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Don't Trust, Can't Verify

9:05 AM, Nov 26, 2013 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The second line of the new nuclear deal with Iran is curious, to say the least: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.”

This is an Iranian talking point. Iran claims that all of its nuclear work is peaceful. But Iran is not trustworthy. Thus, it is curious that the Iranian talking point would be included as a given in the preamble to the new deal, as it was.

Incredibly, the rest of the agreement includes no mention of the evidence indicating that the Iranians have been seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, despite their denial.

This evidence is hardly a secret.

On November 14, the IAEA published a report detailing the current state of Iran’s nuclear program.

“Since 2002,” the report reads, “the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

This language echoed earlier IAEA analyses. The evidence was first set forth in the annex to the Agency’s November 2011 report. The IAEA’s assessment has not weakened since then.

The IAEA’s November 14 report continues (footnotes omitted, emphasis added):

This information is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. Iran has dismissed the Agency’s concerns, largely on the grounds that Iran considers them to be based on unfounded allegations. Since November 2011, the Agency has obtained more information which further corroborates the analysis contained in that Annex.

Thus, the new deal glosses over one of principal issues negotiators should be seeking to settle. The Iranians deny that they have engaged in “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” But the IAEA – including in a report filed less than two weeks ago – says that the evidence against the Iranians’ denial has only grown stronger since it was first revealed to the world two years ago.

Is the Obama administration laboring under the illusion that Iran’s denial of any military-related work is, to a large extent, credible? It certainly appears that way.

During a news conference in late September, President Obama said he was optimistic about the possibility of reaching a diplomatic compromise. “I do believe that there is a basis for resolution,” Obama said. “Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has cited the same alleged fatwa.

As others first noticed, Ayatollah Khamenei has not issued a formal fatwa, or religious ruling, prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons. The Iranians concede this, but argue that Khamenei’s public pronouncements against nukes are just as good. The first such utterance from Khamenei reportedly came in 2003 – the same year that U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam’s regime and the Iranians, according to the U.S. intelligence community’s previous assessments, supposedly stopped working on nuclear weapons.

Such statements are not binding, however. Khamenei could simply override his earlier statements when necessary. And there are other problems with the Iranians’ line of argument as well.

Consider what Khamenei claimed just last year. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” Khamenei said (emphasis added) in 2012.

Khamenei’s claim doesn’t square with the evidence the IAEA has accumulated since 2002.

Even the most egregious example of wishful thinking when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program – the U.S. intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – concluded that Iran had been working on a “nuclear weapons program” until it was supposedly “halted” in the fall of 2003.

There were many problems with the 2007 NIE, and the IAEA’s subsequent reporting has contradicted the intelligence community’s assessment that Iran’s work had been stopped. In 2011, for instance, the IAEA reported there are “indications” that “some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”  

But it is worth stressing that even in the NIE’s world Iran had been working on nuclear weapons at one point, making Khamenei’s unequivocal denial problematic for those who want to take the Ayatollah at his word now.

The problem is that Iran’s military-related nuclear work undermines the same statements made by Khamenei that Obama has deemed credible.

Why should we believe Khamenei’s claim that Iran “will never pursue nuclear weapons” when he hasn’t, according to the IAEA’s evidence, told the truth about his nation’s past endeavors?

The text of the new deal with Iran focuses mainly on uranium enrichment and related activities. The deal does not explicitly mention the evidence concerning Iran’s military-related work on nuclear weapons, as documented by the IAEA, nor Iran’s development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. The IAEA’s own “framework for cooperation” with Iran, signed earlier this month, does not explicitly mention this weapons work either. Apparently, it is a matter to be pursued in future negotiations.

For its part, the IAEA believes that Iran has been working hard to make sure that its weapons work is never fully discovered. The Parchin site is one location where the Iranians are suspected of carrying out nuclear weapons-related work.

“Since the Agency’s first request for access,” the IAEA noted again in its November 14 report, “extensive activities have taken place at this location [Parchin] that will seriously undermined [sic] the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.”

That is, the IAEA says it can't verify the intelligence about Parchin, or even Iran's denials with respect to Parchin, because the Iranians have scrubbed the site. This is almost certainly the case when it comes to other aspects of Iran's clandestine nuclear work -- verification is impossible.

Meanwhile, the Iranians continue to insist there is nothing more to its quest for nuclear power. And the world’s negotiators have now lent credence to their claim.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  

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