There is a small opening to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis after the conclusion of the U.S. presidential election. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called this a “window of opportunity,” and it is beginning to focus minds on identifying the necessary components of a package deal that will put Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and UN Security Council powers squarely on a path toward conflict resolution.
A major piece of a negotiated roadmap will undoubtedly be a firm understanding of the role the IAEA will play in verifying that Iran’s nuclear activities are exclusively dedicated to peaceful use. Because this “window of opportunity” with Iran will be brief—perhaps just a few weeks or months—some observers argue that it will be easier to reach an agreement if the IAEA limits its verification role in Iran and abandons its effort to get answers from Tehran on the tough questions on the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program. This effort has been virtually fruitless since 2008.
But this would be a mistake. The IAEA’s experience during the North Korean crisis beginning two decades ago serves as a lesson that if the IAEA has a mandate that is anything less than fully consistent with its legal authority under Iran’s safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol, the IAEA will fail to provide the assurances needed for the international community.
This reassurance is required to underpin the political will essential for implementing a negotiated solution. And it is especially the case given the serious concerns over the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear activities, which prompted both the Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors to require broader verification in the country.
In North Korea and Iran, the international community was confronted by regimes that pursued undeclared and clandestine nuclear activities in violation of their commitments to the peaceful use of nuclear energy as expressed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and their bilateral safeguards agreements with the IAEA. Both crises deepened when the countries refused to permit the IAEA access to information and locations where the IAEA and its member states believed work on the development of nuclear arms could be occurring.
The North Korean crisis clearly shows that limiting the IAEA’s authority is not what Iran and the negotiating powers should do. This course of action could ultimately prove fatal to the efforts made to build the political confidence critical to success.
Experience in North Korea
In 1994, the United States and North Korea concluded the Agreed Framework, a deal meant to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons and redefine the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. The agreement was flawed, however, in part because it suspended the IAEA’s legal right—indeed its obligation—to verify the completeness of North Korea’s accounting of its nuclear activities under its safeguards agreement.
Specifically, it was agreed that North Korea did not need to fully comply with the terms of its NPT safeguards agreement until the United States, Japan, and South Korea made significant progress in building a power reactor in North Korea. Until then, Pyongyang did not have to answer the IAEA’s questions about activities that the IAEA believed North Korea had carried out secretly during the 1980s to produce enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons.
Because neither the United States nor North Korea overcame political obstacles standing in the way of the implementation of the Agreed Framework, the IAEA was never permitted to verify that North Korea’s nuclear program was solely dedicated to peaceful activities. Indeed, as Washington’s bilateral relationship with Pyongyang deteriorated as the 1990s wore on, the IAEA was kept out of the picture when North Korea secretly set up gas centrifuges to enrich uranium, produced more plutonium, smuggled nuclear products abroad, and, finally, made nuclear weapons.
Lessons for an Iran Deal
There are two lessons from the experience with North Korea that are essential for addressing the Iranian nuclear crisis.
First, without firm and durable political commitments by Iran, the United States, and other powers—implying that there is sufficient mutual trust and goodwill—a negotiated settlement will fail. In 1994, the United States and North Korea negotiated a pact in a hurry that eased tensions for several years but was not supported by a sufficient commitment on both sides. Ultimately, it collapsed at the end of the 1990s, returning Pyongyang and Washington to their default positions of hostility.
Second, clipping the IAEA’s mandate in Iran will imperil a negotiated solution. Only if the international community has confidence that Iran is not hiding nuclear activities can a deal permitting Iran to continue with its nuclear program withstand future attacks on its credibility.
Of particular concern in this regard is information that the IAEA relayed to its Board of Governors in November 2011. Then, the IAEA reported on Iranian activities in three areas: the production of so-called green salt for producing feed material for uranium enrichment, the development of high explosives, and the reengineering of a reentry vehicle for Iran’s Shahab-3 missile. Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, these activities were consolidated under Iran’s so-called AMAD Plan, a comprehensive nuclear-weapons program.
