On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry made one of the Obama administration’s more baffling statements to date about the parameters of an upcoming nuclear deal with Iran.
Kerry appeared at a State Department briefing by video conference. Michael Gordon of the New York Times asked him whether under a final deal, Iran would need to disclose all of the past and present military aspects of its nuclear program before sanctions against the country would be lifted.
This is a crucial question. Without Iran divulging the degree of its past work on nuclear weaponization, inspectors will have a harder time establishing a baseline for assessing Iranian compliance with the terms of a deal.
Disclosure on the nuclear program’s military dimensions is also an early yardstick of Iranian good faith.
The International Atomic Energy Agency submitted 12 queries to Iran about its weaponization work in 2011. Tehran had only responded to one of them as of February 2013, and the IAEA’s leadership has acknowledged that it doesn’t think Iran will come clean before the June 30 deadline.
That makes some sense from Iran’s perspective, as the country’s negotiators have deftly used the ambiguities surrounding the country’s weaponization work as for negotiating leverage. But that rationale disappears once a deal is signed, at which point the sides will have spent whatever leverage they had while theoretically having a mutual incentive to make the agreement work. And it won’t work as well if inspectors don’t have an understanding of the full extent and history of Iran’s nuclear program.
Kerry seemed to disagree.
“The possible military dimensions, frankly, gets distorted a little bit in some of the discussion, in that we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” he told reporters. “We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.”
This statement doesn’t require much parsing. In the Obama administration’s view, Iran doesn’t need to come clean about its nuclear weaponization history because its activities are already known to the intelligence agencies of the US and its allies (“we know what they did”). This not only provides a baseline for measuring future Iranian cheating on weaponization work (“what we’re concerned about is going forward”) It also cancels the need for any Iranian honesty or good faith on these questions — as one anonymous western diplomat told CNN, “hinging a deal on some confession is not realistic and not even necessary.”
Kerry’s answer is puzzling for a number of other reasons. The administration’s assessment of the nuclear dimensions of Iran’s program is not just secret, but non-disprovable for anyone who hasn’t seen US or allied intelligence on Iranian weaponization.
Kerry’s answer doesn’t mesh with repeated IAEA claims that the Agency can’t verify “that all the activities in Iran is in peaceful purposes.”
And Kerry doesn’t elaborate about “what they did.” Was Iran testing nuclear detonators, or diverting fissile material to a weapons program? Is the extent of Iranian weaponization work greater or less than the public record — which establishes that Iran may have tested nuclear weapons triggers at the Parchin facility up until 2003, and maintained a research group dedicated to weaponization activities — would suggest?
Kerry’s statement raises more questions than it answers. But it appears that the Obama administration isn’t going to insist on full Iranian disclosure of the extent of its nuclear program as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal.
That’s a shift from just two months ago, right after the parties reached a preliminary deal, when Kerry told PBS that Iran would need to divulge its past nuclear activities as part of any final deal.
“They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal; it will be done,” he said.
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