The Corner

National Security & Defense

After Khamenei Rejects Key U.S. Concession, Kerry Concedes It Anyway

In response to Latest On Title Vi

I wrote in a June 15 NRO article about how the Obama administration, in a bid to resolve a deadlock in the nuclear talks with Iran, reportedly proposed closing the book on past Iranian nuclear weapons-related work and limiting IAEA inspections to declared, non-military facilities. In exchange, Iran was to agree to token inspections of a handful of military and suspect nuclear sites. Instead of inspecting non-declared nuclear sites and military sites, Obama administration officials proposed using intelligence means to monitor them. Iranian supreme leader Khamenei reportedly rejected this proposed U.S. concession.

Yet in spite of Khamenei’s rejection, Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently decided to go ahead with at least part of this concession. NR’s Patrick Brennan wrote in the Corner yesterday that Kerry said to reporters during an April 16 video call: “We are not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did.”

Kerry also said in response to a question from a reporter: “We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.”

Brennan noted how the Wisconsin Project, a well-regarded arms-control think tank, believes a meaningful nuclear agreement with Iran is impossible unless it owns up to its past nuclear weapons-related research. IAEA inspectors need a baseline for nuclear inspections — they also need to know where to inspect. 

I agree, but I would add that it was extremely foolish for Kerry to assert that the United States knows what Iran did concerning covert nuclear-weapons activities. The truth is that U.S. intelligence has a poor record in detecting covert nuclear activities.  We only know about several previously secret nuclear sites in Iran because they were disclosed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an Iranian opposition group. In late 2010, the U.S. Intelligence Community was forced to reverse its position that North Korea probably was not pursuing uranium enrichment after North Korean officials showed a fully operational uranium enrichment facility to a visiting team of former U.S. officials and academics. 

The Silverman-Robb WMD Commission said it its 2004 report, “Across the board, the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world’s most dangerous actors.” Based on my experience working on this issue for CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff, I believe this is still the case for nuclear-weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.

One final observation. Although Kerry did not say in his April 16 video call that the United States will drop inspections of military and non-declared suspect nuclear sites and instead use intelligence means to monitor such sites, I believe his statements indicate the U.S. will also make a one-sided concession on this point.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got it right when he said on Sunday, “To our regret, the reports that are coming in from the world powers attest to an acceleration of concessions by them in the face of Iranian stubbornness.  From the outset, the agreement being put together looked bad. It looks worse and worse with each passing day.” 

— Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs for the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff.

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