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A Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement and Possible Military Dimensions to Iran's Nuclear Program
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Volume 6, Issue 9, October 17, 2014         

Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) are working to negotiate a comprehensive agreement by Nov. 24 that ensures that Iran does not use its nuclear program to build nuclear weapons.

As they do, some U.S. policymakers are calling for resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) investigation into possible nuclear weapons-related activities that Iran is believed to undertaken before a nuclear deal with the P5+1 is reached.

Emphasis on a quick resolution to the IAEA's investigation and insistence that it is resolved before a comprehensive agreement is concluded, threatens to derail talks with the P5+1 and sabotage the progress made to date. A comprehensive agreement is still within reach if the two sides can agree on limits to Tehran's uranium-enrichment and plutonium-production capabilities, combined with more stringent international monitoring, in return for phased sanctions relief--but both sides must be flexible and keep extraneous issues from spoiling the talks.  

The concerns motivating U.S. lawmakers to call for resolution of the IAEA investigation in advance of a deal appear to have been spurred by the news that Iran missed an Aug. 25 deadline to submit information on two areas of activities that could be related to the development of nuclear weapons. These activities are part of a larger set of allegations that the IAEA listed in an annex to its November 2011 Board of Governors report about Iran's past activities related to nuclear weapons development, referred to as the possible military dimensions (PMDs). Iran is cooperating with the IAEA to resolve these concerns and has met with the agency twice since missing the deadline to determine a path forward.

Resolving the PMD issue is important but is not a prerequisite for a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Nor is it realistic or necessary to expect a full "confession" from Iran that it pursued nuclear weapons in the past.

While it is vital that Iran cooperate with the investigation in a timely manner, the IAEA will need time to pursue leads, conduct a thorough review of the evidence, and assess whether activities with possible military dimensions took place and if they have been halted. It would be unwise to rush the IAEA into a quick resolution of its investigation solely to meet negotiating deadlines or to hold up the conclusion of the talks in order to wait months, or even years, for the IAEA to wrap up its work.

Furthermore, it is more likely that the IAEA would be able to obtain the cooperation and the information it needs to resolve the outstanding PMD questions if there is a comprehensive nuclear agreement because the sanctions relief that is so important to Iran will be tied to the satisfactory conclusion of the IAEA probe. Moving forward on a comprehensive agreement that assures Iran that its future peaceful nuclear activities will not be penalized or further restricted if it discloses information about the PMDs could also serve as a motivator for Iran to cooperate with the IAEA's investigation in a more timely manner.

What Are the PMDs?
Although much of Iran's nuclear program consists of dual-use technology that can be dedicated to civil nuclear energy and nuclear weapons use, Tehran is widely believed to have pursued activities relevant to the development of a nuclear warhead in an organized program prior to 2003. According to evidence provided to the IAEA, some PMD activities may have resumed.

In November 2011, the IAEA released information in an annex to its quarterly report that detailed Iran's suspected warhead work based on intelligence it received from the United States and several other countries, as well as its own investigation. According to the report, Iran was engaged in an effort prior to the end of 2003 that spanned the full range of nuclear weapons development, from acquiring the raw nuclear material to working on a weapon that could eventually be delivered via a missile.

This judgment is consistent with the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, which assessed "with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons" and that the program was halted in the fall of 2003. It assessed "with moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program."

According to the November 2011 IAEA report, however, some information from IAEA member states suggests that some activities that would be "highly" relevant to a nuclear weapons program have resumed since 2004. Subsequent IAEA reports indicate that the agency received further information about periodic activities related to weapons development.

The series of projects that made up what the IAEA's November 2011 report called "the AMAD Plan," appears to have been overseen by senior Iranian figures who were engaged in working-level correspondence consistent with a coordinated program. Among the key components of this program were the following:

  • High-explosives testing. Iran's experiments involving exploding bridge wire detonators and the simultaneous firing of explosives around a hemispherical shape point to work on nuclear warhead design. Iran admits to carrying out such work, but claims it was for conventional military and civilian purposes and disputes some of the technical details.
  • Warhead design verification. Iran carried out experiments using high explosives to test the validity of its warhead design and engaged in preparatory work to carry out a full-scale underground nuclear test explosion.
  • Shahab-3 re-entry vehicle. Documentation reviewed by the IAEA has suggested that as late as 2003, Iran sought to adapt the payload section of a Shahab-3 missile for accommodating a nuclear warhead.
Iran has denied pursuing a warhead-development program and claims that the information on which the IAEA assessment is based is a fabrication.

The agency's investigation, however, is not limited to PMD issues. The IAEA is also seeking clarification from Iran on its nuclear declaration to the agency. This includes providing the IAEA with greater access to sites, individuals, and information about nuclear activities, such as centrifuge development.

The information and access provided to the IAEA as part of these actions gives the agency a more-complete picture of Iran's nuclear activities, and allows the IAEA to verify the completeness and accuracy of Iran's nuclear declaration.

