Iran nuclear talks: Could US be sure Iran will honor a deal?

US officials said ongoing talks between six powers and Iran on a possible nuclear deal could stretch into Wednesday morning.

Brendan Smialowski/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, third left, chats with Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, as Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, second right, takes a note while waiting for the start of a meeting on Iran's nuclear program with other officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the European Union and Iran at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 31. Diplomats scrambled Tuesday to reach consensus on the outline of an Iran nuclear deal just hours ahead of a self-imposed deadline to produce an agreement. Others seated at the table are: British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, third right, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, second right, and German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, right.

Americans are in favor of reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. That’s the bottom line from a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, which found that 59 percent of respondents support a diplomatic deal loosening Iranian sanctions in return for restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program.

But the US public is actually not hopeful that such a deal will work as intended. By the same 59 percent margin, poll respondents said they are not confident that a diplomatic pact will keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

If nothing else, this split opinion points out the lack of trust that exists between the US and the Iranian revolutionary regime – and the need for extensive international inspections of Iran’s nuclear activities to try and rebuild that trust. From the point of view of Washington and its negotiation partners, verification provisions will be a crucial component of any final agreement.

“Because of its extensive history of cheating and making inconsistent statements [on nuclear issues], Iran is going to have to accept additional verification arrangements,” says David Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

US officials said ongoing talks between six powers and Iran could stretch into Wednesday morning, if need be.

The IAEA wants the ability to conduct very-short-notice inspections at virtually any suspect site in Iran, for instance. Right now it is generally limited to visits to declared nuclear facilities.

Yet some of those now-declared facilities were constructed, or at least begun, in secret. In 2002, an Iranian dissident group revealed to the world the presence of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant and Arak heavy water reactor.

Iran claims that its safeguard agreement with the IAEA did not require it to disclose those plants until they were finished. But to the US and its allies, that was an excuse made by a potential nuclear proliferator who’d been caught red-handed.  

Iran insists that its nuclear activities are peaceful. It says it has a right to develop uranium enrichment technology for energy purposes under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed.

 US intelligence has a different view, or at least has said something else in public. The consensus among American intelligence agencies is that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003, when it put that effort on hold for various reasons.

But neither the US nor its allies are sure about Iran’s nuclear intentions. And the IAEA wants Tehran to answer a string of questions about what it refers to as “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) – basically, allegations that Iran has worked on lots of technology that’s useful mostly for nuclear bombs.

The IAEA got this information in increments throughout the early 2000s, largely from national intelligence agencies (the suspects there are the US, Israel, and France, in descending order). Some of it was contained on a laptop stolen or smuggled out of Iran. Some of it came from interviews with a mysterious Russian scientist who may, or may not, have helped Iran develop conventional explosives used to initiate nuclear weapons.

It involves evidence that Iran has worked on bomb fusing, arming, and firing devices; conducted computer modeling of the initial shock waves inside an exploding nuclear weapon; studied how to fit a nuclear weapon into the nose cone of a ballistic missile; and so forth. The IAEA outlined its concerns about the PMDs in its 2011 report on Iranian inspections.

Iran says much of this information is faked, and has refused to provide any explanation or response, with the exception of a few items. But the IAEA is still asking.

“Can we clarify everything? We don’t know yet. It depends very much on the level of cooperation from Iran,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano during an appearance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month.

The US and its big power partners in the Iranian talks have insisted that Iran clear the air on this issue as part of any agreement. It’s likely that this and other tough verification issues won’t be addressed until a final, technical pact is drawn up in June. If such a final pact comes to pass, that is.

Iran needs to talk about the PMDs “because you need to have a good baseline for a solid monitoring,” said former IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen in a conference call with reporters on March 31.

“You need to know how far they got, which are the important institutions and capabilities, so that you pick the right things for monitoring. Because if you go the other way around, you are more or less fencing with one hand behind your back,” said Mr. Heinonen.

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