The information contained in the November 2011 IAEA report regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA leave little doubt that Iran aims to become at least a nuclear threshold state.1  A threshold state is defined here as a state that has the scientific, technical and industrial capability to manufacture more than one nuclear weapon within one year of a decision to do so.

The Iranian regime has devoted ample resources to the nuclear program over a period of more than 25 years. Today, this program is too advanced to reasonably hope that any future government in Iran would be willing to, or even could (for internal political reasons), abandon the elements which have been declared, no matter the level of sanctions. What could possibly change is the tactic used by the Iranian leadership to minimize the level and impact of sanctions while most likely maintaining the option to restart weaponization activities at short notice.2

Against this background, the P5+1, with the support of other key stakeholders such as Turkey, should explore how Iran and the international community might realistically cooperate to find a mutually beneficial end to this almost decade-long stand-off. In case these efforts fail, it is also necessary to explore what could dissuade Iran from taking the decision to actually manufacture nuclear weapons, withdraw from the NPT, and test a nuclear weapon as North Korea did in 2006.

It is likely that if Iran becomes a de facto nuclear threshold state, other countries in the region will be inclined to launch extensive nuclear programs to reach a similar status, which, to a large extent, can be achieved without violating their IAEA Safeguards Agreements. It is reasonable to fear that a Middle East in which several countries have become nuclear threshold states would be more unstable. So what can be done to avoid this precarious order from becoming a reality?

For any negotiation to succeed, the outcome must be perceived to be more of a win-win than a lose-lose solution for both parties, and both sides must be willing to negotiate simultaneously and in good faith. Because these conditions apparently were not met in the past, there have been a number of missed opportunities to make progress in resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.3  Is there any hope that they can be met in the near future? If Iran’s nuclear activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes, as Iran insists, the answer should be positive. If they are not, the answer is more doubtful, but should not preclude stakeholders from engaging, once more, in diplomatic dialogue - even if at the present Iran does not appear inclined toward such engagement.

Before negotiations with Iran begin, it is essential that an agreement is reached among the P5+1 (hopefully with the support of other major stakeholders such as Turkey) on what they will offer to Iran and what would be the consequences if Iran further escalates the nuclear crisis. The cooperation proposal made to Iran by the P-5 and the EU in June 2008 (and reproduced in Annex IV of UNSC Resolution1929 on June 9, 2010) is made conditional, inter alia, upon suspension of Iran’s enrichment-related activities. Let’s not delude ourselves; if in 2003 it was still possible to hope that Iran would suspend its uranium enrichment-related activities in exchange for credible security and economic benefits, this is no longer the case today.

Such a condition is most likely not included in the Russian two-page memo sent last summer to Iran.  What the Russian offer included has not been made public, but according to my colleague Marks Hibbs,

“It contains the germ of what could become an agreement by Iran to limit enrichment to 5% U-235; an agreement by Iran to limit enrichment activity in Iran to just one [in some versions of what's on the table two] locations in Iran; and--finally and crucially--an agreement by Iran to afford the IAEA access to sites, personnel, and data to permit it to conclude whether the Iranian nuclear program is in its judgment dedicated to peaceful use only. That means implementation of the Additional Protocol.”

The first major goal in solving Iran’s nuclear impasse is for the Agency to be able to draw a “broad conclusion” that there are no undeclared nuclear materials and activities in Iran, and that Iran’s declarations to the IAEA are correct and complete. To reach such a conclusion within a reasonable period of time, and considering the loopholes of the Additional Protocol (AP),4  Iran would have to conclude with the IAEA and fully implement a Temporary Complementary Protocol (TCP). A TCP should enable the Agency to verify and evaluate in a timely manner the absence of undeclared nuclear material, equipment and activities in a state that is found to be in non-compliance with its Safeguards Agreement.5  

In case Iran agrees to fully implement the TCP, the IAEA Board of Governors should commit to accord Iran a grace period during which Iran would not be penalized should it voluntarily disclose the existence of undeclared nuclear material and activities, and/or acknowledge any past violations of the NPT or of its safeguards agreement.6  On the contrary, Iran would be praised for its cooperation with the IAEA and its additional breaches would be reported to the UNSC for "information purposes only" (as was done for Libya). Without such a grace period, there is no reason to expect that Iran would fully cooperate with the IAEA or voluntarily declare any past violations.

