Parallel negotiating tracks with Iran: the P5+1 and the IAEA

Jofi JosephJofi Joseph, a former director for nonproliferation on the White House National Security Council staff, explains the parallel but separate negotiating tracks over Iran's nuclear program. He writes that the P5+1 negotiations, which focus on the future of Iran's nuclear program, and the IAEA's efforts to investigate the program's past are often confused. It is important to understand the difference, he argues, because the two tracks may soon intersect during the implementation of the interim agreement worked out between Iran and the P5+1 at Geneva.

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By Jofi Joseph

Technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran met last week in Geneva to further discuss details on the interim set of confidence-building measures agreed upon in mid-November. Once the confidence-building-measure phase takes effect later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will assume an expanded role to verify Iran’s compliance with the limits it has accepted on its nuclear program, including halting all 20% enrichment, capping existing enrichment capacity, and accepting daily inspections from IAEA personnel at its primary enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

However, the IAEA continues to pursue discussions with Iran that remains wholly distinct from the P5+1’s efforts. These dual negotiations often are confused with one another and will in fact likely intersect if a comprehensive solution to the international community’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program is to be found. Meanwhile, however, they remain on parallel but separate tracks. It is useful to understand the distinct objectives of these two negotiating tracks if only to help ensure that Iran does not seek to artificially link the two tracks and/or seek to portray progress in one track to obscure an impasse in the other. 

IAEA Board of Governors meeting

By Dean Calma (IAEA Website [1]) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Conceptually, it is best to think of the IAEA track as taking a retrospective look at the past history of Iran’s nuclear program and the P5+1 track as taking a prospective look at the future of Iran’s program. For the past decade the IAEA has engaged in a continuous effort to clarify the scope and nature of Iran’s entire nuclear program, both those elements formally declared to the IAEA and other aspects that were only declared after the fact or remain shrouded in mystery. Relying on information provided by its member states and conducting its own investigation and analysis, the IAEA has repeatedly affirmed that it cannot provide credible assurance on the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran and therefore cannot conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is engaged in only peaceful activities. Furthermore, as outlined in extensive detail in a landmark November 2011 report to the Board of Governors, the IAEA has also established serious concerns on possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program—the so-called “PMD” issue. In short, the IAEA is concerned that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device—the so-called “weaponization” activities required once a state has accumulated sufficient fissile material.

Resolution of concerns that Iran has engaged in undeclared activities toward the end of assembling a nuclear warhead cannot be achieved by the IAEA’s implementation of routine safeguards, which are oriented more toward affirming that Iran has not diverted any of its enriched uranium produced at Natanz and Fordow. For this reason, the IAEA, under two different directors general, has engaged in long-running talks with Iran to seek additional access to sites, facilities, documents, and personnel that would establish the historical record, clarify outstanding questions, and ultimately help prove or disprove the IAEA’s concerns. This type of access is not spelled out in Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, and thus the IAEA must negotiate with Iran the circumstances of the unique additional access it is requesting (though Iran’s adoption of the Additional Protocol would greatly help in this regard). The IAEA’s final goal would be to establish confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

The P5+1, on the other hand, has spent the last decade (with the European powers the initial negotiating partners and joined by the others in 2006) negotiating with Iran over future limitations on its civilian nuclear program. These talks historically have been less focused on verification measures required to provide full transparency into Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, their emphasis has rested on whether, and if so to what extent, Iran can initiate and operate fuel cycle activities to produce enriched uranium and generate spent fuel that could be reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium. The underlying goal of these efforts is to limit Iran’s breakout capability—the ability to quickly produce highly enriched uranium and/or weapons grade plutonium for one or more nuclear weapons within a short timeframe. This emphasis on breakout capability recognizes that Iran could fully comply with verification and transparency requirements imposed by the IAEA, all the while putting in place the capability to quickly dash for a nuclear weapon at the time and place of its choosing. Hence the emphasis of the P5+1 in recent years on limiting Iran’s centrifuge capacity, its stocks of enriched uranium, and its ability to use a heavy water reactor at Arak to produce spent fuel.

As implementation of the confidence-building-measure phase begins later this month and the focus turns to discussions on a comprehensive agreement on the end state of Iran’s nuclear program, the parallel tracks of the P5+1 and the IAEA's respective negotiations with Iran may finally intersect. It is unclear how any final agreement between the P5+1 and Iran will address the outstanding questions surrounding Iran’s past weaponization activities, which as the IAEA has suggested may still be continuing at some level.  The only reference to the IAEA in the Joint Plan of Action outlining the Geneva agreement rests in one sentence in the preamble: “The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to resolve resolution of past and present issues of concern.”

There may be an implicit preference by the P5+1 to sweep the weaponization issue under the rug. It is always difficult to prove a negative and, even if Iran significantly expanded access to IAEA inspectors, even to include interviews with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the alleged mastermind behind the Amad Plan, doubts likely would persist that Iran was still hiding something. The P5+1 may instead be tempted to set aside this issue and focus its attention on concrete, verifiable limits to Iran’s future breakout capability. Indeed, senior IAEA officials have privately voiced such concerns, nervous that a P5+1 agreement with Iran will leave the IAEA holding the bag on unresolved weaponization concerns.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to envision any definitive solution to international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program that does not, in some way, address the question of Iran’s past and possibly present efforts on nuclear weaponization. Certainly, regional partners and the U.S. Congress will likely cry foul if concerns persist that Iran has not fully owned up to a secret, military-led effort to develop the skills needed to assemble a nuclear warhead. For this reason, it is incumbent upon the P5+1 and the IAEA to maintain close and open lines of communication over the coming months to ensure they do not cross wires as they pursue the shared goal of verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.

Jofi Joseph worked on US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and participated in P5+1 negotiations with Iran as a director for nonproliferation on the White House National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2013.