Mark HibbsHandling Iran’s Weaponization File

The following post was authored by Mark Hibbs and Andreas Persbo.

When the six powers and Iran announced in Geneva on November 24, 2013 that they had agreed to an “initial step” toward comprehensive resolution of the nuclear crisis, some critics glumly predicted that a final deal would never materialize. It was more likely, they asserted, that Western states keen to curb Iran’s nuclear program would face ever-greater pressure to lift sanctions, fortifying Iran’s resolve to resist long-term limits on sensitive nuclear activities. Ultimately, according to this dusky scenario, Iran would outlast its adversaries, sanctions would wither, and Iran would emerge with a rejuvenated economy and with its nuclear program back on track.

In the absence of clarity about how the Iran deal will be implemented, those of us thinking hard about the verification component have also been a little concerned. But beginning on November 24, our concerns were different–not about negotiations for the “final step” grinding to a halt, but instead about the prospect that Iran and the powers might achieve results too quickly.

The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), concluded in Geneva set the ambitious goal that the “final step” will be in place “no more than one year” after the “initial step” enters into force. Pessimists to the contrary, a final agreement could emerge on schedule if negotiators–especially in Iran and in the United States–respond to their domestic critics by cracking whips to get fast results.

If the JPOA’s parties want to close the deal on time, they have a lot of work to do, including figuring out how they will interact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in “resolving outstanding issues.”

How that is supposed to happen isn’t explained by the JPOA because it was concluded quickly, after the U.S. accelerated the pace of negotiations. Led by the U.S., negotiators abandoned a four-step plan for a two-step plan. That permitted a dramatic breakthrough in Geneva, but it also meant that the route to the “final step” would have to be improvised.

The JPOA says that the IAEA is “responsible for the verification of nuclear-related measures.” Its role in more intensive monitoring in Iran may be straightforward, but what is less clear is how the IAEA will work with the parties to resolve “past and present issues of concern.” These include the allegations–not directly mentioned by the JPOA–that the IAEA has brought forth concerning so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMDs), including the involvement of military organizations and officials in activities related to the development of nuclear weapons. The JPOA calls for the creation of a Joint Commission, representing the powers and Iran, to “monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise [and] work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”

The Role of the IAEA Secretariat

The powers and Iran should strike a “final step” agreement in parallel with a judgment by the IAEA expressing, at the very least, confidence that Iran is not carrying out activities allowing it to turn its nuclear materials, especially its inventory of enriched uranium, into nuclear weapons. If that doesn’t happen, the comprehensive Iran deal would not be politically sustainable, Iran might retain undeclared and undetected nuclear capabilities, and the IAEA’s credibility would be damaged. Beyond that requirement remains the need to comprehend Iran’s past activities in this area.

But will it be up to the IAEA Secretariat to decide whether “outstanding issues” are laid to rest so the “final step” can be concluded? How the powers have responded to the PMD challenge so far does not tell us how the JPOA will proceed in this matter.

The IAEA has accumulated PMD-related evidence since about 2005. In November 2011, the IAEA Secretariat provided a detailed accounting of PMD allegations in a report to its Board of Governors. The report got a mixed reception in the boardroom. Western states applauded Director General Yukiya Amano for having aired the allegations. Russia strongly objected that doing so would make resolving them more difficult. Amano’s report added to the political pressure on Iran. But Russia’s assessment may also prove to be correct.

Prior to November 2011, Western states on the board had urged Amano to reveal its PMD evidence to the governors. The U.S., in a statement to the Board in March 2011, charged Iran with “serious non-compliance with its obligations” on six grounds, one being that “Iran is not cooperating with the Agency regarding the outstanding issues which give rise to concern about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”

The U.S. said that the IAEA has the “legal safeguards authority to request cooperation from Iran to determine the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations” and also that it was “Iran’s obligation to comply with those requests.” Further, the U.S. said, “We recognize the Director General cannot draw final verification conclusions in specific cases if the state in question will not allow the necessary access.”

But while repeatedly urging Iran to answer the IAEA’s questions about PMD, the U.S. did not categorically state that actions by the IAEA Secretariat were essential for resolution of the PMD issue. And since the conclusion of the JPOA, some of the parties to the deal have suggested that the IAEA’s role in implementing it should not be framed in terms of independent “authority” to resolve the PMD allegations previously leveled at Iran.

The JPOA’s lack of clarity about how PMD allegations will be resolved may ultimately reflect a lack of consensus about the IAEA’s mandate to pursue allegations of weaponization activities in non-nuclear-weapons states. This matter was first raised after the 1991 Gulf War exposed Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program.

Until the Gulf War, the IAEA’s safeguards system was mostly based on material accountancy at declared locations. Failure of the IAEA to detect most aspects of Iraq’s weapons effort forced a re-evaluation of the IAEA’s safeguards philosophy, culminating in the adoption of the Additional Protocol (AP). The AP gives the IAEA more access, but there is no expert consensus that it expands the IAEA’s reach into weaponization activities in a state. Some experts have also objected to IAEA involvement in nuclear weapons-related investigations on nonproliferation grounds, arguing that in the case of NPT parties, this should be left to the five nuclear-weapons states–all of which are parties to the JPOA.

