Biggest hurdle to deal on Iranian nuclear program may be talking about the past

Jonathan S. Landay

For years, Tehran has dismissed U.N. concerns that the Iranian military secretly studied how to place a nuclear warhead atop a ballistic missile. It has rejected incriminating documents as forgeries, barred U.N. inspectors from quizzing top scientists and demolished suspected research sites.

Now that record is about to come center stage as negotiations are set to resume Oct. 15 on resolving the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. As the negotiations unfold, the United States is sure to demand that Tehran disclose the entire history of its program as part of any agreement to the nuclear crisis, which newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insists he’s ready to resolve within months.

That could be one of the thorniest parts of the talks, say current and former U.S. officials, diplomats and other experts. That’s because Iran is likely to spurn any accord that results in a public – and humiliating – confirmation that it was doing what its senior leaders have repeatedly denied: developing nuclear weapons.

“If it’s not done properly, these deals will not fly,” cautioned Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency who oversaw the agency’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear program until 2010.

To help smooth the way, experts said, the United States and its negotiating partners should made it clear that Iran won’t be punished for admitting that some of its past activities were “inconsistent” with a peaceful nuclear program.

But at the same time, the Obama administration and its European allies won’t agree to Iran’s demand for a total lifting of sanctions that have crippled its economy until it satisfies all of the IAEA’s questions about its past activities and the agency certifies that Tehran is enriching uranium for peaceful uses only.

“A country that genuinely wants a peaceful program does not have difficulty proving that it is, in fact, peaceful,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday during a visit to Tokyo. “Nothing that we do is going to be based on trust; it’s going to be based on a series of steps (by Iran) that guarantee to all of us that we have certainty about what is happening.”

Iran secretly founded its nuclear program on uranium enrichment technology and knowhow purchased in the 1980s and 1990s from an international smuggling ring led by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Tehran concealed its effort until it was exposed by an opposition group in 2002, and Iran has defied a series of U.N. orders to suspend enrichment.

Enrichment produces low-enriched uranium for power reactors and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons fuel, depending on the duration of the process, which involves high-speed spinning machines known as centrifuges.

The IAEA outlined its concerns about “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s program in a Nov. 8, 2011, report that was based on documents and other materials in the agency’s possession. They indicate that the Iranian military conducted extensive research into a missile-borne nuclear warhead until the end of 2003.

“Some activities may still be ongoing,” the IAEA warned.

Those findings are consistent with U.S. intelligence analyses that conclude that Iran is putting in place the capabilities to quickly build a bomb once a decision is made to do so.

According to the IAEA report, the so-called AMAD Plan on researching a missile-borne nuclear warhead was run by “entities with links to the Ministry of Defense.”

Among the materials acquired from the Khan network was a document on milling uranium metal into a spheroid, whose only purpose would be a nuclear warhead, the report said.

Other documents and information, it said, indicated that Iran explored the “development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon.” The work included studies on re-engineering a Shahab-3 missile warhead for a nuclear payload, designing and testing components like conventional explosive triggers, and manufacturing “simulated nuclear explosive” components.

Iran rejected the materials and information obtained by the IAEA or provided by member states as “forged” and “fabricated.” Since then, talks with the IAEA have gone nowhere, with Iranian officials refusing investigators access to additional documents and suspected research sites. The sides are to resume their discussions on Oct. 28.

The suspect sites include the Parchin complex, where an alleged explosives testing facility was razed and the location paved over after the IAEA requested access in February 2012, according to commercial satellite imagery published by the Institute for Science and International Security, a group that closely tracks the Iranian program.

The IAEA has been denied access to people involved in the AMAD Plan. It especially wants to interview the man who was in charge, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, a physics professor and officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite paramilitary and espionage force that answers directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The IAEA materials stand in stark contrast to repeated declarations by Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, last week in New York during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly that Iran never has had a nuclear weapons program.

Only by coming clean to the IAEA about its past activities can Iran persuade the United States and other powers involved in the nuclear negotiations that it doesn’t intend to develop warheads in the future, said current and former U.S. officials and other experts.

“They have to admit what they’ve done,” said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a former senior diplomat who was a top adviser on the Middle East to President Barack Obama. “You . . . want an acknowledgment of what they did in the past because that’s part of knowing that they’re willing to play by a different set of rules.”

But just how that admission comes about is extremely critical.

It unlikely that Iran will agree to any deal that involves confirming outright that it was developing nuclear weapons, some experts said, because doing so would be tantamount to admitting that Khamenei, Rouhani and other top officials have been lying for years.

Moreover, such a deal could intensify challenges to Rouhani by Iranian hardliners – including from within the powerful Revolutionary Guard – who oppose nuclear negotiations and other overtures that the moderate Shiite Muslim cleric has made as part of his campaign pledge to improve Iran’s relations with the West.

The Iranians “have to come clean. If they don’t come clean, then nobody can do this,” said a diplomat familiar with the issue, who asked not to be further identified in order to speak candidly. “But then, how do you get a face-saving way for them to come out it?”

It will be tough, but not impossible, several experts said.

The Iranians “have to be given a graceful way” that “allows them to acknowledge that this research was going on without confessing that it was a government program,” said Gary Samore, the head of research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who served for four years as Obama’s top arms control adviser.

One approach would be for Iran to assert that the research was unauthorized or conducted without the knowledge of Khamenei or other senior officials, he said.

Or Tehran could contend that it wanted to understand how nuclear weapons worked in order to develop defenses against them, he said, a claim it made about work that was conducted at a research facility in Tehran that it demolished in 2004 and replaced with a park.

George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy institute, said that the IAEA shouldn’t try to determine if Iran was developing a nuclear warhead. Instead, he said, the agency should focus on confirming that the research really has ceased, and establishing a system of U.N. inspections and monitoring that would detect any attempts to revive the work.

That will require Iran to provide the IAEA with the access it’s been denied to government facilities, universities and factories where alleged nuclear weapons activities took place, scientific personnel, their records and papers and suspected research sites.

The agency will also have to be allowed to interview officials involved with European, African and Asian front companies through which Iran obtained equipment and knowhow, and that some experts charge continue to supply nuclear-related technologies that Iran is prohibited from importing under international sanctions.

“The objective isn’t really to get a confession, but to understand the program so you can watch and build confidence they won’t repeat it,” said Perkovich. “It really needs to be deftly handled.”

By Jonathan S. Landay
McClatchy Washington Bureau