U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, during official talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday, May 30, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, during official talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday, May 30, 2015. Susan Walsh/AP

Iran’s Nuclear Past Should Not Scuttle A Deal for Its Future

It’s more important to know Tehran will have no nuclear weapons for the next 20 years than to obsess over what it did 20 years ago.

Secretary of State John Kerry is tasked by his political foes to deliver one impossible concession from Iran after another. The latest is that Iran must fully confess all its past transgressions before any final deal can be concluded. After Secretary Kerry hinted at a possible compromise on this issue on June 16, Liz Cheney tweeted, “Without full accounting of past activity, verification is impossible.” Is this true?

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran conducted research on nuclear weapon designs before 2003. The publicly available evidence is mostly circumstantial, but it is fairly strong. It appears to most experts that Iran — spurred to action when Iraq invaded in 1980 — worked on warhead design, triggering mechanisms for a nuclear bomb and other weapons-related research.

The agencies believe that this research ended in 2003 and has not resumed, at least not as a structured program. The agencies further conclude that Iran has not made a decision to get a nuclear weapon. Further, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress in February that the interim agreement reached in November 2013 has:

“Inhibited further progress in its uranium enrichment and plutonium production capabilities and effectively eliminated Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. The agreement has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly through improved International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access and earlier warning of any effort to make material for nuclear weapons using its safeguarded facilities.”

But Tehran has refused to answer a series of specific questions about its past work posed by the IAEA. Most likely, Iran is stonewalling because to tell the truth would be to admit something they have steadfastly denied for years.

It is an important issue, but ought not be a deal-killer. “It should not be a litmus test of whether a comprehensive agreement can be reached” between Iran and the world powers, says Ed Levine, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who is now an advisor to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The final agreement, expected in early July, can set up a mechanism for getting the answers critics so desperately want. The reality is that it will be easier for Iran to provide access to the scientists and sites that inspectors require if its leaders know that they will not be penalized for doing so. 

And in any case, most experts believe it is more important to stop Iran’s program now, and to know what Iran will be able to do after 2015, than to know all they might have done before 2003. 

This sort of logic led Secretary Kerry to say:

“We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.

What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.”

He is absolutely right. Fencing in Iran’s nuclear capabilities over the next 20 years is more critical than a full confession of what they did 20 years ago – particularly if U.S. intelligence agencies already know what they did. The reason the IAEA is asking for access to specific sites and people is because U.S. intelligence told them where to look. We already know what Iran did. And Iran knows that we know.

Resolution of all the questions regarding past research is not necessary to lock in this agreement. The deal under negotiation will slash Iran’s nuclear program to a fraction of its present size and implement an intrusive inspection regime that can ensure full compliance. It will give inspectors the access needed to help ensure that the past weapons work is not reconstituted.

A group of experts led by retired ambassadors Tom Pickering and William Luers concluded in a new report:

“A deeper and more comprehensive accounting of Iran’s activities will come from an expanded and more intrusive safeguards system extending for the first time ever to uranium mines and mills and to the creation of a new, transparent procurement channel.

These new measures will make it exceedingly difficult for Iran to carry out a parallel, covert weapons program…

The United States does not need to know everything about the past before testing the possibility of securing and monitoring over the next few years an Iranian nuclear program that is for peaceful uses only.”

So, Cheney’s claim that verification is impossible without resolving all the past issues is nonsense. Having Iranian officials publicly acknowledge their past sins might be as satisfying as having Cersei Lannister kneel in confession before the High Sparrow, but it won’t substantially improve our knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program or our national security.