Getting hung up on the past

Among the final pieces that need to be ironed out before a comprehensive nuclear agreement can be reached with Iran is the issue of the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s past nuclear activities. Essentially, the P5+1 and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been after Iran to fess up to anything it may have done under its pre-2003 nuclear program (2003 is the point at which the US intelligence community believes Iran stopped work related to developing a nuclear weapon capacity) that could be applied to the production of a nuclear weapon (for example, research into explosive triggers of the kind that could be used to start a nuclear chain reaction). Recently John Kerry, who has in the past said that Iran will have to reveal PMD details under any comprehensive deal, suggested that the US is flexible as to when and how Iran reveals those details, and that a deal could be implemented (and sanctions relief given to Iran) before a full accounting is made to the IAEA:

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and its negotiating partners aren’t “fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another” but want assurances that any nuclear work tied to military uses have stopped and will not resume in the future.

He suggested, in speaking to reporters via videoconference from his home in Boston while convalescing for a broken leg, that Iran might win sanctions relief before it fully answers longstanding questions from international inspectors about the possible prior military dimensions of its nuclear program. That appeared to depart from the long-held U.S. position that Iran must come clean about the possible military dimensions, or PMD.

As you might guess, opponents of the Iran negotiations took Kerry’s statement sensibly and with a sense of understanding for the needs of the-HAHA, who the hell am I kidding, they’re flipping out:

“From day one, all involved have emphasized the significance of Iran providing a full accounting of its previous weaponization activities, and by not holding firm on this issue, it appears yet another redline will be crossed,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Mr. Corker is viewed as moderate by the White House and as someone the administration can work with to seal a deal, adding significance to his vocal concerns.

PMD is a funny issue in these talks, because it’s both important and a red herring at the same time. Information about what kind of research Iran has or hasn’t done related to nuclear weapons is obviously something that the IAEA inspectors need in order to do their monitoring job effectively, so in that sense it’s important. But the idea that this information needs to come in the (metaphorical) form of a teary, groveling Iran humbly begging for mercy for its past transgressions, and that this submission must take place before a deal can be reached, is questionable to say the least, and is a belief mostly held by people who would prefer no deal at all because they know that Iran simply won’t do this.

Ali Gharib just did a piece on this at LobeLog, and it’s well worth your time to read it. The upshot is, look, as long as the deal’s monitoring requirements are strong, inspectors will learn what they need to learn about Iran’s past activities as they continue their work. Since the monitoring requirements need to be strong anyway, this means that a good deal will obviate the need for some ugly public confession of Iran’s sins (which we’d be silly to believe anyway, since they could always be holding something back — hence the need for those strong monitoring requirements). Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis, who Gharib cites in his piece, called this “Iran’s Full Monty” in a piece he wrote last fall, calling the demand for Iran’s full disclosure what it really is: an excuse to scuttle the talks. For one thing, at the risk of repeating myself, Iran simply isn’t going to perform for the hawks like this (especially not when they’d have to admit that they’ve been hiding information from the IAEA in order to do so), and for another thing:

That brings us back to Iran. Iran has denied all interest in a nuclear weapons program, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. If Iran simply admits the full scope of its nuclear weapons program, dropping a few surprises here and there, public sentiment will turn against any deal very quickly. We told you they are liars! They’ve been fooling you all along!

The same hawks who are arguing that there can be no deal without a full Iranian confession would, if they actually got such a confession, only use it (and the suggestion that Iran must ipso facto still be lying) as evidence to continue arguing against a deal. It’s win-win for them, lose-lose for pretty much everybody else.

The point of this deal is to give the Iranians a path toward peaceful nuclear power use while constraining any possible pathway to a nuclear weapon. As long as the IAEA gets the information it needs to fulfill its role in that process, what difference does it make how it gets that information? What actual value would anybody get from seeing Iran perform some geopolitical act of contrition for the benefit of a few hawks in the West who still wouldn’t be satisfied even if that happened?


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