By Yousaf Butt
January 8, 2015
Having failed to reach an agreement on a comprehensive nuclear accord in November, Tehran and the six world powers set a new deadline — July 1, 2015. The diplomats are to meet again on Jan. 18, though prospects for a rapid breakthrough remain thin. One big roadblock is that the International Atomic Energy Agency has set for itself the impossible goal of verifying the “purely peaceful” nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
The agency, however, cannot do this. Not for Iran — not for any country. By holding Iran to this impossible standard, the agency undercuts the likelihood of a nuclear deal.
No matter how stringent the agency’s oversight, for example, some Iranian scientist or engineer could always idly doodle bomb designs — with or without the knowledge of the government. So no one can prove that all nuclear activities in Iran are purely peaceful.
As long as actual nuclear materials are not involved, such weapons research is not against the letter of the law. Even running computer simulations of nuclear bombs would be consistent with the (rather lax) requirements of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and those of the IAEA nuclear safeguards agreement.
Yet after the previous round of talks ended, the head of the agency, Yukiya Amano, said on CNN that his group “cannot yet give the assurance that all nuclear activities in Iran are for peaceful purposes.” By repeating the phrase four times in the short interview, he suggested this is a key role of his agency. But it is not.
Amano also failed to mention that Iran is not unique in this. The agency cannot vouch for the purely peaceful nature of nuclear activities in Argentina, Brazil and 51 other states as well.
The agency has admitted that its “legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons-related activity is limited” unless nuclear material is involved. The organization can seek the voluntary cooperation of a signatory state to go beyond this standard. But it does not have either the legal basis or the technical capability to verify that “all nuclear activity” is peaceful in any nation.
Former U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix speaks during a lecture in Hamburg
A former agency director, Hans Blix, recently explained this point. “There could always be small things in a big geographical area that can be hidden,” Blix said, “and you can never guarantee completely that there are no undeclared activities.”
The atomic energy agency was designed as an apolitical technical organization. It was set up to take regular accounting of member states’ nuclear materials, ensuring that none is diverted to weapons use. The agency has executed this mission well. Over the decades, for example, it has repeatedly confirmedthat declared nuclear material in Iran has not been diverted to any military program.
Contact with member states is governed by bilateral safeguards agreements, whose sole purpose is to confirm this nuclear material accountancy. But nowhere does it state the agency’s job is to monitor “all nuclear activities,” or that it is responsible for ensuring the purely peaceful nature of any nation’s nuclear program.
By suggesting it can prove all Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful, the agency is overselling its capabilities. There are actually few nuclear-weapons experts at the agency, and those few are banned by Iran from working on its inspections file.
So the agency’s material-accountancy experts are trying to make technical judgments on weaponization work they are unfamiliar with. And they appear to be getting things wrong.
After the latest round of talks ended in November, for example, Iran provided evidence that supported its claims that the agency’s reports describing the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program are “full of errors.” There may be technical merit to Tehran’s assertion.
My assessments of these charges show that either the agency is concerned about hardware that has legitimate civil (or conventional military) uses or else it seems to be doing poor technical analysis. It doesn’t help that a hawkish Washington think-tank is also painting Iran as having violated its interim nuclear agreement.
A major bone of contention between Iran and the atomic agency is about access to the military site at Parchin, where the agency has looked twice and found nothing of concern. But the agency now says an anonymous source has informed it that a conventional explosive-containment chamber — possibly relevant to nuclear weapons research – is on that site. So it wants to revisit Parchin.
Whatever happened in the past, however, U.S. Intelligence Director James Clapper has confirmed he has a “high level of confidence” that Tehran is not now weaponizing.
In addition, a former inspections director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Robert Kelly, who is a 35-year veteran of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, has found weaknesses in the agency’s reasoning. He criticized the organization’s refusal to take up Iran’s offer to inspect another site where the agency alleges Iran also may have conducted nuclear weapons-relevant research.
Blix is also skeptical of the agency’s handling of intelligence. He noted that there is “as much disinformation as information” in the reports on Iran’s alleged weaponization efforts.
The fact is that the agency is skilled at nuclear-materials accountancy, but not properly outfitted for the nuclear-weapons investigations it is being called on to conduct. Meanwhile, its rhetoric has influenced leaders worldwide that Iran deserves to be singled out because it alone has a nuclear program that cannot be proven to be purely peaceful.
Consider, for example, that President Barack Obama in his 2010 address to the United Nations General Assembly said, “Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program.”
If deeper investigations into possible past nuclear weapons research in Iran — or any other country — are desired, the world powers should form an organization that has the technical nuclear weapons knowledge, as well as the legal mandate, to be able to do this.