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Does Iran’s Past Matter?

“Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” The applicability of that disclaimer to Iran and its nuclear ambitions is at the heart of a recent Wall Street Journal story about the Obama administration’s reported conclusion that a military facility in Iran was, contrary to Tehran’s claims, indeed “tied to the country’s past, covert nuclear weapons program.” Supporters of the nuclear deal the United States and other world powers struck with Iran in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would claim that Iran’s past attempts to gain a nuclear weapon are irrelevant now that it is constrained by the most extensive arms control agreement ever negotiated. The deal’s critics, on the other hand, would argue that if Iran has previously tried to hide its nuclear program and skirt international restrictions, it could try to do so again.

Both are right. Under the right conditions—as long as the JCPOA’s restrictions are in place, Iran abides by the deal, and other countries do not choose to follow Iran’s lead—it might not matter whether Iran had past aspirations to become a nuclear power. But if those conditions ever change, there is good reason to believe that Iran could return to its past, proliferating behavior.

Two Uranium Particles: The Parchin Mystery

The central issue raised the by Journal’s article involves the results of international inspections carried out at the Iranian Parchin Military Complex late in 2015. To understand the results and why they matter, it helps to review some of the background about Parchin and international attempts to determine what exactly Iran did there.

Parchin had long been suspected as having been the site of Iran’s research into nuclear weapons technology, particularly the testing of the high explosive charges used to initiate a nuclear chain reaction in an implosion type nuclear device. As a result, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program and its compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), had been trying to gain access to Parchin ever since the first suggestion of this testing emerged in 2012.

For just as long, however, Iran denied international inspectors access to the site, insisting that the building identified by the IAEA as a possible explosives testing chamber was only used to store explosives. Simultaneously, Iran attempted to sanitize the site, visibly razing buildings, and hauling away potentially contaminated dirt.

In September 2015, the IAEA was finally able to inspect the Parchin facility, although IAEA inspectors were not physically present on site for the inspection.

The JCPOA, however, required Iran to work with the IAEA—without exactly specifying how— to clear up the question of what it had been doing at Parchin, as well as other outstanding questions the IAEA still had about its nuclear program. In September 2015, the IAEA was finally able to inspect the Parchin facility, although IAEA inspectors were not physically present on site for the inspection. Instead, Iran collected samples, at the IAEA’s behest and direction, from the site and turned them over to the IAEA for analysis.

Predictably, the IAEA’s December 2015 report on that analysis found nothing much at Parchin. It did, however, include this footnote:

“The results identified two particles that appear to be chemically man-modified particles of natural uranium. This small number of particles with such elemental composition and morphology is not sufficient to indicate a connection with the use of nuclear material.”

Overall, the report found that no smoking gun evidence of Iran trying to build a nuclear weapon, but also no reason to believe Iran’s various excuses for its suspicious activity—like that at Parchin. As BPC wrote at the time, “The state of our knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program has been advanced little if at all by this report. What is remarkable about the report is how little substantive cooperation from Iran the IAEA received in preparing it.” Equally remarkable, was how little attention the report garnered. The JCPOA was already being enacted, attempts to stop it by bipartisan congressional critics had already been defeated, and whether or not Iran had pursued nuclear weapons in the past seemed irrelevant.

Now, as noted in the Journal’s story, the Obama administration appears to have arrived at a more definitive position on what Iran had been up to at Parchin—due in part to those two uranium particles—but remains convinced that this past activity has no bearing on today. “The existence of two particles of uranium there would be consistent with our understanding of the involvement of Parchin in a past weapons program,” the Journal quotes one anonymous senior official. But, they continued, “We already know what they did there… What’s important now is that they can’t do it again.”

Does Past Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons Matter?

The argument made by the anonymous administration official is a cogent one: what activities Iran undertook in the past are not important, so long as we are confident that they cannot undertake them now. Implicit in this statement is a further argument: if Iran has previously pursued nuclear weapons and the point of JCPOA is to prevent a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, it makes no sense to reject the deal because of the revelations of what happened at Parchin. Instead, Iran’s previous nuclear weapons-related activities make the deal all that much more necessary. This argument, however, is true only so long as certain conditions hold and critics of the JCPOA are right to point out that these conditions might not now or might not always be in place.

The first assumption is the continued existence of JCPOA restrictions. As the official quoted in the Journal’s story says, whatever Iran did before, “they can’t do it again.” That assumption is apparently based on the strict limitations put on Iran’s nuclear program by the JCPOA. The deal limits how many and what type of centrifuges Iran can operate, what levels it can enrich uranium to, how much enriched uranium Iran can stockpile, and many other nuclear activities, as well as imposing much more pervasive IAEA inspections than Iran, or any other country, has thus far experienced.

