Delicate Diplomacy: Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency

Nov 17 2014
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring

Hugh Chalmers, London

The following article was originally published in the RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 34, No.6) available here

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has now been investigating Iran's disputed nuclear programme for more than a decade, in an attempt to confirm Tehran's assurances that it is entirely peaceful. However, Iran's engagement in this effort has ebbed and flowed with the political tides. Having signed a Framework for Cooperation with the agency last November, many thought that after five years of stasis under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Rouhani's election last August had finally turned the tide back in favour of the agency. But while the agreement has exposed a large swathe of Iran's contentious programme to greater agency scrutiny, the step-by-step framework seems to be faltering on a familiar issue: the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme.

The Framework for Cooperation
The Framework – which sets out a step-by-step process to resolve 'all present and past issues' with the IAEA – has seen some important achievements to date. As per the first two steps, Iran submitted long-sought information on its current and future nuclear activities and allowed the agency to inspect a broader array of facilities. Promisingly, Iran even engaged for the first time since 2008 on the issue of the programme’s possible military dimensions (PMDs), providing the agency with a peaceful (if not particularly plausible) rationale for its development of highly precise exploding bridge wire detonators. Unfortunately, Iran has failed to move beyond this small and relatively uncontroversial aspect of the PMD file.

The framework's third step required Iran to provide yet more information and access to its current nuclear programme, and to address much more controversial aspects of its past nuclear activities. In particular, Iran was meant to provide information relating to its studies of weapons-related nuclear fission reactions, and to allegations that it explored high-explosive means of initiating such reactions. While Iran duly completed the first aspect (albeit a little past the August deadline), it failed to take any concrete steps towards those aspects relating to PMDs. Shortly after missing the deadline for this, Iranian envoy to the IAEA Reza Najafi put this delay down to the 'complexity' of the issues being dealt with, and expected meetings with the agency to resolve the issues 'very soon'. Despite two technical meetings with the IAEA since August, however, the agency’s November report says Iran has provided no clarification of these issues, and has proposed no new steps within the Framework process.

Implications for the EU/E3+3 Joint Plan of Action
Such delays are naturally viewed with suspicion by the EU/E3+3 (comprising the UK, France, Germany, the US, Russia and China), which is trying to hammer out a comprehensive deal with Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed shortly after the Framework for Cooperation last November. By restraining and rolling back parts of Iran's nuclear programme and the multilateral and unilateral sanctions against the country, the JPA has provided a welcome pause in escalating tensions in which to negotiate such a deal. Unfortunately, this pause is set to expire at the end of November and it is unlikely that key differences – relating to the size and duration of constraints on Iran's uranium-enrichment programme – will be resolved by then.

Meanwhile, Iran's apparent unwillingness to significantly advance co-operation with the agency at such a sensitive time has sceptical members of the US Congress particularly worried. An overwhelming majority (524 out of 535 voting members) of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry last month to advise him that if Iran could not be trusted to fulfil its agreement with the IAEA, it cannot be trusted to uphold a comprehensive deal. Shortly after this warning, Iran refused to provide a visa for a US member of the IAEA's inspection team. Any comprehensive solution under the JPA that lacked the tacit, if not explicit, support of the US Congress would be doomed.

In principle, Iran's undertakings under the Framework for Cooperation are entirely distinct from those under the JPA, its obligations under the former not being formally linked to those under the latter. While the JPA created a joint commission of both parties to 'facilitate resolution of past and present issues' with the agency, the leading US negotiator has emphasised that the commission is primarily a channel for the IAEA to raise and resolve questions regarding Iran's commitments under the JPA, not the Framework. Furthermore, the JPA's view of a comprehensive solution involves only the full implementation of 'enhanced monitoring' arrangements with the IAEA and the 'comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions' brought about by Iran's continuing failure to work with the agency. Neither the former nor the latter strictly require Iran to fully resolve past and present issues with the IAEA.

However, in practice the two processes are necessarily linked. A comprehensive solution that brushed Iran's previous misdemeanours entirely under the carpet would not be politically sustainable, and would make a mockery of the agency's UN-mandated work to safeguard the peaceful application of nuclear technology. Equally, an Iranian mea culpa without accompanying restrictions on its programme would do little to satisfy the EU/E3+3, let alone Israel. Indeed, baring all before mutually agreed restrictions and sanctions relief rebuilt a modicum of trust between the two parties would preclude a comprehensive solution emerging at all. The success of one process depends upon its successful co-ordination with the other.