In 2005, former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei appeared to doubt whether the IAEA was mandated to investigate weaponization. He told Arms Control Today that “we don’t have an all-encompassing mandate to look for every computer study on weaponization. Our mandate is to make sure that all nuclear materials in a country are declared to us.” The “logic behind” the IAEA’s focus on nuclear materials, he said, was that “if a country is denied the nuclear material, they cannot have a weapon.”

Some experts have adopted a very literal view on safeguards implementation, essentially arguing that the IAEA has only the right to verify the correctness of material declarations. They challenge the notion that the IAEA has an inherent right to judge the completeness of a country’s declaration as well. Under such a narrow interpretation, investigation into weaponization work falls outside the IAEA’s mandate. The IAEA has not, however, limited its judgments to nuclear materials accountancy in its reports on Iran to the Board of Governors. In an aside that has appeared in its Iran reports since May 2011, the Secretariat observes:

The Board of Governors has confirmed on numerous occasions, since as early as 1992, that paragraph 2 of INFCIRC/153 (Corr.), which corresponds to Article 2 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, authorizes and requires the Agency to seek to verify both the non-diversion of nuclear material from declared activities (i.e. correctness) and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in the State (i.e. completeness) (see, for example, GOV/OR.864, para. 49 and GOV/OR.865, paras 53–54).

In support, others argue that because the development of nuclear weapons must at some stage involve nuclear material, the IAEA has a clear mandate to investigate where weaponization activities involve such material. After all, in such cases the material used would be undeclared and the state’s material declaration accordingly “incorrect.” Moreover, they would say that weaponization activities are a clear indication of intent to use material for explosives purposes, hence raising questions as to whether all nuclear material has, in fact, been declared by the state.

The Role of the Board of Governors

The most straightforward way to resolve PMD issues would be, prima facie, for Iran to answer all the allegations raised by the IAEA, and to admit any specific cases of past or current activities related to the development of nuclear explosives. However, because Iran has steadfastly denied that it has even considered developing nuclear weapons, and has routinely denounced the IAEA’s allegations as “baseless” and “fabricated,” it is highly unlikely that Iran would concede to the IAEA that it had lied to the agency that it has crossed the line into nuclear weapons activities.

Instead, Iran might agree to inform the powers of any PMD-related activities it has carried out. One former IAEA official said that Iran might tell the powers something like this:

Look, we know that your intelligence agencies are all over our program, you know what we did, when, and where. To move forward, the most important thing is that we agree not to do these things in the future. Iran won’t cooperate if we have to admit past activities. Iran’s pride and status in the region and the world are supremely important to us. If we give the information to the IAEA, it will be made public, like most of the other information the IAEA has learned about us since 2003. Instead, we can tell you what you need to know in the Joint Commission, and we can brief the IAEA in very general terms about what we disclose to you.

In practice, the IAEA’s role in pursuing PMD allegations under the JPOA may be limited by understandings between Iran, the powers negotiating with Iran, and the IAEA Board of Governors. One resolution scenario might be this:

  • After Iran provides information on PMD to the powers, they would consult with the IAEA Secretariat and urge it to concur that the data and explanations provided by Iran are adequate;
  • The powers then obtain support from their allies in the Board of Governors, and Non-Aligned states on the Board join Iran in understanding that PMD issues are resolved; and finally
  • The Board of Governors passes a resolution recommending the U.N. Security Council to support it in urging the IAEA Secretariat to resume routine safeguards in Iran.

Resolving safeguards issues in Iran will require the judgments of all the organs of the IAEA. Ultimately, however, the authority to carry out the functions of the Agency rests completely with member states serving on the Board of Governors (this is explicit in Article VI.F of the Statute of the IAEA). The Director General, according to Article VII.B of the Statute, is the Chief Administrative Officer of the organization, and is required to perform his duties in accordance with regulations adopted by the Board.

In theory, therefore, the Board could simply instruct the Director General to resume “routine” safeguards practice in Iran. This step, however, would not be politically wise, as it could damage the credibility and reflect badly on the impartiality of the IAEA Secretariat. To the greatest extent possible, Board members and the Secretariat should proceed instead on the basis of frequent consultations.

After consultations, the Director General might report to the Board on behalf of the Secretariat that PMD allegations have been laid to rest. There is a risk that the Secretariat and the Board will not agree, but the more consultations take place, the less that risk will be. At the very least, the Director General may be able to report that the IAEA Secretariat does not have significant concerns about ongoing PMD activities in Iran.

The challenge facing the IAEA in consulting with powerful Board members to make judgments about a member state’s nuclear program that are necessary for permitting a political agreement to enter into force, and which could greatly affect world peace, is without precedent. Ultimately the IAEA’s Board will have the upper hand. But in the past, the Secretariat and member states have consulted and concurred in specific cases not to be deterred from moving toward routine application of safeguards by safeguards-technical uncertainties.

In one historical case, the tails of a specific enrichment plant in one state could not be adequately explained. As a consequence, the quantities of enriched uranium produced by the plant could not be satisfactorily assessed. These discrepancies remain today. In another case, a state that had not previously declared past production of significant quantities of plutonium, also did not provide key data about past weaponization-related activities.

In both cases, the IAEA Secretariat and member states decided to accept the uncertainties and move on. These were clearly political decisions, but they were informed by a holistic verification judgment, which included, significantly, these states’ record of cooperation with the IAEA throughout its investigations.

While these examples illustrate how the Secretariat and member states in the past took decisions on the basis of consultation, the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear capabilities has no precedent in the IAEA’s history, and will require a unique approach.

Until now, the IAEA has not been satisfied with Iran’s cooperation in addressing the Agency’s concerns about past activities. That situation can change, however, through Iran’s implementation of the JPOA and a November 11 Iran-IAEA Framework for Cooperation. In the coming months, Iran could become transparent enough to allow the Agency to express that, at a very minimum, it has no significant PMD concerns about ongoing activities.

What about the IAEA’s PMD concerns about past activities? Were the IAEA to differentiate between “present” activities it was confident were peaceful and accounted for, and allegations of “past” activities that remained unresolved, the IAEA and its governors would have to decide–as in the above historical cases referred to–whether remedial and corrective actions by Iran are necessary. That approach would leave open the possibility that ultimate resolution of “past issues” in Iran would be postponed until after the “final step” is concluded. That might imply further that some sanctions would remain in place until it was finally agreed by the Board of Governors that the matter could be laid to rest. In any case, the sooner the Joint Commission and the IAEA get to work on this challenge, the better.

The Role of the Joint Commission 

The JPOA says that a “Joint Commission” staffed by the powers and Iran will be set up and “will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.” According to a summary of an implementation document for the JPOA, made available by the U.S. in a public statement on Jan. 16:

The Joint Commission will be composed of experts of the EU, P5+1 and Iran, and it will convene at least monthly to consider the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action and any issues that may arise.  Any decisions that are required on the basis of these discussions will be referred to the Political Directors of the EU, the P5+1, and Iran.

The clarification that the powers and Iran will confer on a monthly basis helps dispel concern that the IAEA Secretariat might come under eleventh-hour pressure to accede to the will of the parties to declare certain sensitive issues resolved. There must and will be frequent consultation between the IAEA Secretariat and the parties to the JPOA.

The transcript of a U.S. government press briefing held Jan. 12 said that “issues like the military aspects of the program… will have to be dealt with in the comprehensive resolution,” without providing any information on the division of labor between the IAEA, the powers, and Iran. All this has led to some unease that past issues will be “grandfathered” before being adequately resolved. While full disclosure by Iran to the powers, followed by an informal briefing by the powers and Iran to the IAEA, may work practically, some fear that such a solution may set a bad precedent.

The Joint Commission has its forerunners. The concept of a consultative committee or a joint commission to facilitate the effective implementation of arms control commitments has been used in the past. Examples include the committee set up under the 1972 ABM Treaty and the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD). A similar mechanism is also in use in the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (in particular Articles 10 and 11 as well as Annexes 3 and 4). The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty explicitly allows for a “complaints procedure” that does not involve the IAEA.

The Joint Commission might be involved in numerous tasks, including:

  • Considering questions regarding verification of compliance with obligations left ambiguous in the JPOA;
  • Providing, on a voluntary basis, information any party considers necessary to assure confidence in compliance with obligations assumed;
  • Considering changes in the strategic situation that may have bearing on the provisions of the JPOA;
  • Considering proposals for the strengthening of the JPOA;
  • Considering proposals for further measures aimed at restoring long-term confidence in Iran’s intentions; and
  • Considering whether long-term confidence in Iran’s intentions has been restored.

The Joint Commission would appear to be a critical tool for resolving PMD and other “outstanding issues” in the coming months. Its use should be informed by the need to make technically and politically sound judgments on the basis of close consultations that demonstrate Iran’s will to back away from nuclear weapons capabilities while strengthening the credibility of the IAEA.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    Let us call out a few key audiences – Iran’s internal politicians and people, the IAEA Secretariat, the IAEA board, the US / western governments, western neocons, western populace, wonks (as if we’re unified on anything…), the Israeli government, the Saudi government.

    Past activities do not necessarily indicate anything about ongoing or future activities; a nation with a nuclear-weapon making and posessing past can credibly move entirely past that (see South Africa). I don’t know how much the IAEA got about the weapons program per se when they dismantled and disclosed; I know they got a lot about the enrichment (and subsequent downblend).

    With SA, however, there was no party in an interested audiences list keyed up and waiting for an excuse for war.

    Saudi Arabia and Israel are both separately (and increasingly, if the tea leaves spiral counter-clockwise, together) concerned about the Iranians longer term geopolitics and military, and Nukes as a particular point of contention. Herein they have gotten a somewhat resurgent US neocon coalition to play ball. These groups seem to be somewhere in the general category of waiting for an excuse for war.

    The IAEA internal game is possibly failing the global game. The global game is to find and validate a neutral point in all this that convinces those with the means and the ability to go to war over the Iranian nuclear program not to do so.

