The parties to the Iran nuclear deal started their latest round of talks aimed at reviving the agreement on Saturday. Last week, the coordinating envoy for the European Union stated at the conclusion of the fifth round that a resolution would likely be achieved with a sixth. But this claim was disputed by representatives of the United States.
The Iranian regime’s initial approach to negotiations consisted of simply demanding that the US lift all the sanctions that were re-imposed or newly imposed under the previous US administration.
During the time that the US has been pushing for a compromise agreement, more and more information has emerged about the extent of the Iranian regime’s nuclear advancements and provocations, and critics of the JCPOA have been given ample reason to express even more doubt about the Iranian regime’s long-term commitments than they already were. Strangely, this information was prominently highlighted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and its Director-General Rafael Grossi in the days just before last week’s talks concluded in Vienna amidst so much optimism from EU negotiators.
That week began with the negotiators being presented with the IAEA’s latest quarterly report, which gave a clear picture of ongoing Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapons capability. It noted, for instance, that the Natanz nuclear facility had apparently enriched 2.4 kg of uranium to 60 percent fissile purity in the space of just six weeks. This helped to push the total amount of stockpiled uranium in Iran to about 16 times the amount that is permitted under the terms of the JCPOA. The report also detailed the growing challenges to IAEA monitoring of the relevant activities, especially following the expiration of an agreement that narrowly prevented Tehran from kicking monitors out of the country.
The efficacy of that agreement was largely taken for granted by the negotiators who reiterated their commitment to unfounded optimism last week. But in reality, the restrictions imposed on the IAEA by Iran were even more comprehensive than most policymakers realized, and they left monitors not only unable to see the goings-on at Iranian nuclear facilities but also unable to directly calculate levels of enrichment and stockpiling. For the first time since the JCPOA went into effect, the quarterly report was forced to rely upon estimates only, and there is a good chance that some of these feel short of expressing the full range of advancements the regime has made in the year and a half since it announced it would no longer abide by any of the agreement’s terms.
This danger was made apparent both before and after the report’s release, as Grossi spoke to negotiators and to the international press about the advancements that Iran has made and the damage the regime has done to its own credibility. Much of that damage stems from its ongoing refusal to provide satisfying explanations for the presence of nuclear material at three undisclosed sites where the IAEA carried out supplementary assessments before its mandate was limited by the Iranian regime.
Those assessments took place only after Tehran obstructed requests for soil samples and other data for months at a time. Amidst those delays, buildings at the relevant sites were bulldozed and soil was removed or buried in an apparent effort to hide evidence of undeclared nuclear work with likely military applications. The first of the suspect sites were, in fact, a military base, and the others were evidently overseen by the regime’s hardline paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to detailed reports from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
The MEK has frequently criticized Western policy toward the Iranian regime – especially the policies surrounding the JCPOA – for exhibiting a tendency toward “appeasement.” That criticism seems particularly valid in the wake of European commentary that ignores warnings from Grossi and the IAEA in favor of maintaining optimism and giving Tehran credit that it absolutely has not earned.
Last week, Grossi went so far as to say that the Vienna talks’ goal of restoring the JCPOA to its original form is “not possible.” He advised the negotiators to instead look toward “an agreement within an agreement, or an implementation roadmap,” which addresses the fact that “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges and has accumulated material,” all while refusing to come clean about past activities that might shed light on just how close the regime has already gotten to nuclear weapons capability.
On Monday, he offered even more pointed commentary on this activity, underscoring a possibility that far too many European policymakers have been keen to dismiss: that the purpose of Iran’s recent and historical nuclear advancements has specifically been to promote the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
“The lack of progress in clarifying the agency’s questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the IAEA to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” Grossi said, adding, “We have a country that has a very developed and ambitious nuclear program which is enriching at very high levels … very close to weapons-grade.”
It ought to be much more difficult for European policymakers to maintain the same approach to the JCPOA in the wake of this commentary from Grossi, who was arguably the single-handed savior of that agreement when Iran was threatening to kick the IAEA out. Unfortunately, though, the same policymakers have ignored countless warnings from equally well-informed sources including MEK activists with access to a wealth of intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program and other malign activities.
They have also seemingly ignored the tacit acknowledgment of nuclear weapons ambitions by Iranian officials like Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, who in February dismissed an edict by the regime’s supreme leader which supposedly bans the countries pursuit of nuclear weapons. “The fatwa forbids the production of nuclear weapons,” he said, “but if they [the West] push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.” The meaning of this statement could hardly be clearer: Tehran’s strategy is and likely always has been to use the threat of nuclear armament as a way of coercing foreign powers into more conciliatory policies.
It is long past time for the international community to acknowledge this fact and respond accordingly. It benefits no one to insist that a resolution is right around the corner when it is so clear that Tehran has no intention of softening its position in the Vienna talks until more comprehensive sanctions and diplomatic pressures force it to do so.