Delicate Diplomacy
The agency is well aware of this. While its Framework with Iran proceeds on a step-by-step basis, the agency is reserving its assessment of Iran's engagement on the PMD issue until it has 'a good understanding of the whole picture', as well as a useful opportunity to make such an assessment. According to the agency, this could take up to fifteen months. This approach makes sense from both technical and political perspectives. The agency's own analysis of the PMD file argues that its individual components come together to form a credible and coherent whole, so its assessment should treat it as such. Furthermore, snap judgements on individual aspects of the PMD file could leak out of the agency and prematurely derail the whole process.

Indeed, Iran may be sceptical of the agency's ability to manage this delicate process. Given the interconnected nature of the PMD file, any admission or acknowledgement of Iran’s part in one area of the file will inevitably reflect upon the whole. And despite the agency's own ‘softly, softly’ approach, signs of Iranian guilt would inevitably reverberate through to capitals in the EU/E3+3, which would dramatically change the tone of negotiations. After all, the IAEA’s secretariat incorporates a number of nuclear experts from the EU/E3+3, representatives of which also sit on the agency’s Board of Governors. If Iran has indeed been concealing nuclear-weapon research, it may feel that ‘coming clean’ on such a programme – which it has strenuously denied and rejected on religious and moral grounds – would involve stepping onto a very slippery slope. This may help to explain Iran's reluctance to move ahead with the IAEA at such a sensitive stage in the JPA process, and may preclude suggestions made by former IAEA Safeguards Director Olli Heinonen that Iran should invite the agency to the controversial Parchin military facility as a confidence-building measure before the end of November.

In this respect, the agency's warning that its assessment of Iran's engagement could take up to fifteen months should be heeded by both impatient members of the EU/E3+3 and nervous Iranian negotiators. Iran has so far addressed only one, uncontroversial aspect of a file that covers twelve different topics; covering issues as diverse as organisational management, warhead arming, fusing, firing systems, and explosive 'hydrodynamic' experiments. Even if it explained its modelling of fission reactions and was able to plausibly deny its exploration of explosive methods to initiate such reactions (as required by step three of the framework), it would still have a lot more explaining to do.

A Slow and Careful Process
Ultimately, the agency’s assessment under the Framework may only be one step in a longer process towards resolving all past and present issues between the IAEA and Iran. It will certainly not involve the mea culpa that some might expect; the loss of face, and certainly the loss of any prospective comprehensive solution, would preclude this. Rather, experienced commentators have suggested that the IAEA’s public assessment of Iran’s co-operation under the Framework would likely be accompanied by a much more private assessment of the information exchanged – delivered confidentially (and carefully) to the EU/E3+3.

Unavoidably, this will be a slow and careful process, and will depend upon delicate diplomacy, the sustained prospect of sanctions relief and, ultimately, the prospect of 'normalised' relations with the IAEA. When Iran first broadened its co-operation with the agency in 2003, the latter warned its Board of Governors that any conclusion that Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful would take some time. Iran's sporadic co-operation with the agency since then does not give much reason to expect that their relations will become ‘normal’ any time soon.

In the meantime, the transparency mechanisms within the Framework for Cooperation and the JPA, not to mention the restraints placed on Iran's programme under the latter, have significantly reduced the opportunities Iran might have to pursue a nuclear capability – either covertly or overtly. Even if Iran’s nuclear past is still very murky, its nuclear present is now somewhat less so. However, if the JPA process collapses entirely at the end of this month, so too would Iran's incentive to co-operate with the agency, and the information and access received to date would become less and less relevant as Iran's nuclear programme continued to evolve without the constraints of the JPA.

Thankfully, the JPA only 'aims' to implement a comprehensive deal by its first anniversary, and while negotiators are keen to discourage complacency, some are already sounding out a further extension. This will be difficult to sell. Both Iran and the EU/E3+3 would need some pay-off for their patience – probably in the form of increased restrictions and transparency on the former's nuclear programme, and further sanctions relief from the latter. It would be even tougher to convince hardliners in the US and Iran – as well as those in Israel, where any suggestion of accepting Iran's nuclear status quo is unacceptable. Yet, for the time being, Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, unnamed 'US officials', and many observers and commentators are beginning to see an extension as the most likely outcome. The alternative – namely the collapse of the JPA, the subsequent loss of trust, and Iran's return to nuclear opacity – certainly seems less attractive.

Last changed: Nov 17 2014 at 6:27 PM