Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Is Iran Already Cheating on a Nuclear Deal?

| December 15, 2014

"Shadow Government" Blog

Just before Labor Day weekend, the State and Treasury Departments sanctioned several individuals and organizations “providing support to illicit Iranian nuclear activities.” Due to the holiday, or perhaps because a few days later the Islamic State murdered an American journalist, the announcement attracted sparse attention. But, it should have been big news.

Some of the actions cited in the notice seem within what the Obama administration tolerates during ongoing negotiations, even if they violate U.N. Security Council Resolutions. These include illicit procurements for centrifuge enrichment and the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak. The administration recently detailed Iran’s ongoing illicit procurements in a report to a U.N. panel. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani boasted this summer, “Of course we bypass the sanctions, and we take pride in it.” Indeed, no one seems particularly concerned about ongoing violations of U.N. sanctions. After all, in July 2006, the Security Council demanded that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment-related activities, but eight years later, more than 9,000 centrifuges are still spinning at Natanz and Fordow.

One item in the August sanctions announcement, however, stood out as even more serious. It alleges work by “a Tehran-based entity that is primarily responsible for research in the field of nuclear weapons development.” The Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND) answers to Brigadier General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. According to the State Department, General Fakhrizadeh led such “efforts in the late 1990s or early 2000s.” Noting that he was sanctioned by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747 (2007), the Department concludes that, “SPND took over some of the activities related to Iran’s undeclared nuclear program that had previously been carried out by Iran’s Physics Research Center [and other entities].”

So the State Department is sanctioning an organization created in 2011 and referring to its illicit actions pursuing nuclear weapons in the present tense, charging that the work is ongoing. Sanctions announcements are not casually written on the backs of cocktail napkins. They are pored over by lawyers, policy makers, and intelligence officers for legal reasons and to protect intelligence sources and methods. They mean what they say.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also after General Fakhrizadeh. He is cited four times in its November 2011 report on the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, which states, “The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program.” To date, General Fakhrizadeh has refused the IAEA’s repeated invitations to speak with them.

Last month, a new report added to the evidence. The paper, “Examining 10 Warning Signs of Iran Nuclear Weapons Development,” largely tracks the IAEA’s conclusions and supplements them with information gathered independently within Iran. It describes a hidden Iranian weapons program, sheathed within civil nuclear work, drawing on a common base of people, procurement mechanisms, and technical organizations. The report’s most sensational charge is that General Fakhrizadeh recently split his organization in two, relocating half of it in an attempt to elude inspectors and evade sanctions.

If the newest allegations prove to be true, they will be devastating to the negotiations. Because of their seriousness and the origin of the information (an affiliate of a group seeking to overthrow the government in Tehran, which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton removed from the U.S. designated terrorist list in 2012), the report will be controversial. Its contents, nonetheless, deserve careful examination. The group has been the source of important disclosures in the past, including the original August 2002 revelation of nuclear activities at Natanz and Arak.

For years, the IAEA has patiently worked to uncover Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons efforts. The analytically rigorous agency calls these the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program. This anodyne term describes 12 sets of activities, most of which can only be explained as efforts to build nuclear weapons, including: military leadership of the program; clandestine nuclear material acquisition; work on “nuclear components for an explosive device”; “detonator development”; “hydrodynamic experiments” which test nuclear weapons designs; “integration into a missile delivery vehicle”; and work on a “fuzing, arming, and firing system.” Peaceful programs to produce energy or medical isotopes have no use for such work. Tehran denies the agency’s charges, but refuses to provide the information necessary to resolve them.

Some argue that these matters are of the distant past, or that we cannot expect Tehran to admit its illegal work, having denied it for so long. But these problems are not past. There are strong signs that nuclear weapons work continues. Understanding them is crucial to verifying and enforcing a new agreement. If we do not insist on answers before a comprehensive agreement is concluded, we will never get them.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his team should use the new deadline for a deal to charge the IAEA to get to the bottom of the “possible military dimensions,” and the work cited in the August sanctions as a precondition to concluding any comprehensive agreement. If Tehran refuses, it will stand as stark evidence that Iran has no intention to honor its word. A negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions is by far a better outcome than the alternatives, but only if Iran abides by it. To protect the future, we must understand the past.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tobey, William H..“Is Iran Already Cheating on a Nuclear Deal?.” Foreign Policy, December 15, 2014.