Atomic Amnesia: The Forgotten Military Aspects of Iran’s Nuclear Program

June 3, 2014 Topic: Nonproliferation Region: Iran

Atomic Amnesia: The Forgotten Military Aspects of Iran’s Nuclear Program

The military aspects of Tehran’s program are of critical importance to negotiations, and should be regarded as a deal-breaker if not included in any proposal for a final deal. 


With most analysis of the Iranian nuclear program focused on its uranium-enrichment capabilities and the possible plutonium route to a nuclear device, the purely military aspects of Iran’s activities have been relegated to the sidelines. Indeed, as the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran move toward the July 20 deadline, it is still not clear whether the international negotiators will insist upon including the suspected military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in the framework of a final comprehensive deal. When we consider the relationship between the decade-long IAEA investigation into the military aspects of Iran’s program, and the recent round of negotiations led by the P5+1, it should be clear that IAEA findings must feed into P5+1 negotiations. But, the current situation—in which the IAEA is waiting for some Iranian answers until the end of August, but the deadline for the talks is July 20—does not auger well for the inclusion of the military aspects in a comprehensive deal.

In fact, the military aspects of Iran’s program are of critical importance to negotiations with Iran, and should be regarded as a deal-breaker if not included in any proposal for a final deal. With regard to fissile-material production, it has not been too difficult for Iran to insist on civilian explanations (read: excuses) for its activities based on dual-use technology. But evidence of Iranian work on developing a nuclear explosive mechanism would be very strong indication of its military nuclear ambitions. The evidence that the IAEA is trying to clarify with Iran appears under the diplomatic title of “Possible Military Dimensions”, but the PMD are just one set of issues, and what should be on the table is the full range of suspected weaponization activities.


There are two ways of thinking about integrating the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program into the negotiations and a final deal. The first would be minded to the issue of verification, the idea being that in order to verify Iran’s activities into the future, inspectors must be very clear about how Iran was cheating in the past. So everything that Iran has done—all of its past and present activities that the West regards as military in nature—would be placed on the table, but without necessarily pronouncing judgment as to what exactly Iran was attempting to achieve.

On the basis of the revealed activities, inspectors would conceivably be better equipped to monitor and verify the nature of Iran’s activities down the line. So, for example, Iran’s work on the development of an explosive mechanism would be on the table, and then any activity relating to the development of a nuclear explosive mechanism would be banned and verified.

Even with the activity exposed, future work could still be concealed under the guise of purely military (not nuclear) R&D, and this would complicate verification. But a final agreement that does not include resolution of Iran’s development of the nuclear explosive mechanism would imply that no verification would take place in sites and of efforts aimed at these activities. In such a situation, the prevention of Iran’s breakout capability would depend solely on the ability to ensure that no military-grade fissile materials are produced and diverted for the production of a nuclear explosive device. This would critically depend on the quality of the verification mechanism, the efficacy of intelligence organizations to uncover any illicit activities, and political will to act. If in addition, the agreed verification mechanism did not include provisions for searching out undeclared facilities, activities and materials relating to the production of fissile materials, the worst possible situation would ensue.

The second path to follow regarding the military dimensions would not tiptoe around the issue. It would involve clarifying the nature of Iran’s military-related activities, and pronouncing that Iran had been found to be working on a military program for years while violating the terms of the NPT. Why is this declaration important? Not in order to humiliate Iran by insisting on an unnecessary confession of guilt. Rather, this issue needs to be brought into the open so that the negotiators have a common basis and starting point for conducting their negotiation. Absent that, negotiators face the bizarre situation where the P5+1 are insisting that Iran back away from something (namely, military ambitions) that Iran emphatically claims it does not have. How does one negotiate effectively with such unequal terms of reference?

Exposing the military dimensions would put an end to the erroneous Iranian narrative that enables it to continue to proclaim its innocence of any wrongdoing. For example, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Salehi recently said that Iran has a right to enrich uranium even to 90 percent, per the NPT—but it would be hard for him to make this claim if the military dimensions were clearly exposed. We also cannot discount that there is an important message for the broader international community, especially due to the still looming shadow of the Iraqi case: where a war was fought to eliminate WMD, but WMD were not found. The lingering doubts regarding the Iranian case need to be resolved once and for all—it needs to be clear that Iran did break the rules, and for that reason it is being compelled to change course. Otherwise, there is no legitimacy for the international intervention, which of course is Iran’s consistent claim. Russia, until today, resists further sanctions on Iran because it claims that there is no proof that Iran has worked on a military program—why allow this charade to continue?

If we know what Iran has been up to, this would also put an end to the statements at the start of each new stage of negotiations that “this will be the test of Iran’s true intentions”. If the military aspects were clarified in the talks, Iran’s intentions would be clear.

While integrating the military aspects into negotiations along the first path (namely, enabling Iran to declare problematic activities without admitting working on a military program) could act as a possible face-saving mechanism for Iran, it would come at a huge and unacceptable cost. Not insisting on pronouncing these activities to be a clear breach of the NPT would have the negative effect of enabling Iran to hang on to the problematic narrative that it has done no wrong in the nuclear realm. The Iranian case is also an important watershed moment for setting clear benchmarks for dealing with proliferation attempts down the road—helping to clarify nuclear and military activities that must be prohibited according to the NPT.

In conclusion, for all of the reasons above—verification, overall dealing with Iran, and confronting proliferation down the road—a final agreement that does not squarely address the resolution of Iran’s weaponization activities would be a prescription for a bad deal, in which case it would better not to conclude an agreement at all.

Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University and the author of “Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.”

Ephraim Asculai is a Senior Research Fellow at INSS and a former senior scientist at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

Amb. Shimon Stein is a Senior Research Fellow at INSS and a former deputy director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and ambassador to Germany.

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