Although the IAEA reported that these activities might have been halted in late 2003 and early 2004, it also noted that personnel involved in the efforts were deployed to other military-related entities, where some of these activities were subsequently resumed. For instance, work involving neutron initiators, triggering systems, mathematical modeling, and implosion experiments appears to have continued. The IAEA also reported that Iran has knowledge of a crude nuclear-weapon design and has tested some of its components, though it may not have used actual nuclear material in those experiments.
In stark contrast to the case of Iraq in 1991, a negotiated settlement with Iran will permit the country to continue its peaceful nuclear program. Especially for this reason, it is important that the IAEA can provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program does not have a military dark side that it can hide behind declared and peaceful activities.
Understanding the history of Iran’s past nuclear activities is important so that the IAEA can benchmark Iran’s current nuclear capabilities. If, beyond that, Iran were to agree that it will not engage in a list of redline activities related to making nuclear weapons in the future, negotiating an agreement will be up to Iran and the powers—not the IAEA.
Agreed Framework in Reverse?
The demise of the Agreed Framework in the North Korean case underscores how essential political will and trust are for success. Without them, verification by the IAEA in any sovereign country will fail. In the negotiation of a settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis, generating political will is first and foremost the job of Iran and the powers.
And forging that political will require considerable time—time that the IAEA’s verification of Iran’s commitment to nonproliferation may also need.
Right now, the IAEA’s relationship with Iran is at a stalemate. Western powers on the Board of Governors have repeatedly pressed Iran to answer the IAEA’s questions about possible weapons-related work, particularly since late 2011, but Tehran has instead urged the IAEA to “close the file” on Iran’s nuclear program.
A negotiated settlement that includes the Additional Protocol could decompress the relationship if negotiators understand that the verification timeline must be long enough to provide for confidence building. The IAEA’s current outstanding questions could be subsumed into the process of working toward the “broader conclusion” by the IAEA that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are declared and dedicated to peaceful use.
A considerable amount of verification work was already accomplished between 2003 and 2007. The additional work needed to determine whether Iran’s account of its nuclear activities is complete, including military-related aspects, could be achieved in a couple of years provided Iran fully cooperates. It could take longer if additional confidence-building measures are necessary.
For Tehran to agree to a negotiated settlement to the crisis, its counterparts will need to provide significant political benefits to Iran that enhance its security. In exchange, Iran could begin by undertaking voluntary and verifiable transparency measures about its past and present nuclear activities. But voluntary measures meant to build confidence are not to be confused with obligations that have already been made in Iran’s safeguards and nonproliferation agreements, including the Additional Protocol.
As part of a negotiated settlement, Iran and the Security Council powers may also agree on a roadmap for lifting sanctions against Iran. Negotiators could be tempted to specifically link the lifting of sanctions to progress by Iran in cooperating with the IAEA. If they do that, a deal with Iran will begin to look like the Agreed Framework in reverse. Instead of the IAEA getting cooperation in return for benefits the United States provides to North Korea, Iran would be given benefits in return for its cooperation with the IAEA.
It is logical to offer benefits in exchange for cooperation. But the IAEA and its board members must be on their toes. In 1994, the IAEA agreed to a deal that suspended its authority in a member state and made the resumption of IAEA verification hostage to cooperation between Pyongyang and Washington—and this failed. North Korea took advantage of the limited IAEA mandate and enriched uranium, proceeded with weaponization, and proliferated nuclear materials and technologies to Syria and Libya.
In a deal with Iran, the IAEA’s authority to fully implement the provisions of the safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol must be established from the outset. After Iran receives some initial benefits for agreeing to a deal, the international community may also reward Iran for greater cooperation, transparency, and openness. But Iran’s obligations under its safeguards agreement and the Additional Protocol cannot be made expressly conditional to lifting sanctions. The IAEA’s authority to equitably implement safeguards agreements in over 140 countries depends on it.