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.