The president went on to say that the continuation of talks seemed worthwhile because Iran “has met its commitments” as outlined under the interim agreement that went into effect in January after being signed in November by Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Obama’s assessment may be sincere, but a close look at the facts as reported over the past several weeks suggests that his perception of Iranian compliance is strongly one-sided.
PARCHIN AND THE ADDITIONAL PROTOCOL
Obama’s statement seems to be based on the fact that Iran claims to have restricted its uranium enrichment to less than 20 percent purity, and has supported this claim by allowing more inspections of its nuclear sites. All reports, including those of the International Atomic Energy Agency, indicate that these points are true, but they are not without qualification. While Iran has allowed increasingly many inspections, it has pointedly refused to accept the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would allow for unrestricted inspections without advanced notice.
As such, it is not certain that Iran has provided full transparency about recent changes in its nuclear program. In fact, it has taken advantage of its authority to block IAEA inspectors at some sites, despite granting greater access overall. The principal example of this is Parchin, which the IAEA has repeatedly expressed concerns about, but which Iran has consistently kept off limits on the grounds that it is classified as a military site and can be kept off-limits as a matter of national security.
While not in itself a violation of the interim agreement, this certainly leaves open questions about Obama’s assessment and suggests that more information may be needed to say with certainty that Iran has reduced its enrichment activities to the extent that it claims. It is worth noting that under the Ahmadinejad administration, Iran also allowed some access to IAEA inspectors, while simultaneously denying access elsewhere, or delaying it long enough for recent nuclear activities to be concealed. The IAEA observed in June that this sort of sanitation appeared to be ongoing at the Parchin site, possibly signifying the concealment of evidence.
QUESTIONS OF SINCERITY
At the same time, Iran has failed to fully open up about the nature of its past activities related to nuclear development and weapons research. In this case also, the lack of full transparency does not explicitly defy the interim agreement, but it does raise questions about the extent of Iran’s commitment. Further complicating the latter point, a final IAEA assessment of Iranian work on potential nuclear detonators is not due for more than another month. This further suggests that in at least some areas, decisions about extending the agreement will have to be made in absence of complete information about Iran’s past and present activities.
As a matter of fact, the West may have a greater share of information about Iran’s future intentions with respect to its nuclear program. Last week, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority over all policies and initiatives in the Islamic Republic, went on record as saying that his nation will need to multiply its current enrichment capabilities by nearly twenty times over a period of several years. Khamenei has also rejected the possibility of limiting Iran’s ballistic missile stockpiles and has urged its weapons manufacturers to produce at full capacity.
Thus, while it may be true that Iran has met its commitments in terms of the level of enrichment purity, the nation’s broader ambitions make it difficult for Iran’s critics to believe that those commitments are sincere. Speaking at a hearing of the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Natan Sachs of Brookings Institute remarked that there is almost universal agreement among Israeli policymakers that Iran wants to position itself to be capable of breaking out to a nuclear weapon in a short period of time, even if it chooses not to do so. Khamenei’s enrichment demands, which have only grown over time, always being many times greater than what the West would allow, may support this thesis.
SLOW COMPLIANCE / NO COMPLIANCE
In assessing the sincerity of Iran’s commitments, it may also be worthwhile for Western negotiators to consider the timeframe of its compliance. Some terms of the interim agreement may be fulfilled by Iran, but only at the very edge of the deadline. One of those terms is the conversion of Iran’s existing stockpiles of enriched uranium into an oxide form that is more difficult to re-enrich for potential weapons use.
Iran had not even commissioned the facility to carry out this conversion until May, according to the IAEA. This week, unconfirmed reports indicated that the facility may have finally become operational. Assuming the reports are accurate, Iran has only days to convert a large stockpile of enriched uranium, which has grown by nearly a metric ton since February.
If the Obama administration believes that Iran is in compliance on that point, it cannot be much more than an article of faith that the Islamic Republic will actually carry out the agreed-upon conversion in the little time remaining. Such a show of faith is not without precedent in this negotiating process.
Another term of the interim agreement holds Iran to oil exports that average about one million barrels per day, averaged across the entire six-month interim period. The Obama administration has repeatedly insisted that Iran would be shown to be in compliance with this provision, in spite of monthly figures showing that it was exceeding the limits. In May, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh even told reporters that Iran had no intention of abiding by the limits and would export at the highest level possible.
Even after that, Obama administration officials rejected reports indicating that Iranian compliance with the limits had become mathematically impossible. Reports favoring the administration’s position have held that by separating export numbers for heavier refined crude from numbers for condensates and ultralight oils, Iran could be shown to have eked out compliance. Still other reports said that even the restricted calculations exceeded one million barrels per day.
While the Obama administration may earnestly believe that Iran has complied with this and other terms of the interim agreement, many people who favor a tougher approach to Iran negotiations would suggest that it has failed to uphold its obligations. A slightly more generous conclusion may be that the actual extent of Iranian cooperation won’t be known until after contrasting narratives are resolved. But that will be well after the deadline for the talks. And in light of Obama’s positive attitude about Iranian cooperation, it is also likely to be after an extension has already been arranged.