Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I wish to thank the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for its kind invitation to contribute to your meeting here in Vilnius by addressing in general terms an important and complex issue to lawmakers and security and defense officials who have not followed Iran developments in day-to-day detail.

In some briefings I have given this year and last about efforts by Iran and the six powers to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, I have explained Iran’s nuclear activities using lots of presentation material with charts and graphs. I’m not going to do that today.

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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Instead, I want to focus on the need to manage our expectations for nuclear diplomacy with Iran and therefore recall some fundamental aspects that, in my view, have become obscured during and after negotiators concluded the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) last November.

In December I suggested that during 2014 expectations for diplomacy with Iran might get out of hand. I would argue today that this has happened in some quarters, abetting political polarization over this issue which has increased the possibility that a final accord with Iran will not come about or succeed.

Leaving aside the JPOA’s mixed reception in Iran, in the United States I am told by some people who have been involved in and who support the negotiation that “the President badly needs a foreign policy success,” implying that the U.S. administration may go to considerable lengths to attain a nuclear accord with Iran. On the other side of the ledger, it would also appear that some of the President’s critics in the Congress may be equally determined to deprive him of this opportunity to succeed with Iran.

So there is a danger that the negotiation’s outcome will become hostage to partisan politics in the United States, including the temptation to rush to an agreement which is less than robust. If time runs out, the interim deal with Iran should be extended for six months, provided however that Iran shows that it is committed to making real progress. But ultimately the Congress could refuse to approve the result if lawmakers conclude that it does not significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear program. Alternatively, Iran might conclude that the U.S. President--regardless of his vow to walk away if Iran does not cooperate--has become politically invested in the process such that Iran can afford not to compromise on points that Western powers believe are essential.

The negotiators are working in secret and they have revealed few facts during the last six months concerning progress in the talks. That is welcome, necessary, and in recent months has been interpreted as a hopeful signal, but some advocates and critics, in filling the void, have overlooked some perhaps inconvenient facts on the ground.

First and foremost, critics of this process should recall that, as the negotiation gained headway last fall, the international community overwhelmingly favored diplomacy as a clear alternative to military confrontation. In Western nations, the JPOA was viewed as an opportunity to attain a second-best outcome save Iran unilaterally restoring the status quo that existed before it had a uranium enrichment capability. Many, perhaps most observers were convinced that it would not be possible to compel Iran—using either diplomatic or military means—to give up its enrichment program.

Second, advocates should not jump to the conclusion that Iranian cooperation in the “first step” of the deal implies that longer-term challenges will be overcome. They must understand what is implied by the fact that JPOA architects designed it to show critics in the U.S. and Israel that making a deal with Iran will result nearly immediately in tangible, quantifiable reductions in Iran’s known nuclear assets.

By implementing the “first step” Iran will inter alia dilute half its stock of 20%-enriched uranium to uranium enriched to no more than 5%; it will cease production of enriched uranium above 5%; and it will convert newly-enriched uranium hexafluoride to less-threatening uranium dioxide.

Iran is complying with these interim commitments but that’s hardly an indicator of Iran’s intentions in the negotiation of the “final step” and, indeed, of Iran’s still longer-term nuclear ambitions.

Iran will not balk at its near-term obligations under the JPOA if it wants sanctions lifted. Were Iran at any time during the negotiation of the “final step” to do that, its adversaries would conclude that Iran is not trustworthy, and that would prove fatal to diplomacy. 

Last year the powers calculated that Iran, by complying with the terms of the interim agreement, would reduce its enriched uranium inventories to levels well below what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials indicated would be an unacceptable “red line” justifying a military attack on Iran. To give themselves political space, negotiators structured the JPOA to strongly discourage Iran from “breaking out” to build a single nuclear explosive device by quickly re-enriching uranium it had processed in declared uranium enrichment plants.

That brings us to a third point sometimes overlooked and needing context, namely, that Iran is not just another NPT non-nuclear weapons state.

It is undeclared nuclear activities which since 2003 have been of greatest concern to the IAEA and to the powers negotiating with Iran. The powers and Iran must fill the JPOA “final step” with content to address this concern. That will be hard in part because while the IAEA routinely verifies declared activities—and has been doing that in Iran for many years—the agency’s pursuit of undeclared activities is far more challenging and fraught with uncertainty. The powers will therefore want a more rigorous inspection regime in Iran than is found anywhere else.

The JPOA sets forth that the “final step of a comprehensive solution” will have a “specified long-term duration” yet to be negotiated. When that “final step” expires, “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”

Iran’s view is that it is already no different from any other non-nuclear weapon state. Iran compares itself to Japan—a state without nuclear weapons but with sensitive nuclear capabilities including enrichment and reprocessing. This comparison is mistaken. Unlike Iran, Japan has a large industrial nuclear power program. It has never been found to have violated its NPT safeguards agreement. Unlike Iran, Japan has ratified and implemented its Additional Protocol and the IAEA has annually expressed confidence, in a “broader conclusion,” that all of Japan’s nuclear activities are declared, understood, and dedicated to peaceful uses.

Iran’s record is very different. In February 2003, the IAEA was surprised to learn that Iran had equipped a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz with ready-to-operate gas centrifuges which Iran secretly developed for 15 years. The IAEA also found that Iran had systematically failed to declare nuclear activities for nearly two decades.

Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this year acknowledged that Iran kept these activities secret, explaining that otherwise Western powers would have sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program. But the IAEA’s files on Iran also contain allegations of secret nuclear weapons-related activity which Iran needs to answer because, as a composite, they don’t fit Iran’s peaceful nuclear narrative.

Today, the Iranian regime which for many years deceived the IAEA about the scope of its nuclear program is working with the powers toward the negotiation of a comprehensive settlement. We don’t know what its nuclear intentions or ambitions will be when that final agreement expires.

In light of the foregoing Iran has an obligation to go the extra mile in these negotiations to provide confidence that its nuclear program is peaceful. The JPOA says that Iran must ratify and implement its Additional Protocol; Iran can strike an agreement giving the IAEA comprehensive access to specific equipment and R&D activities related to Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, and a separate agreement not to engage in specific activities related to making nuclear weapons.

Above and beyond these details, in this negotiation the powers will address two broader and important issues.

One is how independent of the powers and other member states the IAEA Secretariat should be.

We need to be realistic about the IAEA’s future role in Iran. Its investigations of weaponization elsewhere have hardly been routine. This work began in 1991 with a probe of Iraq’s nuclear program, mandated by United Nations Security Council resolutions in cooperation with the NPT’s nuclear-armed powers, after Iraq had been defeated in a war. It continued after South Africa’s Apartheid regime relinquished nuclear weapons it did not want to see fall into the hands of the African National Congress and therefore fully cooperated with the IAEA. By way of comparison, under more routine circumstances the IAEA obtained a far less comprehensive picture of past nuclear weapons-related activities carried out by Switzerland when it mulled having a nuclear deterrent. The IAEA may likewise not arrive at a complete picture of Iran’s nuclear history. The IAEA will continue to depend on member states to provide any information suggesting that Iran may be working on nuclear weapons development in secret.

But at the same time, the final agreement must ensure that the IAEA Secretariat has a clear mandate to do its verification work in Iran with impartiality and that it will not serve as the extended arm of powerful states on its Board of Governors.

Will the powers accept the safeguards judgment of the IAEA Secretariat as to whether enough is understood about Iran’s nuclear past and present to warrant lifting sanctions, return to routine verification, and move forward with Iran on the basis of trust--especially if Iran’s accounting of its past is incomplete? The IAEA’s experience with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel regarding undeclared activities in North Korea, Libya, and Syria provides basis for some skepticism that the powers will simply rest on the Secretariat’s authority. Director General Amano should be prepared to defend his agency’s verification autonomy in Iran.

Finally the powers must decide how to balance containment and engagement in their long-term approach to Iran’s nuclear program.

The JPOA says that there will be a nuclear cooperation component in the comprehensive agreement. Some people close to the negotiation see this as an opportunity. Others see it as an uncomfortable challenge. It is in fact a necessity.

Even before the JPOA was concluded, it was understood that Russia and Iran might in future expand the scope of their nuclear cooperation. This may be one outcome of negotiations. So far, the powers have insisted that a foreign vendor provide any fuel for nuclear power plants it builds in Iran so as not to justify significant enrichment by Iran. But barring any other provisions, when the “final step” expires, Iran may rightfully expand its declared and safeguarded uranium enrichment capacity without restrictions. In evaluating how to provide incentives for Iran to repudiate future clandestine nuclear development, the powers need to think hard about, and be prepared for, that eventuality.

The JPOA says that the “final step” will define the scope of Iran’s enrichment program based on Iran’s “practical needs.” After six months of negotiations, the two sides are far apart about what Iran’s needs are. If the powers bet that engagement will deter Iran from making nuclear weapons, they may find that Iran in the “final step” will agree to deep cuts in its enrichment capacity and forgo unbridled enrichment R&D on lasers and advanced centrifuges—provided the powers agree to help Iran develop a more modern nuclear power industry and infrastructure, including eventually permitting Iran to master the process of making the fuel needed by its power reactors.

During the last half-century, the birth of a new nuclear weapons state has become a rare event. A nation contemplating that step today must take the risk that it will be vilified and ostracized. That wasn’t the case 50 years ago, perhaps even 25 years ago. Would Iran take that risk in the future? The “first step” in the JPOA was designed to persuade Iran not to “break out” using its declared infrastructure. It is far more difficult to assess whether Iran would conclude a “final step,” then build up its nuclear industry and then, sometime after the “final step” runs its course, again cross the line into clandestine nuclear development or devote its ever-greater declared nuclear assets to making weapons. The negotiation should therefore result in a “final step” which substantially limits Iran’s nuclear program for many years—enough to allow the powers and Iran to build a cooperative relationship which would discourage Iran from doing these things.

So how much containment? How much cooperation? The JPOA is a laboratory for how the international community will resolve this issue in Iran but there are few signposts. For the agreement to succeed, Iran must make commitments that no sovereign state has ever made. For their part, the powers must overcome deep distrust and suspicion to honor Iran’s NPT rights when the “final step” expires. Far from expecting that a final deal is on the horizon, at this point I would assume that Iran, the powers, and the IAEA still have a considerable way to go.

This presentation was given at the NATO Parliamentary Spring Session in Vilnius on May 30.