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The IAEA Outlines the Path for Iran to Come Clean, But is Tehran Ready?
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Volume 3, Issue 2, March 7, 2012

After years of denying any need to respond to international concerns about suspected nuclear weaponization work, Iran has finally engaged in a discussion with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to address an alleged weapons program. This is a positive development, but it will only be meaningful in the context of serious efforts by Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA's investigation.

The agency met with Iranian officials in Tehran on two occasions in January and February to discuss a way forward on the issue but Iran did not allow the IAEA to begin with an initial step of visiting a key site believed to have been involved in warhead-related high explosives testing.

In a February 20 IAEA document, the agency identifies the kinds of actions Iran needs to take to address suspected weapons-related activities and ensure that there is no ongoing warhead development work. The specific topics that the IAEA wants to address were laid out extensively in the agency's November 2011 report, including:

  • High-explosives experiments with nuclear weapons implications;
  • Neutron initiation and detonator development;
  • Work to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile, along with arming, firing and fusing mechanisms;
  • And Iranian procurement activities related to its alleged warhead work.

Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, distributed a version of the Feb. 20 document to members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that contains Tehran's suggested revisions to the IAEA's proposed work plan. The two sides are still negotiating the procedures for the agency's investigation.

While any country would have a legitimate need to protect information that is not relevant to the IAEA's investigation, Iran's counter-proposals to the Agency's proposed work plan would place undue limitations on the agency's work that will make it more difficult to determine whether Iran has carried out or still maintains a warhead development program.

Any access that Iran is willing to provide is a step in the right direction and should be encouraged, but the international community should make clear that token measures will only drag out the investigation rather than close the case. Three issues in particular stand out in the document that Soltanieh circulated.

The IAEA Should Avoid a "One and Done" Approach

Iran's responses to the agency show that it would like to prevent the IAEA from adequately following up on any information it obtains during the course of its investigation. Iran has suggested removing a clause stating, "Follow up actions that are required of Iran to facilitate the agency's conclusions regarding the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program will be identified as this process continues."

Iran also inserted language specifying that, after steps are taken on each issue the agency wishes to address, that issue "will be considered concluded."

Iran's proposed approach risks that, even if the agency does not receive sufficient information from Iran during its initial investigation, Tehran will try to assert that particular aspects of the case are closed and refuse to answer any follow-up questions. Iran's suggestions would preclude any efforts to go back to topics that the agency previously investigated should new information arise. Such limitations do not match up with what Soltanieh describes in his communication to the NAM states as a "proactive and cooperative approach."

Strictly Sequencing the Issues Investigated Only Delays the Process

The Feb. 20 document says that steps to address the IAEA's questions should be completed in time for the agency's June 2012 meeting, "if possible." Such a quick timeframe would be welcome, particularly as tensions over the issue increase.

But Iran's opposition to potentially addressing some of the IAEA's questions in parallel unnecessarily delays the process. If Iran's nuclear program is purely peaceful, there is little reason to drag out the investigation in such a way and rejecting any parallel investigations does nothing to address legitimate concerns about protecting access to information unrelated to Iran's nuclear program.

More importantly, because many of the activities that the IAEA is investigating appear to be interlinked, it would be natural for the agency to seek to address multiple issues at once if information it obtains is relevant to them.

Verifying the Completeness of Iran's Declarations

Section C of the Feb. 20 document details steps the IAEA requests Iran take to ensure that it has a firm grasp of all the nuclear-related activities being carried out in the country. These steps are hardly new. Most of them either stem from provisions of Iran's safeguards agreement that Tehran unilaterally suspended (a requirement to provide early design information of nuclear facilities under so-called Code 3.1), or the agency's Additional Protocol (allowing access to undeclared sites).

Unlike the rest of the document--which is focused on Iran's alleged warhead work--the actions requested in Section C are directly related to ensuring that Iran's known nuclear activities are not being diverted for possible weapons use. Achieving agreement on these steps would provide some of the most vital assurances that Iran's nuclear activities will not be misused. However, the appearance of bracketed text suggests that this section may be subject to extensive negotiation. Iran has refused to provide many of these measures for several years.

Is Iran Ready to Come Clean?

The November 2011 IAEA report makes a convincing case that Iran was indeed involved in a comprehensive nuclear weapons program prior to 2004, some elements of which have likely continued. Iran's full and complete cooperation with the agency would likely bear this out, demonstrating that Iran's claims that it has pursued a peaceful nuclear program all along have been false.

Tehran does not appear to be ready to either make such an admission, or to be confronted with more conclusive evidence of such activities. Iran's leaders should understand that their failure to address the agency's concerns only undermines Tehran's claim that it is simply pursuing a peaceful nuclear program.

The international community should also make clear that, while additional transparency on Iran's part is positive, half measures will not alleviate suspicions. The agency has a job to do, and it should continue to pursue of answers to questions raised over the course of its investigation.

At the same time, the leadership in Tehran is unlikely to decide that it can fully address the IAEA's concerns and verifiably end any ongoing warhead work absent a diplomatic process aimed at producing a comprehensive resolution to the nuclear impasse.

In the course of that process, Iran must be convinced of two things: 1) that continuing down a path toward nuclear weapons will only result in increasing isolation and diminished security; and 2) that genuine and meaningful cooperation will be met by an easing of pressure, rather than an escalation. Iran should not be at risk of being punished for coming clean.

The talks between the P5+1 and Iran to be scheduled for later this spring provide the best chance to provide Iran with an "off-ramp" from its current course. This process should begin with confidence building steps addressing the most pressing proliferation risks, which would pave the way for additional measures to bring Iran further and further back from a nuclear-weapons breakout capability.

Answering the IAEA's questions will be a critical step en route to a broader, comprehensive arrangement that should also include full transparency over Iranian nuclear activities. --Peter Crail