Two weeks ago, Iran arrived at an international agreement over its nuclear program. But it was not the interim deal with the United States that Secretary of State John Kerry suggested was within reach during the last round of talks in Geneva. Nor was it the agreement on the structured approach that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been seeking to resolve outstanding questions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Instead, this agreement, called a “Framework for Cooperation,” was a much more limited and less ambitious promise by Iran to tell the IAEA about some of the nuclear activities it was planning for the future. Rather than an omen of cooperation, the framework reveals the difficulty of getting a deal that credibly addresses Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Two years ago, in its November 18, 2011 report on Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA included a 12-page annex with “a detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency to date which has given rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.” That document described how Iran devised a bureaucratic structure and supply pipeline for its research on nuclear weapons as well as the specifics of that research, including modeling and testing of high explosives and detonators for a nuclear bomb. At the same time, the IAEA passed a resolution expressing “its deep and increasing concern about [these] unresolved issues,” and reiterating Iran’s legal obligation to “cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues…, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency.” Of particular interest to the IAEA was a facility at the Parchin military complex, where it believed Iran had conducted experiments with explosives for use in a nuclear weapon.
Several months later, in February 2012, the IAEA developed what it called a “structured approach” by which Iran could begin addressing the multitude of questions surrounding its nuclear program. Ten rounds of talks have been held between the IAEA and Iran attempting to reach an agreement by which Tehran would resolve outstanding international concerns that it has sought nuclear weapons technology. As the IAEA notes in its latest report on Iran, issued November 14, 2013, “no concrete results were achieved during those talks.” (See here for analysis of the report’s other findings.) Instead, during this time Iran has worked to destroy any evidence of its military nuclear research, bulldozing and scrubbing the Parchin facility that the IAEA sought access to, for example.
Iran laid out its reasons for not being more cooperative in a letter, sent in September 2013, to the IAEA:
The Agency has to recognize the fact that in the talks on structured approach one side is a sovereign Member States with all legitimate rights and its security concerns where the other side is the Secretariat of an international organization with a defined mandate to fully observe the security of Member States….
Thus, although the statute creating the IAEA posits that one of its main purposes is to ensure that nuclear technology is “not used in such a way as to further any military purpose,” Iran believes it should really be concerned with protecting the security and respecting the sovereignty of its members, even those attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
With Iran denying the IAEA the access and information it was seeking, the Agency decided after 18 months of talks that “the negotiations on a structured approach document had become deadlocked and there was no prospect for agreement on the document.” Instead, they devised “a new approach aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” This change in tactics met quickly with apparent success. After just one round of talks on this new approach, the IAEA and Iran signed a “Joint Statement on a Framework for Cooperation.”
But this victory for the IAEA came at a great cost. To achieve it, the IAEA had to sacrifice all of the concerns it had previously included under the “structured approach.” The new framework pertains to only six issues:
- Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Gchine mine in Bandar Abbas;
- Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Heavy Water Production Plant;
- Providing information on all new research reactors;
- Providing information with regard to the identification of 16 sites designated for the construction of nuclear power plant;
- Clarification of the announcement made by Iran regarding additional enrichment facilities;
- Further clarification of the announcement made by Iran with respect to laser enrichment technology.
Most of these points deal with actions that Iran is planning to take in the future. They do not require Iran to come clean about its past activities or to provide greater transparency and access to its current nuclear program. Not mentioned is the Parchin facility nor the testing of high explosives. Concerns about Iran’s attempts to fit a nuclear weapon in a missile warhead, recruitment of foreign experts to work on its nuclear program, and attempts to circumvent international sanctions to acquire nuclear materials remain unresolved.
Thus, though it might be tempting to see this new agreement with the IAEA as an example of Iranian compromise and willingness to strike a deal, what it actually demonstrates is the flexibility of the international community in accommodating Iran in order to claim diplomatic success. As BPC’s Iran Initiative, co-chaired by Senator Charles Robb and General Charles Wald (USAF, ret.), has argued, the United States can only reach an acceptable deal with Iran if it is confident that Iran meets its international legal obligations and curtails its drive toward nuclear weapons capability.
Coming clean about its past activities and granting inspectors full access to all its nuclear facilities is an important and necessary first step for Iran to build such confidence. Its agreement with the IAEA does not take that step. It demonstrates, instead, that when negotiators reconvene in Geneva later this week one of the greatest difficulty facing them will not be getting an agreement with Iran, but getting a meaningful one that addresses international concerns.
Another major challenge to U.S. diplomatic efforts will be the growing disagreement between the White House and Capitol Hill about how to negotiate with Iran. Read Sen. Robb and Gen. Wald’s op-ed on how to bridge this divide and BPC’s framework for improved legislative-cooperation for preventing a nuclear Iran.