The six powers and Iran are in Vienna this week to move forward the process of concluding a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear conundrum. At the outset of talks on February 17, the U.S. Department of State provided some public clarification about what the six have in mind for the Joint Commission in contributing to that result.

The explanation was welcome, but it also left open how Iran, the powers, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in coming months will ultimately put to rest allegations concerning what the IAEA has been calling the possible military dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian nuclear program.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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To recall: The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) that Iran and the powers agreed to last November 24 said this:

A Joint Commission of E3/EU+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures [under the JPOA] and address issues that may arise, with the IAEA responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.

What, exactly, will the Joint Commission do? Beginning on November 24, I have asked that question, because until now the “resolution of past and present issues of concern” has been the responsibility of Iran and the IAEA–not the powers.

The JPOA provided no self-evident answer to this question, and officials from negotiating states will tell you that the language in the JPOA assigning the Joint Commission responsibility for “resolution of past and present issues of concern” was ill-chosen and confusing. Especially because during the negotiation of the JPOA different parties had expressed very different views about the future of the PMD issue, indeed about the significance of resolving it, in December and January I continued to pursue this.

In the public space, meanwhile, lack of clarity prevailed, abetted by accounts distilled from supremely contradictory Iranian and Western media reports asserting, for example, that according to Deputy Iran Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi, the Joint Commission would be “an influential body that will have authority to decide disputes,” while “U.S. officials described it as a discussion forum.”

The confidential “non-paper” that Iran and the powers negotiated prior to entry-into-force of the JPOA on January 20, to flesh out details of how the JPOA would be implemented, does not provide further details on what role the Joint Commission will have.

That’s the essential background to a press briefing given in Vienna on  February 17 by a person described by the State Department as a “Senior Administration Official.” I’m in Berlin, not Vienna, but I’m assuming as usual it was U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman doing the talking (she had briefed the U.S. Senate on February 4).  According to the State Department’s posted transcript, at the briefing Jonathan Tirone at Bloomberg asked the question I and Vertic director Andreas Persbo had put forth last month about the Joint Commission, and specifically concerning its role in explaining PMD.

This was the answer:

The joint commission is not set up to clear away PMD. That is, in the first instance, the IAEA’s job. And they’re undertaking that. And in fact, the more that Iran can do to meet their obligations with the IAEA, the better for the nuclear negotiating process around a comprehensive agreement. So the two partner with each other, but they are not the same. The JPOA says that we will be of assistance where we can in resolving past and present issues, which reflects possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. But we want to do that in service to the IAEA, and we don’t want to do the job that belongs to the IAEA.

The joint commission was set up as a mechanism, when necessary, if there are compliance issues with the JPOA or questions that need to get resolved. So that’s what the joint commission is for. So if Iran was not fulfilling a commitment they made or we weren’t fulfilling a commitment we had made, there would be a place to discuss those things, even while we are negotiating the comprehensive agreement, so that any compliance issues wouldn’t come to the comprehensive negotiation, but would have another mechanism for facilitation. And it was anticipated that would happen at the expert level, and then come up to the political directors and up to foreign ministers if needed.

So far, there hasn’t been need or a purpose for the joint commission to meet. There needs to be content and substance for such a meeting. The IAEA is preparing monthly reports to let us know how things are going…

We can conclude from this answer that, in principle, the powers fully accept the view that the IAEA is supposed to handle with Iran the resolution of the PMD file, and further–as both Andreas and I had outlined as a possibility–that, if a problem in the future were to arise because Iran did not satisfy the IAEA, the Joint Commission would provide a forum to try to resolve it initially.

The answer is also consistent with secure information that the Joint Commission was originally intended to be set up as a forum to address concerns by Iran that sanctions-lifting happens as it should. That would explain why, as the answer says, there have been no meetings of the Joint Commission so far.

