Jeffrey LewisOlli, Ali, Oxen-Free: IAEA-Iran Action Plan

IAEA DDG for Safegards Olli Heinonen is in Iran to draw up what the Iranian press is calling a “modality plan.” Just what our field needs, more f’ing jargon. The editors of the OED can barely contain their contempt in the entry on “modality”, burying this peculiar usage as the last (and least) of eight meanings:

8. Esp. in politics, diplomacy, etc.: a procedure or method; a means for the attainment of a desired end.

1957 G. F. KENNAN in Listener 28 Nov. 868/1 The modalities of German unification must flow from the will of the German people, expressed in free elections. 1960 Guardian 23 Aug. 7/6 He did hear nine members of the Council praise his statesmanship and the procedures (‘modalities’ is the new and foolish word) he had adopted. 1970 New Yorker 17 Oct. 162/2 The new word that is constantly being heard here is ‘modalities’. Everyone involved in the peace talks agrees that the military modalities of a cease-fire are more easily negotiated than the political modalities. 1988 Daily News (Tanzania) 19 Dec. 4/7 We have the basis for success—political will and technical expertise to work out the modalities, a PTA expert said.

Reuters is calling it an action plan, which seems rather less irritating to me and allows me to make juvenile cracks about “hot Olli-on-Ali action” and whatnot.

Action Plan

Anyway, so the Action Plan is basically a 60-day schedule to resolve outstanding questions about Iran’s nuclear program, including (quoting from the most recent IAEA report):

  • the uranium contamination at the Physics Research Centre (GOV/2007/8, paras 16–17);
  • Iran’s acquisition of P-1 and P-2 centrifuge technology (GOV/2007/8, para. 18); and
  • the documentation concerning uranium metal and its casting into hemispheres (GOV/2007/8, para. 19).

The idea, according to Iran’s Undersecretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) for International Affairs Javad Vaeedi, is “resolve the issue in Vienna instead of New York”—a reference to resolving outstanding issues with the IAEA rather enduring more UN Security Council sanctions.

As usual, the best details are in the Iranian press, including a member list of the IAEA team said to include: Heinonen; Herman Nackaerts, Director for Safeguards Operations B; Johan Rautenbach, Legal Advisor; and Vilmos Cserveny, Director, Office of External Relations and Policy Coordination1. The team has a fifth member that Fars called the “IAEA regional director”—who I think is the Director, Division for Asia and Pacific, Manase Peter Salema. But I am just guessing.

Can This Work?

The action plan might delay new sanctions for 60 days or so, but I am getting increasingly skeptical of the chance for a deal.

Of course, the Iranians won’t say this is stalling: “We are not to buy time or kill it because we have already acquired the relative scientific knowledge in the nuclear activities,” Vaeedi told IRNA. On the other hand, the marked slowdown in centrifuge installation is interestingly timed.

At the heart of my skepticism, however, is this: Were Iran to provide a full explanation of the history of the P2 program, the cause of the contamination and the acquisition of the uranium casting document, then Iran may have to admit that at least some part of the Iranian government was interested in a bomb.

That’s not a shock, but the revelation would be pretty ugly.

Now “interested in a bomb” is a deliberately vague phrase.Was some aspect of the IGRC doing studies? Where AEOI personnel testing this or that rationale? Even a decision not to decide could look very suspicious, depending on how the relevant military and scientific bureaucracies implemented the policies and whether or not they adhered to their treaty obligations. When Sweden adopted the so-called handlingsfrihet line of deciding not to decide, Stockholm according to Paul Cole “maintained a research program that in many ways was indistinguishable from an effort to produce nuclear weapons2.”

My guess is that Tehran must worry that a full explanation won’t exactly satisfy the Islamic Republic’s critics. Assuming that the senior leadership isn’t dead set on a bomb, the trick is going to be getting the answers we need to impose a verifiable solution without the Iranians admitting anything that makes compromise infeasible.

1 IRNA is mis-transliterating Nackaerts as “Nackartes” and Cserveny as “Cxerveny.” You may remember Vilmos Cserveny as the guy who signed to letter calling “outrageous and dishonest” a passage in the House Select Committee on Intelligence report Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States (aka Fleitz of Fancy) alleging an “unstated” IAEA policy to keep inspectors from telling the truth about Iran’s programs.

2 Paul M. Cole, Atomic Bombast: Nuclear Weapon Decisionmaking in Sweden, 1945-1972, Stimson Center Occasional Paper 26 (April 1996): 21-22.


  1. Miles Pomper (History)

    Jeffrey, it is interesting to note that at the Carnegie Conference, Annalisa Gianella, the EU’s pointperson on nonproliferation said some sort of immunity protection had to be offered to Iran that would allow it to come clean without facing additional sanctions for any revelations. Perhaps Solana has already offered this?

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I think that’s exactly the right strategy, but how does one make such an offer credible?

    We need some serious Tom Schelling here.

  3. abcd (History)

    In my limited assessment, we could attempt to make it credible by saying it to Iran, in person notably, from the highest levels of the USG and giving it the backing of other P-5 members.