Until the IAEA has drawn a “broad conclusion,” Iran should commit to send abroad its domestic stockpile of LEU every six months for incorporation into fabricated fuel assemblies for the Bushehr reactor and possibly other light water reactors, while continuing to enrich uranium below 5% U-235. It would also be important that Iran concludes an Infcirc/66-type safeguards agreement with the IAEA for all nuclear fuel cycle facilities.7

As long as Iran does not suspend its enrichment-related activities or the IAEA does not reach a “broad conclusion,” it is very unlikely that the UNSC would lift present sanctions. However, as soon (and as long) as Iran agrees to implement the TCP and the other requirements mentioned above, the P5+1 could commit to not implement additional sanctions and the US and the EU could commit to progressively suspend sanctions going beyond those decided by the UNSC under Chapter VII resolutions as a function of progress reported by the IAEA.8 In parallel, the P5+1 would negotiate with Iran over how best to further define, expand, and implement the long-term cooperation agreement specified in Annex IV of UNSC Resolution 1929.

Once the IAEA has reached a “broad conclusion,” Iran would no longer be obliged to export its domestic production of LEU, and UNSC sanctions would progressively be lifted.

The approach suggested above will not succeed if Iran’s aim is indeed to become a nuclear threshold (or weapons) state and continues to ignore IAEA Board of Governors’ demands and defy legally binding UNSC resolutions.

To dissuade Iran from escalating the tension, the UNSC should adopt a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter deciding (not “affirming”) that if Iran were to produce high-enriched uranium, separate plutonium, or notify its withdrawal from the NPT before the IAEA is able to draw a broad conclusion of the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, a number of well-defined additional sanctions would automatically be applicable and implemented. Similar measures would be adopted if Iran were found, after the grace period, to be proceeding with nuclear weaponization activities9 or to divert nuclear material.

The merit of such an approach would be to make Iran clearly responsible for any negative consequence of its decisions, knowing in advance that it cannot use negotiations as a tactic for creating disunity among the permanent members of the UNSC. It could help those in Iran who are not determined to reach a nuclear weapons capability at all cost make a more compelling case to follow a different course. On the other hand, any significant opening or concession made by Iran during the negotiations should be praised (in particular by the media) and qualified as a demonstration of self-confidence of the regime and not as a sign that Iran is backing down under international sanctions.

The direction of Iran’s nuclear program is grim, but not decided. The international community should act now to use all diplomatic means to persuade Iran that it is in its best interest to fully cooperate with the IAEA and to dissuade Iran from withdrawing from the NPT and manufacturing and testing a nuclear weapon.10


1. A number of commentators insist that there is no definite proof that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but without specifying what, in their view, would constitute proof that Iran seeks to become a nuclear threshold state. 

2. Some experts are of the view that this is too pessimistic, that Iran might be persuaded to abandon the objective of having the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons at short notice.

3.  For example, in early 2003, the US did not respond to Iran’s secret offer to engage in negotiations; later in 2004 and 2005, Iran did not agree to seriously discuss EU-3 offers, nor the long-term cooperation agreements offered by the P5+1 and appended to UNSC resolutions 1747 (March 2007) and 1929 (June 2010). Early in his presidency, Barack Obama sent a letter to Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, in an attempt to open dialogue between the two nations. It was ignored. Again, Iran did not accept the swap of LEU in exchange of fuel elements for the Tehran Research Reactor in October 2009, and when Iran accepted a similar offer brokered by Brazil and Turkey in January 2010, the US and EU deemed it no longer acceptable because Iran had in the meantime enriched uranium to 19.75% U-235.

4. For instance the AP does not specify deadlines for States to respond to Agency’s requests for information or clarification. It contains no provisions on the Agency’s access rights to persons it wishes to interview. There is no explicit reference in the AP to the obligation of a state to submit the original documents supporting the state’s declarations (possibly for forensic analysis) and copies thereof. For more on the limitations of the Additional Protocol, see P. Goldschmidt, “IAEA Safeguards: Dealing preventively with non-compliance,” July 12, 2008.

5. The full text of the TCP can be found in “Concrete Steps to Improve the Nonproliferation Regime,” Carnegie Paper Number 100, April 2009, pp. 29-43. 

6. Even more important, the US, UK and France must convey these assurances to Iran privately.

7. Contrary to Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements, Infcirc/66-type safeguards agreements do not lapse if the state withdraws from the NPT. In fact all non-nuclear-weapon states should comply with that requirement.

8. This would be quite a political challenge because the EU governments as well as the US have also imposed sanctions on Iran for its outrageous human rights abuses. 

9. The NPT prohibits manufacture by NNWS of nuclear explosive devices.  It seems generally accepted that this includes the production of components which would only have relevance to a nuclear explosive device.  

10. Pierre Goldschmidt is Non-resident Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Head of the Department of Safeguards. He wishes to thank his colleagues James Acton and Jaclyn Tandler for their valuable comments and suggestions on this paper.