How to Deal With the Nuclear Skeletons in Iran’s Closet
The brazen assassination of the head of Iran’s former nuclear weapons program last month and Iran’s threats of retaliation have — once again — highlighted how quickly tensions can escalate in the Middle East. Observers rightly noted that the perpetrator — likely Israel — was probably motivated by a desire to complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s plan of resuscitating the Iran nuclear deal. But perhaps most of all these events are a stark reminder that, even though Iran’s weapons program ended over 15 years ago, the ghosts of that program continue to haunt the present.
For a Biden administration keen on re-entering the nuclear deal, convincing Tehran to rollback its nuclear program might be the easy part. Indeed, Tehran has repeatedly stated it will come back into compliance with the 2015 accord that President Donald Trump withdrew from, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if the United States does the same. But the harder task might be deciding what to do about Iran’s nuclear weapons past.
That program — known as the Amad Plan — was a dedicated, covert effort by Iran to produce a missile-deliverable nuclear weapon. Evidence suggests that it ran from the 1990s until 2003 when public exposure of sensitive nuclear sites and resulting international pressure and scrutiny led Iran to cancel the program. Despite years of international efforts, Iran has so far failed to come clean about its former weapons program. Understanding why — and why it matters — is key to developing a realistic strategy for managing, and in some cases leveraging, that past for U.S. goals. The good news is that the United States can still prevent an Iranian bomb, even if Iran doesn’t cough up its buried nuclear secrets.
Why Iran’s Past Program Still Matters
Why, exactly, does an abandoned weapons program still matter for U.S. policy? Three primary reasons stand out.
First, new questions about those past activities emerged in 2018 following Israel’s daring grab of a trove of documents out of Iran — the so-called “nuclear archive” — that provided fresh details about this previous program. Over the past two years, Iran has been largely uncooperative in addressing the concerns of international inspectors, and those same inspectors have determined that Iran’s answers are not credible. The U.S. and international concern here isn’t that Iran is secretly building a bomb right now, but that Tehran is failing to fulfill its basic safeguards obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by concealing past activities, including some that likely involved undeclared nuclear material. It is highly likely that such concerns and questions will persist as Biden enters office.
Second, having accurate information about the extent of Iran’s past work and what former members of that program are doing now are important to detecting any renewed weapons effort. As State Department reports have detailed, some of the scientists involved in the former program have been housed in a new research institute — which was led by the former head of that program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, until his assassination — and employed on weaponization-relevant activities.
Third, the United States needs to think about what this former program means for its efforts to build on the nuclear deal (e.g., extending sunset clauses, strengthening and extending monitoring provisions) and for sustaining any nuclear deal over time. Iran’s refusal to come clean is unlikely to change, and it is doubtful all of the evidence about Iran’s past has been publicized, meaning further surprises are likely. How should the United States balance managing concerns about Iran’s past with sustaining a deal that is otherwise effectively keeping Iran’s program contained in the present? What role, if any, should concerns about Iran’s past and Iran’s failure to account for it play in the negotiation of a successor to the agreement? There are no easy or straightforward answers to these questions, but they are important.
Thankfully, at least as of today it appears the United States doesn’t need to consider these questions against a ticking clock. There is no evidence that Iran is actively working toward a nuclear weapon, or that these activities in question are ongoing. All appear to be centered on work that ended long ago and related cleanup efforts. Moreover, official U.S. reports have been consistent since 2007 that, while Iran may have engaged in some dual-use activities, it has not re-started its former weapons program, which ended in 2003. The U.S. State Department said as recently as this year — notably, after the archives had already been discovered — that “Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.” These conclusions are largely consistent with the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency — the organization charged with monitoring Iran’s program. Thus, while the archives might provide interesting new details, there’s no indication they change the big picture.
Why Iran Hasn’t Come Clean
The Trump administration and critics of the agreement have claimed that the existence of the archives proves that Iran can never be trusted and justifies their decision to leave the nuclear deal. They have also insinuated — without presenting clear evidence — that Iran might even be continuing a weapons program today. This is why the Trump administration insisted that, as part of any future deal, Iran must come clean and open the doors on its nuclear past. Former Trump officials and other deal critics have recently argued that these concerns over potential secret nuclear activities should put the brakes on any plans by Biden to return to the deal.
But the Trump “all or nothing” approach is not practical and is unlikely to succeed for three reasons.
First, the chances that Iran will come clean are extremely low. Iran believes that any confession — no matter how complete — would be dismissed as insufficient and lead to more international scrutiny and pressure from the United States and the West, not less. These fears are not unfounded. The United States withdrew from the deal despite Iranian compliance — an act a future Republican administration may repeat if Biden is able to return to the agreement — and regime change remains popular among some U.S. policy circles. Iran also fears turning over a list of scientists would just result in more assassinations. As a result, Iran will likely continue to respond to International Atomic Energy Agency concerns as it has always done: with a combination of denial, dismissal, presenting partial or fabricated information, and taking steps to eliminate incriminating evidence.
Second, coming clean would also require Iran to reverse the carefully crafted narrative that it has developed over the years — that the evidence against Iran is fabricated and is part of a U.S. and Israeli plot to keep the pressure on Iran. This would force Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to either admit to lying to the Iranian public, or claim that the weapons program occurred without his knowledge. Neither of these is appealing for a man who has cultivated an image of a benevolent yet divinely anointed and powerful ruler.
Finally, Iran likely held on to some of the knowledge and capabilities of its past program precisely because it wanted to preserve its future option to build a nuclear weapon. This approach — known in the nuclear field as a hedging strategy — should not be confused with an intent to build nuclear weapons. The factors that give rise to hedging — strategic uncertainties and domestic politics among them — can’t be easily changed. Iran’s supreme leader hasn’t made the decision to go nuclear like North Korea, but he certainly doesn’t want to end up like former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who gave up his nuclear program in a deal with the West only to be killed in the violent overthrow of his government after a NATO-led intervention in the country’s civil war.
What Should Biden Do?
The Biden administration should be modest in its expectations of what it can achieve when it comes to forcing Iran to provide an honest an accounting of its past. Trying to force Iran to cop to its former program isn’t feasible, but the good news is that it isn’t necessary to achieve the U.S. goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The United States doesn’t need to know everything about Iran’s past: It only needs to know enough to have confidence that Iran can’t build a bomb without detection in the present. This is achieved through international inspections, U.S. and allied intelligence, and yes, enhanced monitoring under the Iran nuclear deal. How much is “enough” is not a fixed answer and it is more art than science. Indeed, there may come a time when urgent evidence emerges of Iranian cheating — for example, a covert enrichment facility or resumed weaponization work. But nothing suggests it is at that point yet.
Washington should not hold hostage the potential to resume a nuclear deal that was working to the impossible task of unearthing all of the skeletons of Iran’s nuclear past. If the last four years has proven anything, it is that the United States is better able to influence Iran’s nuclear trajectory from within the deal than from outside. Indeed, the international pressure on Iran from the nuclear archives has benefits: It can help Iran think twice before resuming a weapons effort, and provide useful leverage as the Biden administration renews nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
None of this is to say that the United States shouldn’t push Iran to fulfill its obligations. It should. But Washington shouldn’t sacrifice the ability to detect a future Iranian weapons program just to catch Iran in a lie about its nuclear past.
Eric Brewer is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He formerly served as deputy national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction and proliferation, where he was responsible for leading intelligence community assessments on Iran’s nuclear program and monitoring Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrewerEricM.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community, or any other U.S. government agency.
Image: President of Iran