Millennial Letters

Iran’s Dubious Track Record

With the recent weeklong extension of the deadline for a final nuclear deal, Iran’s track record of incrementalism and obfuscation toward the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has never been so instructive. Indeed, recent revelations suggesting an increase in Tehran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile are merely the latest example of its incremental transgressions. As international negotiators go into overtime seeking to transform a framework into a final accord, they may discover that the history of IAEA dealings with Iran is more useful in helping draft, implement, and enforce any deal than is their current political back-and-forth with Tehran.

While it may be too late for negotiators to reverse course and stand firm on old red lines, it is not too late to apply lessons from the years 2003 to 2005—the first period in which there was a “declaration” and an “agreement” with Iran over its nuclear program.

Should a nuclear accord be signed this time, it will aim to primarily constrain, not permanently roll back or “dismantle,” Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure. In that case—in which Iran is still left with significant nuclear capacity—an accurate and comprehensive Iranian declaration of all its nuclear undertakings to the IAEA is essential for reliable monitoring and verification. Absent this complete declaration, including the oft-cited “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD), IAEA inspectors can neither assemble a clear picture of Iran’s nuclear program, nor set a reference point against which to monitor it and verify there is no violation or diversion.

Iran has a long history of failing to report critical elements of its nuclear activities. In an October 2003 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, Tehran left out any mention of its first advanced gas centrifuge, the P-2. The February 2004 IAEA report called the omission “a matter of serious concern,” and a violation of Iran’s promise that it had accounted for the “full scope” of its nuclear undertakings. Iranian diplomats skillfully stalled until their government came up with a rationale, before ultimately admitting the omission.

The episode exemplified the challenge of accounting for all the moving parts of the nuclear program of an uncooperative host country. The question of accounting for those advanced centrifuges resembles the question of PMDs today, as Iran continues to push back against the one international organization—the IAEA—that could clear its name.

Another key issue facing negotiators is procurement. A June 2004 IAEA report (which emerged in the run-up to the Paris Agreement in November 2004) included an Iranian admission about its procurement of magnets from Asian countries for the P-2 centrifuges. However, a glitch in the IAEA’s Iran reporting ended up revealing a dissonance between the Iranian government and its nuclear industry. As a State Department spokesperson recounted in June 2004: “even though you had an Iranian [businessman] telling the inspector in January that they had tried to buy magnets… the denials of the Iranian Government continued all the way through May.”

Iran has continued attempts to procure various kinds of magnets—turning to China as recently as 2011—for its aging IR-1 centrifuge. More recently, despite the interim Joint Plan of Action having been twice extended in an attempt to seek a comprehensive accord, Iran has sustained the illicit procurement of goods for its heavy-water reactor at Arak—a reactor that, per the framework agreement, Iran will be allowed to keep with a different core.

Any final nuclear deal must therefore strengthen, not diminish, export controls to enforce a limited civilian program. Diplomacy, while necessary, cannot allow Iran the cover of “a calm environment” like the one then-nuclear negotiator—and now president—Hassan Rouhani once touted as having permitted Iran’s nuclear progress. (“We only agreed to suspend activities in those areas where we did not have technical problems,” he boasted at the time.) Since 2005, Iran’s incrementalist strategy has allowed it to advance a program that has put it at odds with the international community.

Another lesson from that early period of negotiations is that Iran’s obfuscation, while often subtle and sophisticated, can also be crass. While negotiating with the IAEA, Iran’s half-truths, delayed admissions of illicit activity, and lags in allowing inspectors’ visits entrapped inspectors in a bureaucratic rigmarole.

Kalaye Electric, a centrifuge research and development firm, provides a representative example. Iranian authorities initially claimed that the firm was private, unrelated to the Islamic Republic’s atomic industry. Kalaye, however, was chaired by the then-head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and in December 2006, was part of a host of entities cited in UN Security Council Resolution 1737 for supporting Tehran’s illicit nuclear endeavors. In February 2007, the US Treasury Department designated Kalaye over its role in Iran’s centrifuge program under Executive Order 13382.

Earlier, Iran had remodeled Kalaye and told the IAEA the plant was, among other things, a “watch factory.” In August 2003, after several earlier visits to the site, the IAEA was finally allowed to take environmental samples showing high- and low-enriched uranium particles that the watchdog declared were inconsistent with Iran’s “declared inventory.”

The Kalaye experience is just one example of Iran’s penchant for underestimating the IAEA. To this day, the Islamic Republic’s quick-fixes and haphazard attempts to literally pave over its nuclear past remain an enduring hallmark of its obfuscation.

In the days leading up to the new July 7th deadline, Iran hopes that its troubled relationship with the IAEA bears little to no weight on negotiations with the P5+1, or on Tehran’s bilateral consultations with member states. That record, however, cannot be ignored. The question then remains: Will the P5+1 learn from the IAEA’s history with Iran or simply repeat it?

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow FDD_Iran on Twitter.


OG Image: