Iran’s long record of hiding its nuclear and military programs from outside inspectors is coming under fresh scrutiny as the U.S. and other world powers race to meet a June 30 deadline for a final deal to curb Tehran’s program and open its nuclear sites to closer international inspection.
While advocates say the deal represents the best chance to date for Western powers and Iran to overcome more than a decade of heated tension around program, critics argue that Tehran’s long record of cheating, evading and concealing its activities from U.N. inspectors renders any agreement worthless.
The question at the center of eleventh-hour negotiations opening in Geneva on Wednesday is whether Iran and the West can truly see eye to eye on a specific set of rules by which the main U.N. nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency — will be allowed to access nuclear and other sites inside Iran after a deal is signed. The question of access to inspectors is just one of series about the Iran nuclear deal that The Washington Times will explore in the coming days.
Tehran is expected to play hardball down to the wire, as evidenced by the Iranian parliament’s passage in recent days of legislation calling for IAEA inspectors to be banned from any non-nuclear sites, such as sensitive military installations, under the terms of any final deal.
Many see the move as a direct challenge to the nuclear talks because it butts up against more than a decade of Western suspicion that Iran is bent on the clandestine pursuit of a bomb.
The idea that IAEA officials won’t be allowed to visit military sites prompted a wave of uneasy remarks Monday from European diplomats in the so-called P5+1 — the negotiating group comprising the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.
The Obama administration has appeared undeterred. Administration officials have downplayed the Iranian parliament’s move and stuck to a rhetorical line laid down last week by Secretary of State John F. Kerry that Washington is looking ahead, not at the past.
Although Iran may have spent years hiding its efforts from the IAEA, Mr. Kerry told reporters, the Obama administration is prepared to look beyond such history. “We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” he said. “We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.”
The comments triggered outrage among some analysts, including Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who once advised the administration on Iran policy.
“If you look forward without looking back, then you miss decades of Iranian nuclear mendacity and a well-established record of Iranian cheating and challenging the IAEA,” Mr. Dubowitz said in an interview. “I think Secretary Kerry should be more cautious in assuming that the U.S. intelligence community has ‘absolute knowledge’ of Iran’s nuclear program.
“The Iranians stonewalled the IAEA for years. They’ve been denying inspectors access, and they’ve been building illicit nuclear facilities that we’ve been unable to detect,” he said. “We’ve gone through six separate U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006, and time and time again, in every report, the IAEA has said it was unable to certify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful — that there are no undeclared sites or activities and there is no illicit diversion of nuclear material.”
Indeed, a timeline on the official website of the IAEA outlines a history of back-and-forth between the U.N. nuclear inspectors and Iranian authorities dating back to 2002.
Although there is sporadic evidence of cooperation from Tehran over the years, the period was highlighted by repeated incidents of frustration by IAEA inspectors, who felt they were either outright blocked or intentionally misled during investigative visits to Iran.
Such frustration reached a critical moment in 2006, when the U.N. Security Council responding by passing a resolution demanding that “Iran suspend uranium enrichment by 31 August or face possible economic [and] diplomatic sanctions.”
The Security Council flatly asserted that, despite years of attempts by IAEA inspectors to gain access to sites inside Iran, the agency was “still unable to provide assurances about Iran’s undeclared nuclear material and activities.”
Defiance and sanctions
Even with the resolution in place, Tehran continued to defy the agency, prompting the Security Council to level its first slate of sanctions banning foreign companies from selling nuclear-related materials and technology to Iran and freezing the assets of several officials tied to the nuclear program.
Iranian stonewalling of IAEA inspectors continued into 2007, prompting an expansion of the sanctions and the establishment of a U.N. arms embargo against the Islamic republic.
By 2012, the sanctions had been renewed and widened several more times and the Obama administration was pushing for a worldwide embargo on Iranian crude oil.
The goal, administration officials would say, was to pressure Iran to the negotiating table in hopes that Tehran’s tumultuous relationship with the IAEA might be reset along more positive lines.
The effort generated the momentum behind the nuclear talks that have played out over the past 18 months. Supporters of a prospective deal say the window is now open like never before to chart a new narrative between Tehran and the West.
“The question is, do you want to resolve this issue or not?” said Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council and whose 2012 book, “A Single Roll of the Dice,” delved deeply into the Obama administration’s Iran policy.
“If the premise is that because of the history we can never trust anything, well then, OK, let’s prepare for war because that’s the logical line of thinking,” Mr. Parsi said in an interview. “The fact that there have been problems in the past is the very reason as to why we have to resolve those problems.”
The difference today is that there is a real chance of achievement, Mr. Parsi said. He asserted that on two occasions over the past 12 years — in 2003 and in 2010 — authorities in Tehran made clear attempts to reach out to the West with overtures to resolve the nuclear crisis but were spurned both times by Washington.
“The bottom line is this: Neither side has had completely clean hands when it comes to this enmity that exists between the Iran and the U.S.,” Mr. Parsi said.
Regardless of the developments in Iran’s parliament, he said, Tehran will have no choice but to cooperate with the IAEA under terms of the deal in consideration.
“The process that has been put into place,” he said, “does not require trust in Iran. It requires that the mechanism for verification of what the Iranians have committed themselves to doing is done and that if the Iranians cheat, they will be caught.”
Skepticism still looms large, especially in light of evidence that Iranian authorities have continued to clash with the IAEA even as the past year and a half of negotiations have progressed.
One example was a confidential IAEA report in February that accused Iranian officials of failing to address accusations that they carried out explosives tests and other activities that could have been aimed at developing a nuclear bomb. The report was revealed roughly three months after the former top inspector for the IAEA declared that the agency was still struggling to get a clear picture of Iran’s stocks of uranium and centrifuges — the technology used to enrich the nuclear material for a bomb.
“We don’t know where [the Iranians] are today,” Olli Heinonen, who served as the IAEA’s director for 27 years, told reporters in November.
Although subsequent reporting by the agency has evidently cleared up such issues — or at least failed to derail the P5+1’s pursuit of a final nuclear deal with Iran — some at the U.N. remain anxious.
The head of the U.N. nuclear test ban treaty, for instance, challenged Iran on Tuesday to ratify the treaty as quickly as possible to prove that it was serious about not wanting to develop atomic arms.
Although Iranian ratification is not part of prospective nuclear deal, Lassina Zerbo told The Associated Press that it would add weight to Tehran’s insistence that it is not interested in such weapons.
With that as a backdrop, skeptics such as Mr. Dubowitz said there are still big questions about how the world will respond if Iran is found to be secretly — or even openly — pursuing a weapon after a final is reached.
“If they stonewall the IAEA and deny access to inspectors, what are we going to do in order prevent that?” he asked. “Once the deal has gone through, we’ll be out of peaceful coercion options that could allow us to enforce a deal. We’ll no longer have leverage.
“We will be left with two alternatives: surrender to Iranian stonewalling, or use military force to prevent it.
“Why would you design a deal that gives Iran nuclear and economic benefits before the IAEA reaches its conclusion about the peaceful nature of the Iranian program?” Mr. Dubowitz asked. “My contention is that this deeply flawed nuclear deal is going to make war more likely, not less likely, and when that war comes, Iran will be more powerful and the consequences will be more severe.”