With controversial report, a step toward Iran deal implementation

By Ariane Tabatabai | December 3, 2015

Under the Iranian nuclear deal reached last summer, one of the steps Tehran was required to take before it could receive sanctions relief was to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a report detailing the history of its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

That report is now complete. Under the terms of the nuclear agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), publication of the report on December 2 ticks off one of the boxes required in order to move forward. The United States may now begin to lift sanctions as early as January 2016, ahead of Iran’s parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections the following month. The timing benefits President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the deal while promising his country that sanctions removal and the reopening of the Iranian market to international business would lead to economic recovery. A delay in recovery would empower the hardliners opposing the nuclear deal, who argue that Iran has made too many concessions for little in return.

Implementation of the nuclear agreement was never intended to be contingent on what nuclear weapons activity Iran did or didn’t pursue in the past, so the report is unlikely to have any effect on whether the deal goes forward. It is nevertheless significant for several reasons.

First, it provides us with valuable information about what activities Iran engaged in and for how long.

Second, Iran wants to close this controversial file once and for all. Indeed, without a full, internationally agreed-upon accounting, Tehran fears that new accusations of past nuclear weapons activity could come back to haunt the country, disrupting sanctions relief. Given that Tehran is taking steps it believes are virtually irreversible (such as redesigning and converting its heavy water reactor at Arak to produce less plutonium), Iranian officials want to make sure sanctions relief isn’t derailed.

Third, the report may satisfy some of the experts who argued that the nuclear deal couldn’t be viable if Iran didn’t come clean on its suspected activities.

What it did and when. The so-called “possible military dimensions,” or PMD, of Iran’s nuclear program were one of the most controversial elements of negotiations and remain divisive in the arms control community. In fact, the issue is so contentious that even its name is subject to debate. The IAEA and virtually all arms control experts in the West refer to it as PMD, while Iran prefers the term “past and present issues” or PPI, the vocabulary adopted in the JCPOA.

The deal provided that Tehran would implement the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues,” which it had agreed upon with the IAEA. As part of this roadmap, Iran was to take a number of steps before October 15, 2015, and the IAEA had to subsequently provide its final assessment to resolve all the “past and present outstanding issues” by December 15, 2015. Both Iran and the IAEA have now done their part.

So what did the much-anticipated report reveal? Its findings are fairly consistent with past assessments from the US intelligence community, though there are discrepancies. According to US intelligence, Iran ceased its nuclear-weapon-related activities in 2003 and did not subsequently make a political decision to resume them. The IAEA report unsurprisingly indicates that Tehran did have a “coordinated” nuclear weapon development program until 2003. Iran further engaged in some activities after 2003 but these were not coordinated, according to the report. Overall, Iran’s post-2003 nuclear weapons activities were limited to “feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” The report also tells us that there are no “credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.” The implication is that Iran’s nuclear program has seen three main stages since the 1990s. In the first stage, which lasted until 2003, the country actively pursued a nuclear weapon. In the second stage, from 2003 to 2009, it undertook limited activities relating to nuclear weapons. It ceased in 2009, beginning a third stage that continues today.

Hence, Iran’s activities in breach of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations continued longer than many in US intelligence thought.

Divergent reactions. As with the negotiations and the JCPOA itself, different players are highlighting different aspects of the new report. For Tehran, the key was to “address” the issue of possible military dimensions so it could close the file once and for all. In other words, whether or not the information satisfies the world powers is irrelevant to Iran, which believes it was merely responsible for cooperating with the IAEA on the report. In Tehran’s view, it may now move ahead with implementation of the deal and receive sanctions relief sooner rather than later. After the report’s release, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said “now, it is the P5+1’s turn to close the issue at the [IAEA] Board of Governors,” passing responsibility to the six world powers with whom his country negotiated the deal.

Araghchi also highlighted elements of the report that support Tehran’s official line, which is that the country is not interested in nuclear weapons and is pursuing nuclear development only for peaceful purposes. He noted that the IAEA’s findings are consistent with Iran’s claims that it had not diverted nuclear material for weapons. Indeed, the IAEA report did not find “credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the PMD” or any “indications of an undeclared fuel cycle.”

On the other hand, those who expected or at least hoped for very conclusive and detailed findings are disappointed. Among that contingent of world powers and experts, some are already arguing that the report does not adequately allow for the file to be closed. They aren’t wrong to point out that elements are missing: The IAEA report sheds light on a number of Iran’s past activities, but is far from perfect. These critics are correct to note that the deficiencies are mainly due to Iran’s failure to cooperate fully with the IAEA. Whether or not these voices prevail and keep the file open remains to be seen. It’s fair to assume, though, that any push by the IAEA to investigate the matter further will be shut down by Tehran.

The IAEA report’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear weapons activities is not surprising, but it provides us with valuable information about an important chapter in nuclear proliferation. It helps fill gaps in our knowledge. And by revealing what took place in the past, it further highlights the importance of ensuring that the Iranian nuclear agreement is successfully implemented, to make sure Tehran’s weapon-related activities are not resumed.

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