Iran has repeatedly denied that it has sought a nuclear weapon. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said as recently as April that the United States and other international actors “fabricated the nuclear weapon myth to say that the Islamic Republic is a threat.” Yet, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes that Iran has carried out illicit efforts towards reaching a nuclear weapon. The international nuclear watchdog’s attempts to gain a full understanding of the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program have been stonewalled by Tehran for over a decade.
So what is PMD and why does it matter? And what are the final Iran deal’s requirements on PMD? What must Iran reveal? Could the deal be derailed if it is not forthcoming? The answers are far from clear.
What does “Possible Military Dimensions” mean?
A nuclear weapon has three key components: fissile material; an explosive device that triggers a nuclear chain reaction in the fissile material, commonly referred to as the “weapon;” and a delivery system. Developing fissile material—either highly-enriched uranium or plutonium—is the most technically difficult step of producing all three of these elements and also the easiest to detect. Thus, the primary focus of U.S.-led efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran has been on its uranium enrichment program. Similarly, the majority of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have to do with its ability to either enrich uranium or produce plutonium.
But this is not the sole concern of policymakers seeking to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Determining whether Iran was trying to design a nuclear weapon and, if so, how far it had progressed in that task, as well as where such activity might be carried out, have also been important aspects of U.S. policy on Iran.
In a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. intelligence community declared: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Yet, that same year, the IAEA, charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program and its observance of international nonproliferation laws, began attempting to get answers from Iran on a series of “outstanding issues,” among them allegations that Iran had engaged in studies related to developing a nuclear weapon.
This process led nowhere and in 2011, frustrated, the IAEA released a public report describing the credible information it had that Iran had devised a bureaucratic structure and supply pipeline for its research on nuclear weapons as well as the specifics of the research that Iran had engaged well past 2003. Because these activities appear to have little justification beyond researching how to build a nuclear weapon, they have been referred to as the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, PMD. In specific, the PMD activities carried out by Iran listed by the IAEA:
- Program management structure: the bureaucratic structure, including government officials and agencies, that oversaw Iran’s nuclear weapons development
- Procurement activities: the channels, including several ostensibly private companies, that Iran used to obtain goods and services for use in a nuclear weapons program
- Nuclear material acquisition: efforts by Iran to secure a source of uranium, and to convert products of enrichment into metal for use in a warhead
- Nuclear components for an explosive device: including evidence that Iran had undergone preparatory work for the fabrication of uranium metal components for a nuclear weapon
- Detonator development: namely, the development of “exploding bridgewire detonators,” suitable for use in a nuclear device
- Initiation of high explosives and associated experiments: including testing done in 2003, as well as experimental research on high explosives carried out past 2003
- Hydrodynamic experiments: testing the theoretical design of a nuclear weapon with surrogate materials for nuclear components, which would avoid contamination
- Modelling and calculations: computer modelling of nuclear weapons cores
- Neutron initiator: work to manufacture a device for the core of a nuclear weapon, suitable for initiating a fissile chain reaction
- Conducting a test: logistical arrangements made for testing a nuclear weapon
- Integration into a missile delivery vehicle: research to determine how to mount a nuclear payload into a delivery system
- Fuzing, arming and firing system: research done into developing firing systems for a nuclear weapon
In 2013, as the United States and other world powers were beginning negotiations with Iran that would eventually lead to the JCPOA, the IAEA began a separate process to once again resolve outstanding areas of concern with Iran, including PMD. Iran and the IAEA went through several rounds, with a total of 17 issues raised for clarification. While Iran addressed 14 issues unrelated to PMD to the IAEA’s satisfaction, it failed to address two PMD-related issues and failed to provide full clarification on another. This continued Iran’s pattern, dating back at least eight years, of stonewalling efforts to uncover the full extent of its past weaponization research.
Why does PMD matter?
At one point in the negotiations with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that PMD need not be part of a final deal, saying “We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.” Director General of the IAEA Yukiya Amano, however, did not share Kerry’s confidence, saying “We know a part of their activities, but we cannot tell we know all their activities.”
But the issue of getting Iran to reveal the full extent of its research on nuclear weapons is not simply about validating what is already known or filling in holes in the West’s knowledge of Iran’s activities. It touches on three critical issues that speak to both the viability of the JCPOA as well as to future nonproliferation efforts.
First, full knowledge of Iran’s clandestine activities is essential to crafting a robust monitoring program capable of detecting any attempts to defect from the deal. This is especially important because weaponization efforts, which can be carried out using proxies for nuclear materials or via computer modeling, are much more easily concealed than nuclear enrichment. The IAEA will be better able to ensure that Iran is complying with the JCPOA and not conducting illicit activities if it has a complete picture of both where such activities have gone on in the past and who conducted them. In short, if more is known about how Iran may have previously hidden such activity, international monitors can try to make sure it is not being repeated.
Second, full disclosure of its past PMD activities and assisting the IAEA in its efforts to ensure Iran is not withholding information would be a demonstration of goodwill. If Iran is forthcoming with the IAEA on PMD, it will build trust. If, however, Iran continues to stonewall the IAEA’s investigation, it will be a worrying indicator about Iran’s compliance with other parameters of the JCPOA.