    This appears to have been because Obama authorized the US negotiators to speed things up and apparently de-emphasize “verify past activity” to get future activity contained as quickly as possible. It is not clear to me if this is because he gave up on the Global Game, if he thinks the neocons, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are bluffing, or what.

    One can hope it’s a bluff, but is that accurate?…

  2. yousaf (History)

    Not to be too picky, but since even the official title of the file is PMD, perhaps the title of this post should have been “Handling Iran’s *Possible* Weaponization File” ?

    re. “demonstrate Iran’s will to back away from nuclear weapons capabilities ”

    That may be hard to do when much of nuclear technology and know-how is dual use: arguably Iran already has a nuclear weapons capability. So does Brazil, Argentina, Japan, etc.

    It’s kind of hard to back away from vague “capabilities”. Or please define exactly what Iran should back away from consistent with the NPT and CSAs in a technical sense?

    Also, take into account:

    “The plan states that after the agreement is finalized “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).” ”

    If so, at the end of the deal Iran should be treated just like Brazil.

    Gilinsky and Sokolski however turn the language around to suggest:

    “Turn the language around, and it says that the rules that apply to Iran’s nuclear program will be the ones that apply to all other NPT parties.”


    So, in this view, at the end of the deal Brazil will have the same rules applied to it as concluded (if concluded) for Iran.

    I’d really like to see either of those scenarios play out because that would neutralize a lot of suggestions that the IAEA is politicized against Iran.

    About the “absence of undeclared activities” — whatever applies to Iran also applies to 50 or so other states for which the IAEA cannot verify the absence of undeclared activity. It’s only highlighted for Iran because the country reports on Iran are regularly made available.

    Where are the country reports for Brazil and Argentina that would have to say the same thing?

    Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director of Safeguards at the IAEA summed it up well : “The Department of Safeguards doesn’t have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate and to provide the assurances the international community is expecting.”

    Exactly right.

    Normally the IAEA does not have the legal authority to inspect undeclared non-nuclear-materials related facilities, in a nation – like Iran — that has not ratified the Additional Protocol. The IAEA can call for “special inspections” but they have not done so. They can also choose arbitration, as specified in the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, but again they have not done that.

    In fact, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement between Iran and the IAEA states quite clearly that its “exclusive purpose” is to verify that nuclear material “is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Nothing else – that is it exclusive purpose.

    The IAEA itself has 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.”

    • yousaf (History)

      The precise number above is 54 states —


      “For 54 of these States, the Secretariat found no indication of the diversion of declared nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities. ****Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for each of these States remained ongoing.****”

      So there are 53 other states in the same boat as Iran on that aspect.

  3. nukeman (History)

    If one reads most of the articles that have been published by NGOs and universities you get a very misleading view of Iranian activities and capabilities. Iran has had access to advanced technology thru its interactions with SESAME, Trieste and even the IAEA where they have served as inspectors for many years. I do not make policy in this country and I have no views on students that are allowed to study in this country and what they study. Those decisions are left up to our elected officials. My research centers on science and engineering not politics.
    I would suggest that interested researchers look at the current activities of the graduate students of Professor Roth. Iranians have interacted with US and other countries researchers in the laser fusion area since at least the ealry 1990s. You would not know this from looking at the resumes of American researchers but the Iranians have not hidden their connections. Recent years have also seen Iranians publishing on indirect drive targets, pulse power technolgies, shock compression etc. I have collected and published volumes about scientific and engineering research in the dual-use nuclear and others areas. One only has to look at the profile of me that was done by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. I have made this offer before and will make it again. Anyone who is interested in learning and studying about dual-use nuclear and missile related technologies is free to contact me. You can sit on my small patio, drink lemonade, look through my personal library and enjoy the sunny Southern California weather. On Iran alone I probably have the largest private scientific and engineering collection around and will gladly share information with interested persons. Anyone wishing to reach me can do so through the writers of this blog. Take the time to grt educated about the activities of different countries in many different areas of technology.

  4. Cthippo (History)

    PMD is the issue by which opponents of any deal with Iran can kill the process, if they’re allowed to. Quite simply, and this is amply demonstrated by the history in Iraq and even South Africa, all the loose ends will NEVER be wrapped up satisfactorily. There will always be questions, inconsistencies, and possibilities that can be pointed to as evidence of nefarious intent. The problem is going to be even worse in Iran because if the IAEA says “we’re confident all PMD issues have been resolved” and then something pops up later, it’s going to be really bad for the agency and the NPT regime.

    If this deal is going to go anywhere, then a political decision is going to have to be made and agreed to between the powers and Iran that PMD is no longer an issue. The powers are going to have to say “Look, we’re comfortable that whatever happened happened before 2003 and we’re not going to worry about it”. Iran is going to have to be confident that the concessions they make today aren’t going to come to naught because a document about what they did in 2000 comes to light some day.

    • SQ (History)

      By the same token, the issue can’t be ignored.

    • yousaf (History)

      I’m not sure why it cannot be ignored.