Resolving the PMDs
Prior to the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran resisted cooperation with the IAEA on its investigation into the PMD issues and other areas of concern related to the clarity and completeness of Iran's nuclear declaration.

Rouhani, however, promised greater transparency on Iran's nuclear program, although his government continues to dispute the validity of the PMD evidence in possession of the IAEA and refutes the allegations that work was done to develop nuclear weapons.  On November 11, 2013, Iran and the IAEA concluded a framework agreement for moving forward to resolve the outstanding concerns.

Under the terms of the framework, Iran and the IAEA agreed to resolve all outstanding issues, including PMDs, in a step-by-step manner.

In the past year, under this framework, Iran has agreed to three sets of actions and in total has provided the IAEA with information and access on 16 areas of concern, including one PMD issue. In May, Iran provided the IAEA with information regarding its experiments with exploding bridge wire detonators and has since provided additional information based on further questions from the IAEA. Iran maintained that its work with these detonators was for civilian purposes. Bridge wire detonators are used for drilling in oil and gas fields.  

In May, as part of a set of five more actions under the framework, Iran agreed to provide the IAEA with information on two more PMD issues.

These two actions, which were to be completed by Aug. 25, include providing the IAEA with information on the initiation of high-explosives and studies on neutron transport, related modeling and calculations, and their alleged application to compressed materials. These activities are relevant to developing nuclear weapons.

Iran missed the deadline, but has since met with the IAEA to determine a path forward. Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, said on Sept. 18 that the actions have not been completed "due to their complexity" and because the IAEA allegations are based on invalid information. Najafi said that the IAEA was aware Iran might not complete the actions by that date.

Most recently, Iranian and IAEA officials met in Tehran Oct. 7-8.Najafi described the meeting as "constructive." Iran and the IAEA agreed to meet again, at a date yet to be determined, to continue talks on resolving these issues.

PMDs and the Final Nuclear Agreement
Tying a comprehensive nuclear agreement to a resolution of the IAEA's investigation into the PMDs is unnecessary and risks derailing a deal.

Expecting Iran to "confess" that it pursued a nuclear weapons program is unrealistic and unnecessary. After having spent years denying that it pursued nuclear weapons and having delivered a fatwa against nuclear weapons, Tehran's senior leaders cannot afford to admit that it hid a nuclear weapons program.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, 354 members of Congress said that transparency on the PMD actions are necessary in order to establish a meaningful monitoring and verification system in a comprehensive deal.

Resolution of the agency's investigation is not necessary to put in place a comprehensive monitoring and verification regime that will prevent Iran from pursuing a covert program to build nuclear weapon or deviating from a comprehensive nuclear deal.

Establishing a baseline of Iran's nuclear program based on the agency's investigation will also take some time. In a best-case scenario, IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano said last month that the IAEA will need 15 months to complete its investigation and assessment of Iran's nuclear declaration and PMDs. Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have six weeks to reach a comprehensive deal. Rushing the IAEA to complete its investigation will not provide the agency with the appropriate amount of time it needs to assess the entire program.

The IAEA's investigation into Iran's past nuclear activities related to weapons development is a separate process, and conditioning a nuclear deal on completion of the agency's investigation would delay and likely undermine the prospect for the conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear deal that limits Iran's nuclear potential and improves the international community's ability to detect and disrupt any potential future nuclear weapons-related effort.

Stringent and intrusive monitoring and verification mechanisms under the terms of the Additional Protocol would give the IAEA access to all of Iran's nuclear sites at short notice and access to additional sites if the agency suspects nuclear activities may be talking place. The IAEA and the international community will be able to quickly detect and deter any attempt to pursue nuclear weapons, whether through a covert program or by using declared facilities. Such measures are only possible with the negotiation of a comprehensive nuclear agreement by the P5+1 and Iran.

Additionally, sanctions relief that is important to Iran is likely to be tied to a satisfactory conclusion of the IAEA's investigation. The covert nature of Iran's nuclear program in the last decade spurred the IAEA to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. Subsequent sanctions that prohibit Iran from important materials and technologies important to nuclear development were put in place because Iran was not cooperating with the IAEA. It is unlikely that all of these sanctions will be removed without  satisfactory completion of the IAEA's investigation..

A comprehensive nuclear agreement can also take Iran's compliance with its IAEA obligations into account. Any future expansion of Iran's nuclear program, particularly its uranium enrichment, could be contingent  on the IAEA's satisfactory conclusion of its investigations. A deal between Iran and the P5+1 could also assure Iran that it will not be penalized for disclosures about past PMD activities.

Understanding Iran's past nuclear activities related to weapons development is important, but the international community must remain focused on a the future and ensuring that Iran's nuclear program is transparent and limited. Focusing too much on the past will only jeopardize the best opportunity in a decade to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. --KELSEY DAVENPORT

Posted: October 17, 2014