A Verdict on Iranian Military Nukes Won't Kill the Deal

An Iranian admission of past guilt is not necessary for a sound agreement.

With the International Atomic Energy Agency days away from issuing its “final assessment” regarding the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s past nuclear activities, this long-running issue will soon come to a head. The outcome will almost surely be messy and inconclusive, not pleasing to any of the parties concerned. It will provide ammunition to American and Iranian opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, which was concluded in July between Iran and the P5+1 group of states. But the resolution—or, more accurately, non-resolution—of the PMD issue, as unsatisfactory as it is likely to be, will not undermine the case for proceeding with the agreement.

The finale of the PMD controversy has been a long time coming. In November 2011, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano issued a detailed report, based on “overall credible” information from a “wide variety of independent sources” and the Agency’s own investigations, which concluded that, at least until 2003 and possibly beyond, “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

In the years following the report, the IAEA actively sought to gain a better understanding of those activities, but its efforts were stymied by Iranian stonewalling and obfuscation. Tehran repeatedly claimed that the evidence on which the IAEA was relying was fabricated and based on forgeries. It denied that Iran was ever interested in nuclear weapons or that it had engaged in nuclear weapons–related research and experimentation.

Meeting the PMD requirement for sanctions relief:

In July this year, as the P5+1 and Iran were reaching the final stage of negotiations on the nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the IAEA and Iran agreed on a “road map” containing the steps Iran would need to take to give the Agency a sufficient basis to prepare a final assessment of the PMD issue which, according to the JCPOA, would be issued by December 15. On October 15, the IAEA announced that the activities required by the road map had been completed by Iran.

What was not widely recognized at the time is that, under the JCPOA, the suspension of sanctions against Iran does not depend on Iran fully and honestly disclosing to the IAEA its past nuclear-related activities. Neither does it depend on the IAEA reaching a definitive conclusion in its December report that previous activities were not weapons-related or that no weapons-related activities were continuing. Instead, the PMD prerequisite for sanctions relief (as distinguished from other JCPOA-mandated prerequisites, such as removal of excess centrifuges and reduction in enriched uranium stocks) is simply that Iran fulfill the formal requirements of the road map—including supplying additional information, holding “technical-expert meetings” with IAEA officials and providing access to some locations.

Now that the IAEA has certified that Iran has met those requirements and that the Agency therefore has a sufficient basis to complete its December PMD report, the PMD-related condition for sanctions relief has already been met, whatever the December report may say or whatever reaction the IAEA Board of Governors may have to the report.

We will learn very shortly what the IAEA report says. But with Iran reportedly having cooperated only minimally under the road map and continuing to deny that it ever engaged in nuclear weapons–related activities, it seems very likely that the report will be inconclusive. The report may state that while the Agency has discovered no evidence of continuing weapons–related activities, it cannot conclude that past activities were not weapons–related. Far from giving Iran a clean bill of health, the report may indicate that the questions and concerns outlined by the IAEA in November 2011 have not been resolved.

An IAEA Board resolution to "close" the PMD issue:

Especially because the report will not clear their name and will leave past questions unanswered, the Iranians will press hard for an IAEA Board resolution that would put the PMD issue behind them once and for all. At their insistence, the JCPOA commits the P5+1 countries to submit a resolution on the PMD issue to the IAEA Board, “with a view to closing the issue.” But Iran and several of the P5+1 states may have very different views of what it means to “close” the issue.

Iran can be expected to aim for a Board resolution that supports its narrative that it never engaged in nuclear weapons–related work—specifically, one that terminates the Agency’s investigation of its past activities, cancels previous Board resolutions on the issue, reduces the prominence of the Iran issue on future Board agendas and perhaps even precludes the reopening of PMD issues in the future.

The United States and its European P5+1 partners will want the Board resolution to reflect that the concerns identified in the IAEA’s November 2011 report have not been allayed. They will oppose any attempt to whitewash Iran’s record, to preclude the reopening of past issues whenever warranted or to exclude unresolved issues from the Agency’s consideration of its so-called “broader conclusion” as to whether Iran’s program is devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes—a judgment the IAEA seeks to make in the case of all parties to the IAEA Additional Protocol.