      It seems to have been suppressed in the JPOA. (Perhaps because Iran asked to see the full evidence and that cannot be honored. Just guessing there….)

      In any case I’ll go with Jim Walsh:

      “Jim Walsh over at MIT off the cuff during a Q & A came up with a different view on what to do with the PMD file. I paraphrase: “If the nuclear activities were in the past, I don’t care. It’s dead, and it’s regretful, but let’s do a deal with Iran that moves forward.” “

    • Cthippo (History)

      Why not?

      Let’s assume the worst case scenario, that Iran has a fully feasible blueprint for a nuclear weapon sitting on a shelf somewhere. We’ll say, just for the sake of argument, that the reason they stopped development work in 2003 was because they were finished.

      How would the existence of that plan change anything today?

      If such a plan existed, would the US knowing that it existed change the “powers” bargaining position?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Cthippo wrote:

      Let’s assume the worst case scenario, that Iran has a fully feasible blueprint for a nuclear weapon sitting on a shelf somewhere. We’ll say, just for the sake of argument, that the reason they stopped development work in 2003 was because they were finished.

      How would the existence of that plan change anything today?

      If such a plan existed, would the US knowing that it existed change the “powers” bargaining position?

      In backwards order –

      2. This entire exercise is a confidence-building exercise. It does not exist to fundamentally change the truth that Iran has and intends to continue to have enrichment and other gateway technologies to nuclear weapons. It exists for everyone to come together over a series of cooperative efforts to ensure that, at the end of the day, the IAEA and US (and hopefully eventually SA and Israel) agree that Iran is not making a bomb today and was not yesterday or the day before.

      Disclosing the totality of the prior program is a confidence-building boost. If done neutrally and without hyperbolic responses, it allows everyone to believe that future activities will be more open and honest and easier to trust.

      Not disclosing a prior program that everyone believes (to nearly the point of military action) was a weapons program, is a confidence-destroying action.

      That is not to say that sufficient parties cannot be convinced sufficiently well that Iran is not building a bomb today, and was not yesterday or the day before, that this cannot accomplish the goal without a prior weaponization program declaration. But, it serves that goal.

      1. The R265 / Parchin program either was that blueprint and test program or was the stupidest damn frame job anyone’s done in history, as it gives an easier-to-build path to a uranium implosion bomb than existing gun or implosion type blueprints “publicly known” prior to its leak. I can be convinced of the latter, but my inclination is the former, and I am basing my commentary and actions upon that inclination/assumption.

    • kme (History)

      In my more suspicious moments I am sometimes taken to wonder exactly how many NNWS have such blueprints on a shelf somewhere.

    • SQ (History)

      “PMD is the issue by which opponents of any deal with Iran can kill the process, if they’re allowed to.”

      That’s why it can’t be neglected. It has to be addressed somehow.

    • yousaf (History)

      The PMD issue should be addressed if it can be proven not be a forgery or part of a misinformation campaign.

      And also if there is some nexus to nuclear materials (per the IAEA’s own admission).

      Iran has already allowed the IAEA to come into Parchin two times with negative results:

      Iran is not refusing to answer the PMD questions but is requesting that some modalities be established such that the issues can be resolved — in plainspeak that means that the IAEA should lay out a plan of what they would like to check out such that the search of military facilities does not become a wild goose chase that never ends. A flowchart of how things would be settled should be worked out.

      So again:

      -The PMD file should be shown to be authentic. Iran should be confronted with the evidence.

      -Iran has twice let the IAEA come to Parchin to check out their fears. Nothing at all was found of interest.

      -Iran is OK with the PMD investigations as long as they are done as part of an agreed framework, and not a wild goose chase.

      The words of Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, bear repeating:

      “Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site….In a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be.”

  5. yousaf (History)

    BTW, a “nuclear weapons **capability** ” is absolutely 100% allowed under the NPT and (at least the Iran-IAEA) CSAs.

    If one wants to restrict that capability in a final deal with Iran, and one wants to make sure that “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty),” then one needs a new treaty and CSAs that disallow a “nuclear weapons capability” in NNWSs.

    I doubt you will global consensus on that, though I have proposed what such a NPT 2.0 that discourages a nuclear weapons capability could look like:

    • yousaf (History)

      Looks like the Defense Science Board has the same general idea about the need for a new NPT “X” —

      “Negotiation of a future Non‐Proliferation Treaty (NPT “X”) to bring in all nuclear weapon and material programs into a cooperative, multi‐lateral regime.”

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Yousaf, there is a significant difference between a nation producing nuclear materials for civilian purposes and one doing so with significant opacity of facilities at times. There is also a significant difference between a nation doing theoretical studies of weapon systems (as all threshold states are routinely and uncontroversially assumed to do) and a nation which has been credibly accused of a specific engineering, design, test, and validation program of a specific weapon design and delivery vehicle integration engineering program.

      The difference between (Germany / Japan / etc) as we “publicly understand it” and what Iran is accused of having done is enormous, and speaks to intent as well as capability development. Japan or Germany could do gun-type HEU bombs relatively rapidly in extremis; it’s not known or publicly speculated or assumed that they have tested implosion systems accurately enough to build an implosion-type bomb rapidly, nor integrated such a design with a launch vehicle or missile they might have access to.