  4. Sparks (History)


    I believe that this is called “nuclear rope-a-dope”, a technique first perfected by Saddam when he successfully danced around 12 or so UN “Resolutions”. When are we going to catch on? I hear it is much harder to bomb tunnels under mountains than shallow buried bunkers.


  5. Russell

    Since you are correcting spellings you should note that it is “Olli” not “Ollie”

  6. Andreas Persbo

    The director of Operations B is Herman Nackaerts, formerly EURATOM.

  7. Mike

    The credibility problem is a two-way street. For example, suppose we gave them immunity in exchange for coming clean. What if they then go and build a bomb (just theoretical, I realize there would be safeguards, etc., etc.). In that situation, either immunity would get tossed aside or it would serve as a serious impediment to doing anything about a revitalized Iranian nuclear program.

    And if you make an offer of immunity for past transgressions but explicitly hold out the prospect of future sanctions if they do stuff wrong in the future. . that’s just a “deal”—no need for the language of immunity.

    Point is—it seems difficult to make a credible immunity offer for anything other than the short-term because you don’t know what Iran will do in the longer-run—and they might not know either, if you believe reports of bureaucratic infighting. In that case, it seems like using the language of immunity is terribly misleading.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    “Olli” right; Nackaerts, Safeguards B, right.

    Mike, maybe “amnesty” or “conditional amnesty” is better description, since the amnesty can be imposed with conditions … i.e. the amnesty past bad acts revealed in coming clean is contingent on keeping clean.

  9. Siddharth

    JL, there is nothing in the outstanding questions that would involve the Iranians ‘fessing up to an interest in the bomb.

    1. LEU/HEU contamination issues are 90 per cent sorted out anyway and nobody in Vienna believes—based on the crappy centrifges on display—that the Iranians are capable of producing that contamination.

    2. As for the full extent of work on the P-2, this is not really that germane since the P-1 fabrication is so pathetic that their explanations of not having done much work on P-2 are really quite logical. But there is political pressure from you-know-where on the Agency to keep demanding more documentation and explanations and keep this file pending.

    3. Finally, the uranium metal document is the biggest red herring of them all. The Iranians voluntarily handed over this document to the IAEA in 2005, which does suggest it was something they were pretty confident would not implicate them. Schulte tried to plant stories on wire service reporters that the document was “discovered” by IAEA inspectors but those attempts fizzled out. Now, a big song and sance has been enacted because the Iranians won’t hand over their copy to the IAEA. Well, 24 hours after they do so, it will be all over CNN with ‘experts’ gravely declaring this is a bomb, blah, blah, gurgle, nyah. But the Agency has the same document from the Libyan end of the AQ Khan network.

    4. Please also bear in mind that the first DG’s report to the BoG to mention the hemispehere—I think it was Nov 2005—did not mention any weapons implications. There was pressure on Baradei but he refused. That phrase was put in by Oli in his update report submitted to the crucial BoG which voted to send the Iranian file to the Security Council.

    In my view, the hemispehere document scare is up there with the bullshit laptop, and the Green Salt mumbojumbo.


  10. Miles Pomper (History)

    Or to take a page from the White House maybe we could commute Iran’s sentence or pardon it for its past crimes—that still makes Tehran liable for any future problems. In terms of providing credibility, I agree that some kind of USG assurance would be helpful. But it’s not like we don’t have channels for that if we want—an ambassador in New York who knows the Iranians well and a dialogue with Iran about Iraq… No reason a message could not be communicated in those fora and backed up in other ways—by the EU for example. And after all, if the EU won’t go along with sanctions there won’t be any UN sanctions.

  11. hass

    “Were Iran to provide a full explanation … then Iran may have to admit that at least some part of the Iranian government was interested in a bomb….”

    Kinda jumping to conclusions, aren’t you?

  12. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I don’t think I am doing a great job of expressing my sense of why the Iranians might not be fully forthcoming. Far from jumping to conclusions, I am trying to suggest that the simply dichotomy between having and not having a bomb program is an atechnical, ahistorical and abureaucratic construction.

    EVEN IF THERE WERE NO DECISION TO BUILD A BOMB, there could easily be elements of the IGRC or AEOI who advocated for a bomb, did studies or relevant research. As an aggregate these activities might even constitute a clandestine program that operated either below the attention of the senior leadership or was highly compartmentalized. Or they may just have been disparate activities conducted by scientists and military officials interested in a bomb.

    The distinction between having and not having a bomb program is not nearly as clean as we would like to believe — that is why I pointed to the Swedish example.

  13. MEC (History)

    As you describe in your blog, the Iranians deny stalling. This may be a naive question but regardless if they are telling the truth, is the Security Council willing to grant the 60-day window? Given it is Iran’s responsibility, ultimately, under its international obligations, should the SC grant such a window?

  14. hass (History)

    The problem with your hypothetical case as clarified above, is that none of the things you pointed out necessarily supports even a hypothetical bomb-making program in Iran, for the reasons Siddharth points out.

