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Iran Nuclear History: Cheating and Skepticism

(August 2015)

Is Iran Cheating?

“The UK government informed the Panel [that monitors Iran’s compliance with the UN sanctions regime] on 20 April 2015 that it ‘is aware of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network which has been associated with Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) and Kalay Electric Company (KEC).’” Both companies are under sanctions because of their suspected links to banned Iranian nuclear activities.

The existence of this network reinforced fears that Iran could not be trusted to comply with the proposed nuclear deal. If true, the report contradicted claims by the Obama administration that Tehran has complied with the terms of the November 2013 agreement between Iran and the six powers requiring reductions in its nuclear activities, including enrichment (Reuters, April 30, 2015).

The United States Senate passed the Corker-Menendez Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act with an overwhelming majority (98-1) on May 7, 2015. This approval brought U.S. lawmakers one step closer to being able to approve or reject any nuclear deal forged between Iran and the P5+1 (USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia).

Contrary to the claims of the Iranian government, IAEA head Yukiya Amano stated on May 12, 2015, that the framework being considered by the P5+1 and Iran provides for IAEA access to Iranian nuclear sites for inspections.

Adding to the general skepticism of whether Iran could be trusted to fulfill the obligations of a nuclear agreement, Czech officials reported in May 2015 that earlier in the year they had blocked a shipment of nuclear materials bound for Iran. The Iranian government attempted to make the purchase of U.S. made Howden CKD Compressors from a third party in the Czech Republic, but Czech authorities were alerted to the deal and prevented it from happening. Authorities were tipped off when the transport company provided false documentation accompanying the shipment in attempts to hide its origin and destination. The estimated value of the thwarted transaction was $61 million (Reuters, May 13, 2015).

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei referred to the P5+1 requests for interviews with Iranian nuclear scientists as “unreasonable demands,” stating that Iran, “will never yield to pressure,” and “will not give access to its nuclear scientists”(Reuters, May 19, 2015). In a broadcast on Iranian state television Khamenei said that allowing interviews with Iranian nuclear scientists would be a violation of the scientists’ privacy, referring to the interviews as interrogations. The P5+1 and the IAEA have continually asserted that under any nuclear deal they must be provided access to Iranian nuclear scientists.

Russian officials voiced their opposition to the automatic reimposition of international sanctions if Iran was caught cheating. Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, bluntly stated that “there can be no automaticity, none whatsoever”(Bloomberg, May 13, 2015).

In response to Israel’s skepticism and disapproval of the framework nuclear deal, the United States and Israel began talks in mid-May 2015 aimed at providing Israel with additional U.S. military equipment. U.S. officials announced on May 20 that they had signed a deal to sell Israel $1.8 billion in precision guided munitions, large and small bombs, and ammunition. Israel will also receive 3,000 Hellfire missiles that were supposed to be delivered in 2014, but were postponed due to Operation Protective Edge.

As part of the effort to reassure Saudi Arabia that the nuclear deal would not threaten the kingdom, the Obama administration agreed to sell them 10 Seahawk helicopters.

North Korean officials including nuclear experts and defense officials made their third visit to Iran in May 2015 amid reports that the two countries were cooperating on research for ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. The dissident group NCRI alleged that the North Korean officials were allowed access to Iranian nuclear sites and held meetings with Iranian nuclear officials and scientists, some of whom the IAEA had been denied access to in the past.

An IAEA report released in May 2015 unsurprisingly claimed that certain key questions still had not been answered by the Iranian regime, leaving a large part of the agreement stalled. The IAEA still had not received adequate information to assess whether or not Iranian scientists had worked on nuclear arms; information that it was supposed to have been provided with more than nine months earlier. The report detailed how the organization remained “concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for missiles” (AP, May 29, 2015).

The report also threw a wrench in the wheel of negotiations by revealing the Iranian stockpile of nuclear fuel had increased 20% during the previous 18 months. IAEA inspectors said there was no evidence that Iran was racing toward a bomb and that Iranian nuclear facilities that could give them the capability to develop a bomb were non-operational. The report also clarified that certain aspects of the Iranian nuclear program had been frozen or rolled back.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the increase in the Iranian nuclear stockpile would not complicate negotiations. She said officials were “perplexed” by the findings of the report. She explained it was fine for their stockpile numbers to fluctuate as long as they were below the number agreed to in negotiations.

A “snapback” of UN sanctions was agreed to by the P5+1 on May 31, 2015, answering the question of what would occur if Iran were to be caught cheating a final deal and clearing a major obstacle to reaching a nuclear accord. The nations agreed that if Iran were to be caught engaging in any activities that could be considered “cheating,” while the deal is in place, it would mean the reimposition of UN sanctions. If Iran were to be caught cheating, under the agreement the situation would be evaluated by a panel including representatives from the P5+1 and Iran. If Iran was found noncompliant with the deal by the IAEA, the P5+1 agreed that UN sanctions would be automatically reimposed (Reuters, May 31, 2015).