      You are right that a NPT X is appropriate, but conflating all threshold states in together with one which has had significant (hints/leaks/however you categorize Parchin + R265 + associated activity) is not constructive.

    • yousaf (History)

      You are right Japan/Brazil/Argentina etc. have a greater nuclear weapons capability than Iran.

      Iran’s enrichment facilities are not bigger — but smaller — than needed for making enough reactor fuel domestically.

      re. Parchin and PMD, I’ll go with Robert Kelley:

      “The IAEA work to date, including the mischaracterization of satellite images of Parchin, is more consistent with an IAEA agenda to target Iran than of technical analysis.”

      As for PMD, I’ll go with Jim Walsh:

      “Jim Walsh over at MIT….came up with a different view on what to do with the PMD file. I paraphrase: “If the nuclear activities were in the past, I don’t care. It’s dead, and it’s regretful, but let’s do a deal with Iran that moves forward.” “

      In general, there are many myths about Iran — I’ve addressed a subset here:

    • kme (History)

      I am curious as to where the line between legitimate theoretical studies and illegitimate weapons development lies. Is it even possible to do useful studies without a credible weapon design to model?

    • yousaf (History)

      kme — per the CSA, any weaponization studies that do not involve nuclear materials are OK.

      All kinds of theoretical computer modelling are permitted.

      All experimental work not using nuclear materials is also OK.

      As IAEA itself has admitted: “absent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited.”

  6. SteveL (History)

    This is to request the assistance of readers here. My senator (Bennet, D-CO) responded to a message I sent him by claiming (among other things) that “The International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA)… has confirmed that Iran continues to pursue the development of a nuclear weapon.”

    I am very skeptical of this, as I am not aware of such an IAEA statement, and it does not seem consistent with the careful way that IAEA generally characterizes its findings (and because Bennet’s response included another plainly false statement). Any information readers here could provide as to the validity of this Bennet claim about IAEA statements would be much appreciated.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Senator Bennet is poorly staffed.

      The IAEA has expressed concerns about “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program, something that falls far short of having “confirmed that Iran continues to pursue the development of a nuclear weapon.” One might infer from the evidence released by the IAEA that Iran had or continues to have a nuclear weapons program, but the IAEA stops well short of that. (It might be an interesting exercise to find the most forward leaning statement by Amano.)

      For what it is worth, the United States intelligence community believes Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program until 2003, when it was “halted” (or “paused” if you like) following the international scrutiny that resulted from the public disclosure of the enrichment facility at Natanz. The remnants of the program exist, and there seems to be a debate about how to describe those remnants at the moment.

      However, the Supreme Leader does not yet seem to have made a decision to produce and stockpile nuclear weapons. I wrote an article trying to summarize this situation for Foreign Policy:

    • SteveL (History)

      Thanks very much, Jeffrey.

      FWIW Bennet’s response also conveyed to me that “The [Menendez-Kirk] bill would impose economic sanctions against Iran only if it violates any interim or final agreement that is reached with respect to its nuclear program.” I already responded that this is plainly false, but plan to follow up with his office on both these statements. I’m guessing these may both have originated outside his office and received only cursory review within it.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, Ed Levine, recently retired staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that “the text of Title III of the bill manifestly contradicts” claims that it would not impede negotiations, listing seven examples. He concludes

      “Taken as a whole, these requirements, however desirable in theory, build a bridge too far for the E3+3 to reach. If they are enacted, all parties to the negotiations will interpret them as barring the United States from implementing the sanctions relief proposed in any feasible agreement. Rather than buttressing the U.S. position in the negotiations, therefore, they will bring an end to those negotiations. Worse yet, they will create large fissures in the E3+3 coalition that has imposed international sanctions on Iran. Thus, even though the bill purports to support sanctions, it may well result in the collapse of many of them.”

  7. Cy (History)

    Iran did NOT ‘refuse’ to answer the PMD allegations — as part of the IAEA-Iran Modalities Agreement (which resolved ALL outstanding issues) Iran agreed to address the PMD claims upon receiving the documentation. The US has refused to share the full documentation with either Iran OR the IAEA, so as ElBaradei wrote in his book, Iran was expected to refute allegations it could not see.

    Nevertheless Iran filed a 114-page analysis and reply to the claims, pointing out the errors in the claims, namely that Iran had no reason to lie about Green Salt since it proudly and publicly produces tons of the stuff, and many of the allegedly “secret” govertnment documents don’t have any sort of security markings and could have been typed up on a home computer.

    SO instead of Iran admitting to the PMDs, maybe the US could admit that it made up the “Laptop of Death” and that the infamous doctored “AP Graph” and the “Kamm Scam” documents about a “neutron initiator” were in fact the frauds they turned out to be.

    But I suppose it is the weakness of the US-based pundits that they can’t possibly concede that the US side is the problem not Iran.

    • yousaf (History)

      Well, if the rest of the PMD file is of this quality, it’s understandable why the Intel services/IAEA do not wish to show the originals:

      But backing away from these minor very wonky issues it’s important to examine the big picture, especially UNSC conduct.