    Regarding the uranium sphere document, I would add that the media reported that it had no technical details such as measurements and such, and so it would not be useful to actually build anything. Iran probably already had the theoretical knowhow anyway, not to mention that in general this is 60+ year old technology after all.

    I find all this “when is Iran going to have a bomb” theorizing disturbing because it is based on the assupmtion that Iran is indeed building nukes – and assumption that is not adequately justified by the facts, but which becomes conventional wisdom through such unthinking repetition. WMDs in Iraq should have served as a warning about this sort of analysis.

  15. Anon

    That hemisphere document, by itself, is not directly useful in building a nuclear explosive device. But, contrary to the claims of Iranian officials, it’s not at all clear that this is all the documentation that Iranian elites have.

    Alissa J. Rubin’s aptly-titled ‘Case Against Iran Differs From Iraq’ (Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2006) quotes David Albright as saying:

    The IAEA noted that the [hemisphere] document lacked dimensions or other specifications, suggesting that it was far from specific design material. Former weapons inspector Albright, who has examined the design information Khan’s network gave to other countries, says that Iran’s hemisphere document is similar to weapons design information, but far less detailed and complete.

    “The document has a distinctive character,” Albright said. “It looks like what was found in South Africa … part of a much bigger set of documents used by the Khan network. The question is, did Iran get the whole set?” (Emphases added.)

    Indeed, Albright poses an important question—one that, due to Iranian opacity, remains unanswered. Except, of course, in the minds of Hass and Siddarth, who have arrived already at a definitive answer, or are just doing their best to obscure the issue.

    Rubin’s article—which is also available here— continues:

    U.S. government officials and other Western intelligence sources underscore, however, that Iran has had the material for more than 15 years and that it is impossible to rule out that it has done further research into how to make enriched uranium.

    “There is no real peaceful use for hemispheric uranium,” said a U.S. diplomat who has reviewed the document.

    By the way, the unnamed U.S. diplomat offers a persusive argument—unless, of course, you today subscribe to the line of reasoning that emerged in India after the detonation of the Smiling Buddha nuclear explosive device in May 1974. At that time, the Indian government officials claimed, in all seriousness and with straight faces, that Smiling Buddha did not violate the terms of India’s nuclear cooperation agreements with Canada and the United States because it was, in their mind, a “peaceful” nuclear explosive device.

  16. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Well said.

  17. hass

    Neither Anon nor the unnamed US diplomat are making an argument – they are putting forth speculation. There’s a difference. Apparently pointing out the difference between fact and speculation consistutes “arrived already at a definitive answer, or are just doing their best to obscure the issue.”

  18. Andy (History)


    Assuming you are correct, Iran could easily demonstrate that none of these activities are suspicious or military-related simply by providing the transparency and information the IAEA has asked for. The issue remains in doubt because of Iran’s lack of cooperation and history of deception.

    One would think Iran would be motivated to clear-up such misconceptions as quickly as possible, thereby giving their enrichment program true legitimacy, and removing the justifications for sanctions and even war (among some). Instead, Iran’s actions have only made it appear more guilty and given Iran’s enemies ammunition to counter its ambitions. Even its apparent allies in the security council are fed up.

    Why would Iran pursue such a course of action? It seems to me either Iran does have something it wants to remain hidden (not necessarily a full-blown weapons program, but, as suggested above, documents that might expose further deception), or it’s leaders are exceedingly stupid.

  19. newguy

    From Iran’s point of view, if there are assurances that after all questions are answered, Iran will be able to enrich uranium and thereby have breakout capability – the way Romania, South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil (all countries known to have had military nuclear weapons research programs) have that capability, then Iran will answer the required questions.

    If answering the questions will only provide the West with additional pretexts to deny Iran that right, then Iran will not answer additional questions.

    Iran’s recent offer of cooperation, with little publicly disclosed about any concessions from the West, just might represent an acceptance that preventing Iran from being nuclear capable is not possible given the advances Iran has made so far.

    It has to be remembered that the IAEA has asked for access to people and places that are beyond what Iran would be required to give if it had ratified the Additional Protocols.

    Iran’s position, before the case was referred to the security council, was that Iran would not go beyond those requirements before assurances were made.

    After the referral, when Iran stopped its voluntary cooperation with the Additional Protocols, Iran’s position has been that it will not go beyond its basic safeguards reporting requirements until it has those assurances.

    So, why would Iran not answer all IAEA questions? Because those questions, already outside of the scope of the Additional Protocols – could in theory just lead to more questions but never to an acknowledgement of Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

    Essentially, when Europe said in March 2005, and then formalized with its offer in August 2005, that it expected Iran to permanently forswear enrichment (or at least permanently subject Iranian enrichment to a European veto) then Iran decided to stop playing the game of going further and further beyond its formal requirements.

  20. Anon (History)

    Newguy, your post appears to suggest that the IAEA Secretariat’s questions in re: their attempts to understand more fully what’s known of Iran’s two decades-worth of undeclared and therefore noncompliant nuclear materials, activities and technologies aren’t legitimate. Are you actually accusing the IAEA Secretariat of being unprofessional and abusing their mandate? You certainly sound as though you are.