During the negotiations Iran continued to work on technology that could be applied to nuclear weaponry, according to a secret report produced by the Pentagon in January 2015 but not released until June. The Pentagon reached the conclusion that, “covert [Iranian nuclear] activities appear to be continuing unabated, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen” (Bloomberg, June 3, 2015).

Confirming that Iran had little intention of honoring a nuclear agreement from the beginning, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) issued a report in June 2015 showing that Iran had produced four tons of enriched uranium since the interim deal came into effect in January 2014. This uranium was supposed to be converted into an oxidized form that was not easily weaponizable. According to ISIS, only 5% of this newly produced uranium had been converted into uranium oxide. The report revealed that between November 2014 and June 2015 Iran had not bothered to convert any uranium into uranium oxide.

The UN Committee on Iran Sanctions questioned whether countries were simply ignoring Iranian violations of sanctions for the sake of preserving the possibility of a final deal in June 2015. A report issued by the committee presented a whitewashing of Iranian sanctions violations, including violations of travel restrictions imposed on Iranian officials, banking activity outside Iran related to nuclear procurement, and arms purchases. Even though Iran violated the stipulations of international sanctions in public multiple times since the most recent report of the Committee on Iran Sanctions, no countries reported any of these violations. According to the report, “The current situation with reporting could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations” (The Tower, June 9, 2015).

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report in June 2015 that demonstrated how the United States State Department had been falling behind when it came to reporting Iranian violations of U.S. and internationally imposed sanctions. The State Department was at times more than three years late in its reports. As an example, the report said violations that occurred in 2011 were not submitted to Congress until December 2014. The Government Accountability Office concluded that the State Department “is falling further and further behind in providing the reports and is now juggling a backlog of draft reports at different stages of that process.”

In mid-June 2015, Iran’s parliament approved draft legislation that would bar international inspectors from its military sites. The bill also called for all sanctions on Iran to be lifted on the day a deal is signed.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Report on Global Terrorism, Iran’s support for terrorism through 2014 was “undiminished.” The report cited Iran’s continued support of Hezbollah and Assad’s regime forces as examples. The report designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, as in years past (Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015).

Coming in to the last week before the “final” deadline to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei appeared on Iranian state television and clarified his demands and “red lines” when dealing with the P5+1 negotiators. These demands included, as before, that all sanctions against Iran be lifted as soon as a nuclear accord is signed, and that international inspectors receive no inspection access to Iranian nuclear facilities. During the speech Khamenei also stated that “freezing Iran’s [nuclear] research and development for a long time, like 10 or 12 years, is not acceptable” (Foreign Policy, June 23, 2015).

Skepticism Surrounding a Final Deal

Five members of President Obama’s trusted inner circle of Iran advisers wrote an open letter to the President, which was released to the public on June 25, 2015. In the letter they cautioned that the likely deal would possibly fall short of what the Obama administration may consider a “good agreement.” The officials said, “the agreement will not prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. It will not require the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment infrastructure... The agreement does not purport to be a comprehensive strategy towards Iran. It does not address Iran’s support for terrorist organizations (like Hezbollah and Hamas), its interventions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen (its “regional hegemony”), its ballistic missile arsenal, or its oppression of its own people” (The Washington Institute, June 25, 2015). In addition to criticizing the emerging deal, the letter laid out five minimum requirements that Iran must agree to before a deal is to be signed. These requirements included strict limits being placed on Iranian centrifuge research & development, IAEA inspectors given frequent and effective access to Iranian nuclear facilities, sanctions relief be based on Iran’s cooperation with its obligations, and the creation of an effective mechanism for enforcing the consequences of sanctions violations.

With no great breakthrough in the final hours, the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran were once again extended, this time for only one week. The negotiators announced the last-minute extension late on the deadline of June 30, and President Obama stated that the United States was willing to “walk away” from the negotiating table if a deal could not be reached within the extended time frame.

Before the deal was finalized, Iran received on July 2, 2015, a 13-ton hoard of gold, worth close to $500 million. The gold had been purchased prior to the imposition of international sanctions and stored in South Africa since 2013. The return of the gold was worked out in a side deal.

“At this point negotiations could go either way,” John Kerry said on July 5. “If hard choices get made in the next couple of days and made quickly, we could get an agreement this week. But if they are not made, we will not.” According to official sources, sanctions relating to the Iranian ballistic missile program were one of the main obstacles to finalizing the deal (CNN, July 5, 2015). Iranian negotiators also continued to push for the complete lifting of the UN arms embargo during the final days of negotiations.

When a deal was not reached within the one week extension, the parties once again extended the JPOA and negotiations, this time for only three days. With the new deadline of June 10 in place, U.S. officials clarified that they were more worried about the content and quality of the deal rather than the timeline. The extension was met with opposition in Washington and Tehran, with some U.S. government officials advising that Washington abandon diplomacy, repeating the sentiment that no deal was better than a bad deal.

This deadline was not met. Kerry said negotiators needed at least the weekend to continue discussions. Under the Corker-Menendez Iran Agreement Review Act, the failure to meet the deadline meant that lawmakers had 60 days to review the deal.