      Technically, Iran was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council because of past violations of its IAEA nuclear safeguards agreement, but because the UNSC chose to interpret these violations as a “threat to the peace” (Ch. 7).

      However, Pakistan, India and Israel have far exceeded Iran’s nuclear threshold capability, and built actual nuclear weapons. They are — by any objective standard — far greater nuclear threats than Iran.

      The UNSC would never have bothered with Iran if the “trigger” of the nuclear safeguards violations hadn’t raised the issue to the level of the UNSC. However, the only reason such triggers have not gone off for India, Pakistan and Israel is that, since they are outside the framework of the NPT, their IAEA safeguards agreements are watered-down and similarly strict triggers simply don’t exist.

      But just because there is no similarly stringent safeguards’ trigger to refer the cases of India, Pakistan and Israel to the UNSC does not mean the UNSC should be willfully blind about the threats they pose. The UNSC can sanction these nations on its own initiative.

      This minor bureaucratic detail — that an IAEA referral currently seems to be needed before a nuclear threat is even considered by the UNSC — results in a major flaw: NPT member states are punished more severely than non-NPT states, even if the latter nations make nuclear weapons and proliferate.

      If the NPT is invoked to try to limit nuclear capabilities in signatory states like Iran via sanctions then even more toughness with the nuclear-armed NPT non-signatories is first needed. Conversely, so long as nuclear-armed Pakistan, India and Israel remain unsanctioned so should NPT signatories like Iran which only have an advanced — but thus far non-military – nuclear infrastructure.

    • shaheen (History)

      Cy, to claim (as Iran did) that the IAEA weaponization file (based largely but not solely on US and other Western intel) is fabricated is tantamount to imagine that after the Iraq fiasco, Western intelligence would be willing and able (1) either to fabricate the whole thing (2) or to accept prima facie as genuine the intel elements they received from various sources without triple-checking them. And that no read-teaming has been taken place (“fool me once…”). I’m willing to stretch credulity, but not to that point. If you believe that, you believe anything.

      This does not mean that each and every intel element on weaponization should be taken as 100% authentic and/or that its interpretation can only support the weaponization file. What is important – that is the way the IAEA has been working on this issue – is that taken together, the sum of these elements can be reasonably interpreted only in one direction.

    • yousaf (History)

      part of the problem is that — according to insiders with technical expertise — the IAEA is understaffed in terms of people who would know about nuclear weaponization.

      One of the few technically competent people who has spent a lot of time on the inside of the IAEA and come out publicly is Bob Kelley. This is what he told the BBC:

      Bob Kelley on BBC —'snuclearstandoff.pdf

      “KELLEY: If you start looking at how many people [at the IAEA] are involved in the analysis of weapons, I don’t know how many you’d guess. What do you think, Rob? How many people do you think are analysing the weapons?

      BROOMBY: I don’t know. You’d imagine ten or twenty.

      KELLEY: I’d say closer to two. And so you’re getting into a situation where you have a small group of people who are convincing themselves of things and they don’t really have the breadth that they need in this regard.

      BROOMBY: That’s a major weakness, isn’t it, when it comes to this kind of business?

      KELLEY: Absolutely. But, you see, people hear the term IAEA inspector and something comes to mind and everyone will get a different picture, because they don’t really know. Probably 80% of the inspectors are from the third world or at least developing countries, countries with no nuclear activities whatsoever. Very few of the inspectors from even the weapons states have a weapons background. So when you talk IAEA inspectors and you sort the whole place and you find there are two people who come from a weapons background, doesn’t that colour it a little bit differently? You’ll find some excellent accountants and some excellent nuclear material analysis people. They’re there. But this isn’t, weapons is not their strength, and for that reason I think they’re getting very much out of their depth.

      BROOMBY: Despite weeks of notice, the IAEA declined to take part in the programme, but on the specific point raised by Robert Kelley, they issued a statement:

      READER IN STUDIO: The Agency is confident that it has enough in-house expertise and experience, across the full range of relevant skills, for it to carry out effective
      verification.” “

  8. Cyrus (History)

    The sum of WHAT “elements”, Shaheen? To day there has been NOT AN IOTA of actual evidence of weapons work in Iran.

    Yousaf — the IAEA is not “understaffed” — it is staffed appropriately for the job that is is SUPPOSED to do, which is NOT to act as a investigative agency. The role of the IAEA according to the law in the NPT is very limited to that of an accountant of declared nuclear material, period. They’re “understaffed” in weaponization studies, because nothing in the NPT or the IAEA statutes or Iran’s safeguards agreements, give the IAEA some sort of authority to go around acting as an investigator. In fact the text of Iran’s safeguard agreement specifically and explicity states that their EXCLUSIVE function is that of an accountant, period. Even the inspections they are to carry out must be limited so as to not cause “undue interference” with nuclear work.

    It was only recently that the US and friend conspired to expand the role of the IAEA, with some nonsense claim that the IAEA Board had supposedly “endorsed” a view by Anan and his boss the US, that the IAEA’s job is to verify the completeness as well as the correctness of repors. The fact that they LIED about any such “endorsement” was unearthed by Dan Joyner.

    • yousaf (History)

      yes, you are correct that the IAEA’s job is to do technical CSA verification which does not necessarily require nuclear weapons analysis.

      I only meant that the IAEA is understaffed in terms of what it, and the P5+1 see, as its unofficial new job: i.e. the mission creep from inspections to investigations.

      So the IAEA has approx. 2 people with nuclear weapons knowledge out of I believe a staff of around 2000, i.e. a fraction of 0.1% of the IAEA staff can speak to nuclear weapons work.

      If the IAEA board and signatory nations with bilateral CSA sign-off on the IAEA’s new role as nuclear watchdog — or investigator — then they need to rapidly get more technical knowledge of nuclear weapons in house.

      But, to my mind, no official change in IAEA’s function has been mandated: the CSA remain the same. e.g. In Iran’s case from 1974. Their legal role is limited by the CSA.


      If folks would like to bring the UN Security Council resolutions into the debate, then they need to explain why the non-NPT nuclear weapon states (Israel, Pakistan and India) are also not found to be a “threat to the peace” and have Ch 7 sanctions applied to them.

      For more on that argument kindly see:

  9. yousaf (History)

    About “Western Intelligence” comments above, pls see:

    “What about the three indications that the arms project may have been reactivated?

    Two of the three are attributed only to two member states, so the sourcing is impossible to evaluate. In addition, their validity is called into question by the agency’s handling of the third piece of evidence.

    That evidence, according to the IAEA, tells us Iran embarked on a four-year program, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign.

    In 2009, the IAEA received a two-page document, purporting to come from Iran, describing this same alleged work. Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the agency’s director general, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity. What’s more, the document contained style errors, suggesting the author was not a native Farsi speaker. It appeared to have been typed using an Arabic, rather than a Farsi, word-processing program. When ElBaradei put the document in the trash heap, the U.K.’s Times newspaper published it.

    This episode had suspicious similarities to a previous case that proved definitively to be a hoax. In 1995, the IAEA received several documents from the Sunday Times, a sister paper to the Times, purporting to show that Iraq had resumed its nuclear-weapons program in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The IAEA quickly determined that the documents were elaborate forgeries. There were mistakes in formatting the documents’ markings, classification and dates, and many errors in language and style indicated the author’s first language was something other than Arabic or Farsi. Inspections in Iraq later in 1995 confirmed incontrovertibly that there had been no reconstitution of the Iraqi nuclear program.

    Today’s Regrets

    I regret now that ElBaradei did not speak out more vehemently, before the U.S. went to war, about the 1995 faked documents, additional forgeries provided to the agency in 2003 and other falsifications.”



    “By openly providing a questionable technical basis for inspections the IAEA is leaving itself open to a serious loss of credibility as a technical organization. While the IAEA seems to do a good job of accounting for nuclear materials around the world, its traditional area of expertise, there is no external oversight of this process.

    If there are problems with IAEA’s methods and performance they would likely only be revealed by complaints from a member state itself. Only the IAEA Board of Governors can adjudicate this.

    Outside the area of materials accountancy, in the inspection of facilities deemed to be part of a suspect nuclear program, the IAEA has drifted far from its core competencies. In Syria, for example, the IAEA was successful in collecting uranium particles at a site that had been “sanitized.”

    But then the IAEA cavalierly dismissed Syrian explanations that the natural uranium particles found at a bombed suspect site came from Israeli missiles. The agency’s claims that the particles are not of the correct isotopic and chemical composition for missiles, displays an appalling lack of technical knowledge about military munitions based on information from questionable sources. If the IAEA is to be respected it must get proper technical advice. ”


  10. yousaf (History)

    So this throws some light on the “PMD” file — Peter Jenkins, the former British ambassador to the IAEA on the “manufactured crisis” of Iranian nukes:


    “The supposed refusal to cooperate has also served to justify maintaining UN demands that were first made of Iran before the 2007 NIE, when it seemed reasonable to consider Iran’s nuclear program a threat to peace, but which became inappropriate after the 2007 NIE and once the IAEA had reported the resolution of all its pre-2008 concerns.

    No doubt some readers will prefer to continue believing in the authenticity of this Israeli intelligence material. That may or may not turn out to be the right call. …… All talk of an “Iranian nuclear threat” is therefore premature. Consequently, the draconian measures implemented by the US and its allies to avert that threat are unreasonable and unwarranted.”

    • fyi (History)

      It matters not that “draconian measures implemented by the US and its allies to avert that threat are unreasonable and unwarranted.”

      The aim was always the destruction of the Islamic Republic; when that failed, war – leading almost certainly to World War III – was US and EU’s only other regime destruction alternative.

      We are in a cease-fire period, that is all.

      Something analogous to what has prevailed on the Korean peninsula for the last 60 years.

      Specifically the SU states; they can never go back to status quo ante of 2007 with Iran; they destroyed a productive 200-year old relationship.

      [Iran was never that important to them, another gnat with oil to be squashed, I suppose.

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