But what happens if Iran balks and the IAEA - after discussion with the powers and Iran at the expert level - fails to resolve significant PMD issues? What the State Department said would be consistent with our suggestion from January that ultimately a political decision would made whether an unresolved issue might, in fact, be declared sufficiently addressed. That decision would not happen in the trenches of the IAEA Department of Safeguards but at the top and only after high-level consultations including, presumably, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano himself–although the State Department did not mention the IAEA in this regard:  …Any compliance issues would [first be dealt with] at the expert level, and then come up to the political directors and up to foreign ministers if needed.

There you have it.

But is my suggestion that critical PMD matters might not be solved by Iran’s simply answering the IAEA’s questions just mean-spirited grist to the mill of those in Washington and elsewhere who haven’t joined the bandwagon on the Iran deal? Hardly.

On February 3, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, visited the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. Zarif explained to us that Iran has no aim or interest in having nuclear weapons. In fact, he said that the credibility of Iran’s regime was founded upon Iran not having such an ambition or interest. That’s the crux. If the credibility of Iran’s regime rests on its disavowal of nuclear arms, then any admission by Iran to the IAEA that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been engaged in nuclear weapons-related research or experiments–which prima facie would have to be reported to the Board of Governors–would severely damage the regime’s reputation. Shia theology might imply that nuclear weapons are sinful, but the IAEA’s dossier poses a potential major credibility problem. For Iran at any point to admit that it worked on nuclear weapons would be an order of magnitude more significant than Iran admitting, as it did in 2003, to having failed to declare to the IAEA a flurry of nuclear activities which could be justified by Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

Beginning last November, the IAEA has joined the powers in a strategy of moving forward in “resolution of past and present issues of concern” by picking low-hanging fruit first. That’s spelled out in the Framework for Cooperation that the IAEA and Iran signed in Tehran. The two parties started building confidence by arranging visits to sites that probably don’t raise any show-stopper issues. They’ve now set forth a second set of seven issues they want to resolve. One of these–allegations that Iran has worked on developing detonators for nuclear explosives–was pulled out of the IAEA’s PMD dossier with the deliberate intention of getting the resolution on PMD matters moving.

At the Munich Security Conference on February 2, during a somewhat misinformed interchange with a German newspaper editor, Amano seemed to imply that the IAEA was keen to probe further Iran’s previous experiments with polonium that might have been related to PMD, since Po-210 can be used for directed neutron initiation. There are in fact nuclear detonator-related issues to resolve in the IAEA’s PMD file, but unless there is new and undisclosed information, polonium can hardly be the most important of these.  For several years, Iran’s polonium experiments have not been on the IAEA’s front burner.

A few commentators therefore have opined this month that Amano was amiss in mentioning the agency’s interest in polonium. But in fact after Amano took the bait in Munich, the mini-media frenzy which followed advanced a possible civilian explanation for Iran’s electronic bridgewire experiments–development of detonation technology for Iran’s oil and gas industry–which Iran may well put forth before Amano reports next to the Board of Governors. If Iran explains this work to the IAEA on these grounds, and if Amano accepts that explanation, Iran and the IAEA will then move on to the next PMD issue.

Addressing the detonation issue will bring Amano and Iran to Parchin–a location where member-state information suggests Iran has carried out suspicious neutron-generation experiments. Some important member states have long considered the IAEA’s prioritizing of getting renewed access to Parchin to be counterproductive, especially since Iran has meanwhile scrubbed that site clean. Following discussions with the U.S. and other member states last fall leading up to the November 11 agreement with Iran, and in line with the coordinated low-hanging-fruit strategy, Amano has accommodated the powers and walked back the IAEA’s approach to getting information about this site. If Iran’s answers to the IAEA’s questions about what happened at that site are in the view of the IAEA not sufficient, then, as the State Department implied this week, the problem would be aired at the “expert level” first and if not resolved there, Iran and the powers would count on “political directors and foreign ministers if needed” to try to finesse it.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.