Iran's "possible military dimensions" disclosures: What to expect

Jofi JosephJofi Joseph tracks developments in negotiations between Iran and the IAEA over the IAEA's investigation into Iran's past efforts to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran appears to be cooperating, he writes, but it is important to be realistic about the outcome of the investigation and how it will affect ongoing talks on the future of the Iranian nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1.

By Jofi Joseph

Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran disclosed that his government is drafting a “comprehensive” accounting of Iran’s nuclear activities.   Although he did not provide further details, many understood this statement as an effort by Tehran to begin preparing the groundwork to address long standing international concerns over past and possibly present activities explicitly related to a nuclear weapons program – above and beyond Iran’s declared efforts to develop the capability to produce fissile material.  The spokesman indicated that a final report could be ready in eight months, which would place it shortly after the expiration of the interim six month agreement under the Joint Plan of Action in July.  Although it is important to not exaggerate the importance of an isolated set of remarks, this development could be another hopeful indicator that the Iranian government is preparing its domestic constituencies for the compromises necessary to secure a comprehensive and permanent agreement on its nuclear program later this year.

As explained here, talks over Iran’s weaponization activities have been occurring on a separate but parallel track with negotiations over Iran’s capabilities to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for potential use as fissile material.  While the latter talks have taken place between Iran and the P5+1, the former have proceeded more quietly between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  However, all involved have understood that these two tracks would eventually converge in the context of a comprehensive agreement that specifies overall limitations on Iran’s nuclear program for a certain period of time in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.  The rationale is simple – it would be difficult for the United States and its international partners to agree to a comprehensive resolution with Iran if they continued to lack a broadly accurate picture of Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear warhead for potential delivery by a ballistic missile.   This is true for both substantive and political reasons.  Without an understanding of how far Iran progressed in efforts to develop a nuclear warhead, significant doubts would remain over whether any agreed limits on Iran’s fissile material production are sufficiently robust to ensure a long lead time were Iran ever to attempt a breakout.  Politically, it would be difficult for the Obama Administration to secure the support of Israel and Gulf State allies, not to mention the domestic backing of the U.S. Congress, if Iran were perceived as being allowed to hide significant portions of its overall nuclear efforts.

Ali Akbar Salehi and Yukiya Amano in Tehran
November 1, 2013 - Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, pose for a photo in Tehran. (AP Photo/ ISNA, Mehdi Ghasemi)

For these reasons, it is clear that Iran will need to provide an accounting of its previously covert weaponization activities.  U.S. officials have never specified the exact level of cooperation they expect from Iran in this regard, but have generally pointed to the need for Iran to make available those sites, documents, and personnel necessary for the IAEA to “facilitate resolution of past and present concerns” regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  As negotiations progress in the coming months, it is useful to parse out what this may mean in practice, identify those essential requirements Iran must meet, and rule out excessive demands that may only serve to imperil the diplomatic process.  Accordingly, here are some key points to remember:

  • The IAEA’s November 2011 report provides a useful roadmap.  In 2011, a number of IAEA Member States encouraged Director General Amano and his Secretariat staff to summarize the IAEA’s concerns over Iran’s covert weaponization activities and identify the key areas of outstanding concern.  In response, the Director General attached an annex to his regular report on Iran’s nuclear program at the November Board Meeting, reviewing the history of IAEA-Iran interactions on the so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program.  The annex categorizes the primary concerns of the IAEA – ranging from suspected development of detonators and neutron initiators to Iranian efforts to prepare for a potential nuclear explosive test and integrating a nuclear warhead into a ballistic missile.  Subsequently, the Director General has occasionally referenced new, additional information that has come to the IAEA’s attention, but its core concerns on PMD remain those issues laid out in the November 2011 report.  To the extent that Iran can address these items, either by providing the relevant information on the scope, content, and final results of these projects or offering exonerating information, it can effectively neutralize the concerns outlined in the PMD dossier. 
  • Iran will resist providing any more information than what is minimally required.  For years, Tehran has questioned the legitimacy of the IAEA’s investigation of potential weaponization activities, asserting that the IAEA only has a mandate to investigate those facilities and/or activities where fissile material is present and noting that the IAEA’s request to inspect facilities such as Parchin is inappropriate because these sites are military in nature and hence off-limits to international inspection.   Such behavior is likely to continue, even if the Iranian government today is more inclined to positive cooperation with the international agency.  The IAEA, closely consulting with P5+1 interlocutors, should take an appropriately discriminating approach that demands full Iranian transparency on key items while acknowledging Iran’s sovereignty concerns and not overly pressing for marginal information.  At a minimum, IAEA personnel should be able to interview -- without government minders -- Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the alleged mastermind of Iran’s overall weaponization efforts (known as the Amad Plan) as well as other key figures.
  • Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  Ideally, Iran will provide the IAEA a comprehensive dossier listing every project conducted over the past twenty five years, no matter how small-scale and how theoretical in nature, that in any way could be linked to the Amad Plan or other nuclear weapons-related research.   In the real world, that won’t happen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran has failed to cooperate.  What matters most to the international community is developing the confidence that any significant activities Iran may have engaged in the past have now completely halted and that Iran has provided a sufficient level of transparency on its historical activities to help ensure that any future efforts to restart weaponization activities or programs would be detected in a timely fashion.  If, after the fact, we learn that Iran failed to disclose an academic study conducted fifteen years ago that could theoretically provide support to a weaponization program, we shouldn’t immediately declare that an Iranian violation.  Context matters here.

A final word on timing:  it is not essential that Iran provide a full accounting of its past and present weaponization activities by the time a comprehensive agreement is signed, which could occur as early as July.  Genuine cooperation between Iran and IAEA inspectors will take time to unfold, and we shouldn’t necessarily seek to rush this process for the benefit of artificial deadlines.  Instead, the P5+1 and Iran could structure a comprehensive agreement whereby material progress on the PMD dossier, as certified by the IAEA Secretariat, could trigger phased relief on some of the existing sanctions against Iran.  That could establish another incentive for Iran to continue cooperation on weaponization concerns even as implementation of the comprehensive agreement has already begun.


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.