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The current (indirect) negotiations between Iran and the United States over a return to the JCPOA have seen repeated Iranian complaints about the American decision to leave the agreement in 2018. What they have not seen is American statements about Iran’s continuing clandestine efforts to build a nuclear weapon and its refusal to allow mandated inspections.
In general terms, we know how countries behave when they do not seek nuclear weapons. They are completely open with the IAEA, and seek international assistance in getting rid of previous nuclear weapons programs (as South Africa and Libya did) or agree to nuclear power programs that prohibit them from enriching uranium (as the UAE did). Iran, on the contrary, has long maintained a secret nuclear weapons program and has gone to great lengths to conceal it. This concealment continues today, as the great difficulty the IAEA has had in accessing sites it believes it must visit has shown repeatedly.
The following comes from a news story published in the UAE this week:
Iran is seeking technology in Europe that it needs to develop weapons of mass destruction, Dutch intelligence says. A report by the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands said that these efforts continued last year. The findings come after a German intelligence agency last month said Tehran was turning to Europe in its quest for weapons of mass destruction….Sweden also accused Iran of carrying out industrial espionage aimed at products that could be used to make nuclear weapons….Last month, Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Bavaria, a German state, likewise named Iran as one of several countries trying to develop weapons of mass destruction….In Sweden, an annual security report published in March accused Iran of industrial espionage. This was “mainly targeted at high-tech Swedish industry and Swedish products which could be used in nuclear weapons programmes”, the report said.
A story in the Jerusalem Post added that “According to the Dutch report, "The joint Counter-Proliferation Unit [UCP] of the AIVD and the MIVD [the country’s Military Intelligence and Security Service] is investigating how countries try to obtain the knowledge and goods they need to make weapons of mass destruction. Countries such as Syria, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea also tried to acquire such goods and technology in Europe and the Netherlands last year."
Two things struck me immediately about these European reports. First, they were nowhere to be seen on the front pages of The New York Times or Washington Post, which cover the Iran nuclear talks closely. Surely the fact that Iran continues actively to seek the elements it needs to build nuclear weapons is relevant to those talks.
Second, those Iranian procurement efforts remind us how closely Iran must be monitored—far more closely than is guaranteed by the JCPOA. I am reminded of a statement made by the head of United States delegation at the June 2020 IAEA Board of Governors meeting:
It has now been nearly one year since the IAEA first sought clarifications from Iran about possible undeclared nuclear material and activities at… three locations, and Iran has denied the IAEA access for over four months to two of these locations….For all three locations, the Agency reports indications of sanitization or demolition. In one case, these sanitization activities occurred from July 2019 onward, immediately after the IAEA reportedly questioned Iran about the detection of particles of chemically processed uranium at the separate location reported earlier.
So let me reiterate a few key facts that Iran cannot wish away: the Director General has reported to the Board that there are no less than four undeclared locations in Iran at which undeclared nuclear material has potentially been present and at which undeclared activities have possibly occurred. The IAEA has tirelessly sought Iran’s cooperation, but Tehran continues to stonewall the investigation.
This is the truth about verification and monitoring of Iran’s conduct under the JCPOA, and it is a far cry from the statements made by Obama administration spokesmen back in 2015: “under this deal you will have anywhere, anytime 24/7 access as it relates to the nuclear facilities that Iran has.” This truth is one explanation why a return to the JCPOA would, if it were attained, be an inadequate safeguard against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What is disappointing and dangerous is the apparent willingness of the negotiators to ignore the record of Iran’s deceit, obfuscation, delay, and clandestine procurement efforts.
The Biden administration has a sort of answer to this complaint: step one is to go back to the JCPOA, then step two will be to negotiate something longer and stronger. But the administration will, I believe, agree to lift the most important financial and petroleum sanctions to get back to the JCPOA, thereby eliminating its own best leverage to get a further agreement. The remaining sanctions leverage will not be enough. It is sometimes argued that we still have things Iran wants: more trade, more investment, normalization. Count me as a doubter. Does the Supreme Leader of a regime that has been saying "Death to America" for forty years want normalization with the United States, more U.S. investment, and a U.S. Embassy in Tehran? There will be no further agreement. What there will be is a continuation of Iran's violations of the JCPOA, and of its secret efforts to prepare to build a nuclear weapon. That seems to me to be the dangerous road ahead.