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Iran nuclear deal: Will Tehran be able to protect its secrets?

A deal on Iran's nuclear program would open it to scrutiny like never before. Tehran fears its adversaries could exploit inspections, making them a sticking point in final negotiations.

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    Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on the second anniversary of his election, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday. Rouhani said a final nuclear deal is 'within reach' as Iran and world powers face a June 30 deadline for an agreement.

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On the grounds of Tehran’s expansive new military museum, the mangled wreckage of four cars torn apart by assassins’ bombs are enclosed in glass, to honor Iran’s “nuclear martyr” scientists killed from 2010 to 2012.

Those scientists’ deaths were part of a years-long covert war waged by the US and Israel to slow Iran’s nuclear program that included computer viruses and sabotage. And they are one reason Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says he is ruling out inspections of military sites and access to nuclear scientists.

After years of painstaking talks, Iran and six world powers are just two weeks away from a June 30 deadline to reach a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program so it can’t produce a bomb in exchange for lifting crippling sanctions.

The deal would open Iran’s nuclear program to scrutiny like never before, according to a framework agreed to in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2. The scale and depth of that opening for UN inspectors – and its potential exploitation by intelligence agencies, analysts say – remain key sticking points at the negotiating table.

“Iran will never allow its secrets to fall into the hands of others through the Additional Protocol or any other means,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said this weekend. He was referring to more intrusive inspections that are a voluntary extra provision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that diplomats say Iran would accept under the deal.

Iran has been subject to more inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) than any other country, but issues of possible weapons-related work from more than a decade ago remain unresolved as Iran limits access by inspectors to military sites and scientists. 

“What is important to Iran is that, in implementing this protocol, we make clear to the world that the accusations we have faced about trying to build a bomb are baseless,” Mr. Rouhani said at a press conference Saturday.

According to a US State Department list of “parameters” agreed between Iran and the P5+1 group in April, there will be access to Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain; access to centrifuge production sites for 20 years; and “robust inspections” of uranium mines and mills for 25 years.

'How much leg' does Iran have show?

Measures cited in the US list include a “dedicated procurement channel” through which Iran will have to obtain its nuclear items, and Iran will be “required” to grant IAEA inspectors access to all suspicious sites. An Iran-EU joint statement from April 2 is more vague, noting simply that Iran will provide “enhanced access through agreed procedures.”

“We have a solution for everything [agreed in Lausanne] but underneath each of those solutions are any number of details to make sure that the solution you think you got, you get,” says a senior US administration official.

Any change on one parameter requires recalibration on another, so even now “all pieces are on the table,” says the US official. Talks are continuing in Vienna.

For Iran the deal is a trade-off, with rescuing the economy and preserving the main elements of its nuclear program weighed against allowing a broader understanding of its nuclear effort by inspectors – and thereby, almost certainly, by foreign intelligence agencies.

The covert war has eased considerably in the last three years in terms of headline-grabbing events like assassinations of scientists and the Stuxnet computer virus. But the fate of Iran’s secrets has recently reemerged as an issue.

“No doubt there is much discussion going on in Tehran about just how much leg they have to show in this regard, in order to get a deal,” says Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and the former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia.

Did Israel spy on nuclear talks?

“If those sorts of [covert] games start to be played again, then I think the Iranians would be very quick to cry foul and we would be in danger of seeing the whole agreement unravel,” says Mr. Pillar, now at Georgetown University.

Over the weekend, a senior Iranian security official said new rules will ban smartphone use by Iranian officials with access to classified information, because data “can be accessed.”

Swiss and Austrian authorities began separate investigations last week after the Wall Street Journal reported that a leading cybersecurity firm found that three hotels hosting the nuclear talks had been targeted by a computer virus believed to be used by Israeli spies. Israel officially denies involvement. The Journal first reported in March that US officials had learned in 2014 of Israel spying on the talks.

Israel opposes the nuclear deal, because Iran will ultimately retain a capacity to enrich uranium for nuclear power. If enriched to much higher levels, the uranium can also be used to make a weapon.

'Lots of opportunities for intelligence'

If a deal is reached, Israel should “multiply its intelligence attempts to monitor developments in the Islamic Republic, so that it can sound the alarm if necessary,” said Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Yossi Kupperwasser, former chief of the research division of Israeli military intelligence, in a report published last week by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

That Iran has not developed nuclear weapons in 27 years, he argues, “is due in no small part to Israel’s efforts." 

In years past, Israel and the US have warned of military strikes to prevent Iran getting a bomb. Some analysts suggest that the deeper access into Iran’s nuclear program under a deal could improve target selection for any such future strike.

The deal “calls for extraordinary levels of visibility in the program, which creates lots of opportunities for intelligence collection,” says Austin Long, a security policy expert at Columbia University, who advised US military forces in Iraq years ago.

For example, he notes that under the deal Iran would allow two decades of monitoring at sites where it makes components for centrifuges, which exceeds standard IAEA monitoring. If those were ever targeted in a military strike, Mr. Long says, Iran would have to rebuild those production lines before it could start rebuilding destroyed centrifuges – perhaps extending by years its ability to reconstitute its nuclear program.

'More collection than covert action'

“I think the Iranians have to be aware of that, and have just made the judgment call that they’re going to get what they really need,” says Long, referring to how the deal accepts enrichment on Iranian soil – once a US red line – continued nuclear research, and permits a substantial future program.

But because neither the US nor Iran want to be seen violating the deal, Long says the intelligence effort is likely to “subside into more collection than covert action on the US side.”

Still, senior Iranian officials are wary.

“Our mistrust of the enemy is endless and Iran will not become a paradise for spies,” said Revolutionary Guard deputy commander Hossein Salami in mid-April. “Iran will not unroll a red carpet for those who want to penetrate our secret treasures.”

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