Finally, full cooperation on PMD has been a legally binding requirement on Iran under multiple UNSC resolutions. Requiring Iran to fulfill this obligation will uphold the legal and institutional foundation of the nonproliferation regime and provide a positive precedent in attempts to stop any country that might seek nuclear weapons in the future. Allowing Iran to provide less than full answers on PMD, on the other hand, would show potential proliferators that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, U.N. Security Council, and IAEA need not be taken seriously.
Does the deal require Iran to come clean on PMD?
Not exactly. Much like the parallel processes started in 2013—with the P5+1 negotiating with Iran to limit its nuclear program while the IAEA sought to get answers to outstanding issues, including PMD—the JCPOA moves responsibility for PMD to a separate, IAEA-led track.
The JCPOA states:
Iran will fully implement the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues” agreed with the IAEA, containing arrangements to address past and present issues of concern relating to its nuclear programme as raised in the annex to the IAEA report of 8 November 2011 (GOV/2011/65).
Relevant provisions of the IAEA Roadmap include:
- Paragraph 2: Iran will provide, by 15 August 2015, its explanations in writing and related documents to the IAEA, on issues contained in the separate arrangement mentioned in paragraph 1.
- Paragraph 3: After receiving Iran’s written explanations and related documents, the IAEA will review this information by 15 September 2015, and will submit to Iran questions on any possible ambiguities regarding such information.
- Paragraph 4: After the IAEA has submitted to Iran questions on any possible ambiguities regarding such information, technical expert meetings, technical measures, as agreed in a separate arrangement, and discussions will be organized in Tehran to remove such ambiguities.
- Paragraph 5: Iran and the IAEA agreed on another separate arrangement regarding the issue of Parchin.
- Paragraph 6: All activities, as set out above, will be completed by 15 October 2015, aimed at resolving all past and present outstanding issues.
- Paragraph 8: By 15 December 2015, the Director General will provide, for action by the Board of Governors, the final assessment on the resolution of all past and present outstanding issues.
What happens if Iran is less than forthcoming on PMD?
It is unclear. JCPOA clearly requires Iran to engage with the IAEA in a process designed to resolve the PMD issue. But that process, as capture in the IAEA’s Roadmap, only describes a dialogue between Iran and the IAEA rather than a requirement for a full and accurate accounting of Iran’s past nuclear weapons research. Nor does it impose consequences for failing to provide such an accounting.
Paragraph 66, Annex 1 of the JCPOA states that by Adoption Day, which will be on or around October 18, “Iran will complete all activities as set out in paragraphs 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the ‘Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues.’” This means that Iran must provide its documents to the IAEA—which it has already done—and then engage with the IAEA to discuss remaining questions about the information it has provided. But there is no requirement on Iran beyond providing some answers to the IAEA; the quality of those answers or the IAEA’s satisfaction with them is not a condition of the deal.
While the IAEA will present a report in December on the resolution of outstanding issues, the Roadmap does not stipulate that all outstanding issues must be fully resolved by December, meaning that the IAEA could report that in December it does not yet have enough information. Neither “Adoption Day” nor “Implementation Day”—the day on which Iran will receive broad sanctions relief—are explicitly tied to the results of the IAEA-Iran dialogue on PMD.
Furthermore, it remains unclear what effect potential Iranian noncompliance on PMD will have on the deal as a whole: if Iran doesn’t provide the IAEA with enough information for the agency to be able to satisfactorily resolve the PMD issue by the December deadline, will Iran be considered to have violated the terms of the JCPOA? And, if not, what consequences will Iran face if it continues to impede the IAEA in its investigation?
What does the IAEA need?
To be able to certify that Iran has disclosed the full extent of its weaponization activities, the IAEA needs access to the locations where Iran’s covert activity is believed to have taken place as well as to high-level Iranian scientists and officials who are believed to have taken part in Iran’s weapons work.
Access to Parchin, the military site where Iran is suspected of having carried out nuclear-related ballistics tests in 2002, has been one of the biggest sticking points. IAEA inspectors visited Parchin several times prior to 2005, but Iran has blocked access since then. IAEA Director General Amano said, however, that access to Parchin is essential for the agency to be able to certify that Iran’s nuclear program is purely peaceful. Specifics on IAEA access to Parchin are contained in a side agreement between Iran and the IAEA—the contents have not been made public.
However, based on what is known about the agreement, Iran is continuing to impede IAEA access to Parchin. It has been reported that the IAEA inspectors will not be allowed to be physically present at Parchin. Instead, Iranian technicians will take samples in the buildings where the testing allegedly took place and provide them to the IAEA, and Iran will provide photo and video evidence from Parchin, but will be able to declare some areas off-limits due to military concerns.
Furthermore, satellite imagery from July showed renewed activity at Parchin, indicating that Iran may be attempting to further sanitize the site before taking environmental samples for the IAEA.
Iran has so far barred the IAEA from speaking to key figures in Iran’s nuclear program, most notably Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, an Iranian military officer the IAEA suspects of overseeing Iran’s weaponization work. While the IAEA has been trying to speak to Fakhrizadeh for over five years, Amano recently suggested that the agency would accept not speaking to him as part of their investigation into PMD. “If someone who has a different name to Fakhrizadeh can clarify our issues, that is fine with us,” he said.