However, those restrictions are time-limited. As BPC has detailed in its timeline of the JCPOA, many of the most important limitations on Iran’s nuclear program begin to lapse in the deal’s eighth year. Within 15 years, almost all meaningful restrictions have fallen away. Effectively, based on BPC calculations, this mean that Iran will be able to acquire a nuclear weapons-capability shortly thereafter, 16 years after JCPOA’s enactment. Thus, that Iran has sought nuclear weapons might not matter today, but it should surely matter 15 years from now when the JCPOA will no longer guarantee that “they can’t do it again.”

Many of the most important limitations on Iran’s nuclear program begin to lapse in the deal’s eighth year. Within 15 years, almost all meaningful restrictions have fallen away.

The second assumption is the effectiveness of current restrictions. Is it in fact the case that Iran “can’t do it again” today? Are the JCPOA’s limitations on Iranian nuclear activity and verification mechanisms sufficient to prevent a determined Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability? Certainly, they are much more stringent then what was in place when Iran is believed to have been undertaking its high explosives testing at Parchin, around 2000. But even at that time, Iran was not operating with a carte blanche. As a signatory of the NPT and subject to IAEA monitoring, it had to operate its nuclear weapons program covertly. And in the decade and a half since then, it only increased its nuclear activities despite growing scrutiny, international sanctions including restrictions on sensitive technology and materials transfers to Iran, and edicts from the United Nations demanding Iran suspend its nuclear program. Moreover, Tehran violated two previous nuclear agreements, one with European countries in 2003, and then the JCPOA’s temporary precursor in 2014.

Finding loopholes, subverting the system, and cheating, in other words, are the modus operandi of Iran’s nuclear program. This, of course, is no guarantee that Iran will be able to advance its nuclear program under the limitations imposed by JCPOA, but it is a strong indication that it might well try. Simply asserting “they can’t do it again,” given this track record is not enough. As Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear, when it comes to JCPOA compliance, strict monitoring and verification are critical.

The third assumption is that JCPOA is only about Iran. The only possible significance of Iran’s past nuclear weapons research at Parchin, based on the administration sources quotes in the Journal’s story, would come from Iran’s ability to continue that work. But, if can no longer pursue nuclear weapons, those past activities are no longer important. Iran’s nuclear program and therefore the JCPOA are only about Iran, on this view.

Just because Iran “can’t do it again,” does not preclude them from giving the technology or know-how to someone who can.

But there are good reasons to think that what happens in Iran does not simply stay in Iran. First, Iran’s own nuclear program was enabled by A.Q. Khan and his international criminal proliferation network. Khan was also responsible for proliferating nuclear technology to Libya and North Korea, the latter of which shared it with Syria. Thus, any determination that Iran was making progress on some element of nuclear weapons design should heighten worries that it could have in the past or might in the future share or sell that technology with other rogue regimes or the terrorist groups that it funds around the world. Just because Iran “can’t do it again,” does not preclude them from giving the technology or know-how to someone who can.

Second, even if Iran is not or cannot directly proliferate nuclear weapons technology, JCPOA and the manner in which it was negotiated set a precedent that other aspiring nuclear powers will pay close attention to. The single most important element of international nonproliferation efforts is the NPT, which creates the legal obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons technology and empowers the IAEA to carry out inspections to make sure countries are not pursuing it. But for years, Iran defied the IAEA, refusing to answer its questions and denying it access to suspected nuclear facilities like the one at Parchin. Such intransigence was a violation of the NPT and caused the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to pass multiple resolutions legally obliging Iran to suspend its nuclear program and open it up to IAEA inspections. And for years, Iran completely ignored those UNSC resolutions. In the end, JCPOA was enacted without Iran ever having to comply with them or face any punishment for its legal transgressions. Instead, the UNSC repealed its resolutions and Iran received billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

The lessons other would-be proliferators have learned from this saga is that it is better to be Iran than Libya. Libya’s Moammar Ghaddafi complied with international demands, gave up his nuclear weapons program, and saw international forces intervene in a civil war that ultimately led to his death. Iran, on the other hand, violated international law, flouted UNSC resolutions, grew its nuclear program despite international sanctions, and was rewarded with a deal that gives it financial benefits, international legitimacy, and, in 15 years, a full-fledged nuclear program. So Iran might not be able to “do it again,” but that does not mean other countries will not want to.


In the near term, as long as we are able to ascertain Iranian compliance with the JCPOA and keep other proliferation attempts at bay, it should not matter what Iran did in the past. But if those conditions start to falter—if Iran cheats, if other countries try to follow Iran’s path, or once the JCPOA’s provisions lapse—Iran’s past performance could very well be indicative of future results.

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