure. Secretary of State John Kerry has asked Iran to prove its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. This is an almost impossible demand for any inherently dual-use technology. Kerry's request is also impossible to square with the Joint Plan of Action's statement that after the final deal, “the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.” Certainly, no one can currently verify whether Brazil or Argentina's nuclear program is purely peaceful. In all, there are 53 other states like Iran for which the IAEA's “evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities [... remain] ongoing.” A reasonable compromise may be for Iran to agree to ratifying the Additional Protocol which it has already signed.

Due to outsized and conflicting expectations, one should be prepared for a failure of the nuclear talks. A comprehensive deal that would give the West even more confidence that Iran is not weaponizing would be hard to reconcile with one that treats Iran's nuclear program like any other NPT state's. But even if the nuclear talks fall apart, all is not lost: the IAEA inspectors would still continue to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities with the second most expensive—and amongst the most intrusive—inspections ever carried out. What would prove disastrous is to reflexively make a failure in talks a call to military action.

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is director of the Emerging Technologies Program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting fact-based cultural awareness among individuals, institutions, and governments. The views expressed here are his own.