Poison pills in the Iran nuclear agreement

After a marathon negotiation session, Tehran and the world powers announced last week that an initial framework of a nuclear deal had been agreed upon. But things have quickly gotten complicated: there’s considerable confusion as to what last week’s initial understanding actually means. We still don’t know what Iran would have to do, nor when the various sanctions on Iran would be removed in return. The White House released a factsheet on the agreement but Iran has not signed off on this factsheet – Iranian foreign minister Javid Zarif immediately took to twitter, disparaging the White House release: “…[t]here is no need to spin using ‘fact sheets’ so early on.” It’s far from clear which “facts” in the White House factsheet will survive until July, the deadline for a final agreement.

So what did Tehran and the world powers agree to last week? Depends who you ask. There are at least three different versions of what was allegedly decided. The most authoritative – the joint statement by the European Union and Iran – also happens to be the vaguest. For example it states, “Iran’s enrichment capacity, enrichment level and stockpile will be limited for specified durations, and there will be no other enrichment facility than Natanz.” It also states that, “There will be no [Plutonium] reprocessing and the spent fuel will be exported.

..” and that Iran agrees to a “provisional application of the Additional Protocol.” In return, “The EU will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions and the US will cease the application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions, simultaneously with the IAEA-verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.”

{mosads}Besides this joint EU-Iran statement, there are the US and Iranian factsheets that conflict with each other.

For instance, the Iranian factsheet says that “…all of the sanctions will be immediately removed after reaching a comprehensive agreement” i.e. in July, if an agreement is reached – whereas the White House says “All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).” [emphasis added]. Completing the actions on these key concerns could easily take months or years. It is unlikely that Iranian leaders would consent to such a long delay before sanctions are lifted.

The PMD – for “Possible Military Dimensions” – issue quoted above is a particularly bright red-flag: the IAEA has been incapable of resolving these PMD issues with Iran for more than a decade, in part because some of them may be forgeries planted to implicate Iran, and also because the IAEA is not well-outfitted to examine weaponization issues to begin with.

Importantly, the PMD issue is not mentioned in the joint EU-Iran statement nor in Iran’s own factsheet and could well turn into a poison-pill for any final agreement.

The IAEA maintains that Tehran is not providing sufficiently detailed answers on the PMD allegations which could raise suspicions about the nature of Iran’s past – and possibly even its present – nuclear program. Iran, in response, says its reply is clear: that the allegations are fabricated or errorneous – essentially, that there is nothing substantiated regarding the PMD dossier that Tehran must answer to. Iranian officials also complain that they are not allowed to see some of the original documents they are supposed to answer to but only electronically re-formatted versions, which they say “could have been manipulated, and…would have been easy to fabricate.” Such Iranian complaints cannot be brushed off lightly: former directors of the IAEA, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei have both been sceptical about some of the PMD documents passed to the IAEA.

An initial assessment indicates that at least some of the PMD allegations – even if authentic – are less than compelling. Most of the PMD issues also relate to long-past issues, and do not involve nuclear materials. Other PMD concerns deal with dual-use activities for which Iran may have a legitimate need.

While some of the concerns may be legitimate, evaluating e.g. nuclear weaponization issues or ballistic missile work lies far outside the core expertise of the IAEA which is nuclear materials accountancy. If the world powers are interested to pursue Iranian missile and fuzing issues they would be better served by forming an organization skilled in such niche military and WMD investigations, as was done in Iraq with the “Iraq Action Team”. The IAEA’s mandate is strictly restricted to nuclear-materials related matters. The Agency itself clearly admitted that “absent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited.”

The three main PMD concerns the Agency is currently interested in – initiation of high-explosives, neutron transport studies, and ballistic missile payloads – are all either suspect or lie outside the Agency’s core competency, or both.

Ironically, while the PMD issues relate to Iran’s past nuclear work they could end up sabotaging an agreement that limits Iran’s future nuclear program.

The things Iran publicly agreed to in the joint EU-Iran statement are worth doing and would be substantial concessions by Tehran. By carrying out these actions Iran would be giving up many of its rights under the NPT. It may be worth relenting on the PMD issues and sanctions timing to ensure a final agreement. If constraining the Iranian nuclear program is worth fighting over – as some advocate – then surely it is worth buying those constraints more cheaply with some sanctions relief.

Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London. The views expressed here are his own.


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