5 Lessons from Getting Iran to the Table

What the Iran deal can tell us about nuclear diplomacy.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed last July between Iran, the P5+1 and the EU, has largely dispelled concerns that Iran is working secretly to acquire nuclear weapons. It took twelve years to arrive at the JCPOA, and there are various lessons that can be learned from this lengthy, difficult case.

The first lesson is the importance of gaining knowledge of intentions when a state’s nuclear program becomes a cause for concern. In August 2002 it was claimed that Iran was building a secret uranium-enrichment plant to acquire nuclear weapons. The handling of the Iranian case in the five years that followed suffered from a lack of knowledge of whether weapon acquisition really was Iran’s goal. By August 2003 it was clear from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that Iran had been secretly developing a capacity to enrich uranium, having acquired blueprints and centrifuges from the Abdul Qadeer Khan network; other sources were suggesting that there had been research into nuclear-weapons technology. But what was Iran’s ultimate purpose?

Uncertain of Iranian intentions, the UK, France and Germany (the E3)—leading the EU response to confirmation by the IAEA that a uranium-enrichment plant was nearing completion at Natanz—felt compelled to assume the worst: an intention to manufacture nuclear weapons. This led the E3 to pressure Iran to halt work on enrichment and to abandon its plans for a forty-megawatt heavy-water reactor (HWR) that could be a source of plutonium.

As a result, when Iranian negotiators offered in the spring of 2005 to resolve concern (by reaffirming Iran’s commitment to Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, allowing the IAEA unprecedented access to nuclear material and facilities, restricting enrichment for a period to be agreed and abandoning the HWR project) the E3 rejected the offer. At that point, the E3 judged that restrictions on enrichment and the abandonment of the HWR project were not enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran had to cease enrichment activities.

It was only in 2007 that the U.S. intelligence community published a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that detailed what it had learned with confidence: the Iranian government had not taken a decision to acquire nuclear weapons, and had put a stop, in 2003, to research into nuclear-weapons technology.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Knowledge of capabilities without knowledge of intentions can be misleading and can result in misjudgments. Had the E3 known in spring 2005 what the NIE report revealed in 2007, they would not have needed to insist on Iran abandoning enrichment altogether; they could have settled for restrictions on enrichment for a lengthy confidence-building period and on that basis it could have cut a satisfactory deal ten years before the JCPOA.

The second lesson from the Iran case relates to the policy of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The August 2002 claim that Iran had a secret nuclear-weapons program came from the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), a terrorist organisation that had been at odds with the Iranian government since the 1980s. At the centre of the claim was the enrichment facility under construction at Natanz. According to the MEK, Iran intended this facility to be “secret.” There are reasons, apart from the source, why that claim should have been taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.

In 2000 Iran declared to the IAEA its intention to build an industrial uranium-conversion facility at Esfahan. By August 2002 the conversion facility was nearing completion. Without an industrial enrichment facility to consume the feed material produced at the conversion facility, the latter would be a white elephant.

In August 2002 Iran’s NPT safeguards agreement did not require the declaration of new facilities more than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material. There was at least a year to run before Natanz would be ready for material. It was possible that Iran had every intention of declaring Natanz in due course and submitting it to IAEA inspections.

In 2002 the possibility that an NSG policy of “restraint” in relation to the supply of enrichment technology had influenced Iranian decisionmaking about Natanz—as Iran claimed at the time—could not be discounted. Tehran may indeed have feared that the West would try to force a halt to construction at Natanz if it declared the facility before it was obliged to do so.

This last point raises a question: is the NSG policy of restraint in relation to the supply of certain nuclear technologies altogether wise?

When the NPT entered into force in 1970 it was assumed that non-nuclear-weapons parties would have easy access to peaceful nuclear technologies as a quid pro quo for renouncing their sovereign right to acquire nuclear weapons. After the 1974 Indian test, however, the United States and other major suppliers set about circumscribing access to sensitive technologies like enrichment. To that end, they agreed in 1976—through a set of guidelines—to “exercise restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and weapons-usable materials.”