National Security & Defense

Avoiding Failure in the Iran Nuclear Talks

Secretary of state John Kerry (Getty)
We must insist on stopping weapons development, not just slowing it down.

The U.S. negotiating strategy in nuclear talks with Iran is failing. To date, these negotiations have focused almost solely on topics that Iran wants to talk about — how many thousands of uranium-enrichment centrifuges Tehran will continue to operate, and how soon sanctions will be lifted. This all but guarantees an outcome that will fail to block the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing.

American negotiators, seemingly willing to make concession after concession simply to keep the talks from breaking down, have abandoned the fundamental objective of obtaining a verifiable agreement that would deny Iran the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (in exchange for relief from what were crippling economic sanctions). Instead, the U.S. and its partners have settled for increasing the time it would take Iran to build its first nuclear weapon from a few months to perhaps a year. Secretary of State John Kerry haltingly explained the dramatic shift in the Obama administration’s aims in testimony last April: “I think it’s public knowledge today that we’re operating with a time period for a so-called breakout of about two months. Six months to twelve months is — I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for, but even that is significantly more.”

With this change, the United States recognized Iran as a nuclear-weapons threshold state — a status seldom discussed in the Western media but well understood by Iran’s neighbors, with dire consequences for future proliferation.

Incredibly, U.S. negotiators have actually facilitated Iran’s ability to cheat. They do this by focusing almost exclusively on blocking the use of declared Iranian facilities to break out of the nonproliferation treaty, while ignoring the more likely risk that Tehran will operate covert facilities to achieve its nuclear ambition. This approach is incomprehensible because Iran has been repeatedly caught red-handed pursuing multiple clandestine nuclear projects in violation of its international obligations.

Now the evidence of clandestine nuclear-weapons work is mounting. In August the State and Treasury Departments sanctioned an Iranian entity created in 2011 for ongoing “research in the field of nuclear weapons development.” This fall the State Department briefed a U.N. panel of experts charged with monitoring sanctions enforcement on Iran’s current illicit procurement efforts. In November an Iranian dissident group reported that the organization sanctioned in August has split in two and opened new offices in an effort to evade International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scrutiny and international sanctions. Meanwhile, the Iranian government and military continue to stonewall years-long IAEA efforts to investigate what the agency calls the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.

When asked how the Obama administration can continue negotiating with Iran even as it charges its counterparts with violating U.N. sanctions and conducting clandestine nuclear-weapons work, the spokesmen respond that Iran is continuing to adhere to the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) interim agreement. But that says more about the flaws of the JPA than it does about Tehran’s willingness to comply with nuclear agreements.

In addition to strict and verifiable limits on Iran’s overt nuclear activities, a successful deal must address Iran’s covert path to nuclear weapons. This can best be done by two means.

First, the P5+1 negotiators should insist — before any comprehensive agreement is reached — that Iran satisfy the IAEA’s inquiries into the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program. These comprise twelve sets of activities, most of which can be explained only as efforts to build nuclear weapons, and include military leadership of the program, clandestine nuclear-material acquisition, work on “nuclear components for an explosive device,” “detonator development,” “hydrodynamic experiments” that test nuclear-weapon designs, “integration into a missile delivery vehicle,” and work on a “fusing, arming, and firing system.” To ensure that these activities have stopped and will not resume, the IAEA needs to know who was involved in them, when and where they took place, and what materials and equipment were used. It will need unfettered access to people, records, and sites. If we do not understand Iran’s past and present (according to the State Department) nuclear-weapons work, it will be impossible to prevent such efforts in the future.

Second, any future deal must include strict monitoring of all equipment and materials that could be used to enrich uranium, separate plutonium, or fabricate nuclear weapons, whether imported or domestic. This is necessary to ensure that Iran does not pursue a parallel covert program to produce fissile material. Any future illicit procurement by Iran would then need to be treated as a material breach of the agreement, and met with severe consequences.

American negotiators need to remember what they are attempting to achieve and whom they dealing with — a regime defined by its past and current denial and deception practices. They should be trying to block verifiably Iran’s two tracks to build nuclear weapons, not simply put a speed bump on one of the paths. It is well past time for a new negotiating strategy on Iran.

— William Tobey is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and a former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Robert Joseph is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

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