by Emma Scott
On May 20, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spoke at the Imam Hussein Military University in Tehran. Referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. watchdog mandated to deal with nuclear issues, he said that foreigners would not be permitted to inspect Iran’s military sites or interview Iranian nuclear scientists. These remarks exposed differences yet to be resolved in Iranian domestic politics as well as between Iran and the Western members of the P5+1 group (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China) that are negotiating the contents of a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
Following a closed door session of the Iranian parliament on May 24, the foreign affairs ministry released a statement maintaining that the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Deputy Foreign Minister (and chief nuclear negotiator) Abbas Araghchi had provided the parliament with the procedures under the Additional Protocol for “managed access” to non-nuclear sites. Managed access serves to prevent the dissemination of proliferation-sensitive information, meet safety or physical requirements, and protect proprietary or commercially sensitive information.
In this respect, Araghchi assured Iran’s parliamentary members that security measures would be adopted to safeguard military, nuclear, and industrial data against the espionage feared by Iran’s nuclear, defense, and security establishment. Some hard-line lawmakers present during the session gave a different report of Araghchi’s remarks by maintaining that the negotiators had accepted regulated and managed inspections of Iran’s military sites, an apparent contradiction of the Supreme Leader’s position. But this position is not deemed to be rigidly fixed.
The Highest Level of Transparency
This domestic debate has reverberated in Western corners concerned about Iran’s nuclear intentions. Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, said that the Additional Protocol allows for inspections of undeclared locations, such as military sites, in the case of inconsistency or doubt. Such remarks are far from new. He was reiterating previous remarks, which were undoubtedly going to produce friction at some stage of the negotiations. Following the round of talks that concluded on April 2, Amano was part of a chorus of voices in the West, and particularly in the US political establishment, calling for the highest level of transparency on the part of Iran in order to reach a deal. He made clear that the Additional Protocol was the means available to obtain this transparency. Interestingly, Amano alluded to the trust deficit between Iran and the international community when he said that the enhanced verification capacity provided by implementation of the Additional Protocol would give the IAEA more details and a better understanding of Iran’s nuclear activities. This would, according to Amano, enhance the international community’s confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
On April 2, as the European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini and Javad Zarif issued a Joint Statement in Lausanne in Switzerland, President Obama, in his weekly address to the nation, said that Iran had agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history. He went on to say that an Iran deal would not be based on trust, but on unprecedented verification. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a similar message: “This is an agreement that is based on transparency, accountability, verification. You have to be able to know what is happening.” The calls for high levels of transparency didn’t stop there. Colin Kahl, the current national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, stated at a recent Arms Control Association event that under a deal the Obama administration would put in place the toughest transparency and verification requirements ever negotiated, which would provide the best possible check against a secret pathway to a bomb.
Surprisingly given the opposition to a potential Iran deal, this never-ending insistence on full transparency seems to have been absorbed and repeated in the West without question. According to the black-and-white depiction of Iran’s nuclear intentions, Iran is either fully transparent to indicate pursuance of a peaceful nuclear program or any lack of transparency indicates Iran’s pursuance of a pathway towards a nuclear bomb. Although transparency achieved through monitoring and verification certainly reduces suspicions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran must overcome its distrust of the intentions of Western states in order to participate fully in transparency processes and then trust that this participation will not jeopardize its national security. At the same time, when the negotiators are considering the level of transparency Iran is willing to commit to in a comprehensive agreement, they must take into account its perception of threats to state security.
Transparency Versus Security
Iran does indeed face a high-threat environment at the international and regional level. At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Vice President Joe Biden recently remarked that “if Iran resumes its pursuit of nuclear weapons, no option available today will be off the table. As a matter of fact, the options will be greatly increased because we will know so much more.” The Supreme Leader may well have taken Biden’s remarks as a threat of military action, which then spurred his own public comments denying access to military sites. Biden’s comments send a message that the United States is willing to use transparency for abusive purposes, which is unlikely to encourage Iran’s trust in transparency processes. After all, the Iranian government has limited experience of transparency when it comes to decision-making procedures and access to documents. The military establishment has even less.
To reassure Israel of the US intention to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Secretary of State John Kerry, who is at the forefront of the negotiations, recently told Israeli media that the United States had designed and deployed a bunker-buster weapon capable of destroying Iran’s nuclear program. These comments amplify the existential threat that Israel’s nuclear capabilities pose to Iran, not to mention the on-going military warnings from time to time from members of Israel’s intelligence establishment. Within just one month to the June 30 deadline for the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement, Obama told Israeli media that military action would not resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, but he did not remove the military option from the table. To demand transparency in order to build confidence is a contradiction when it’s combined with threats of war. This combination may push Iran’s military leaders to bolster their defenses, which will impede IAEA objectives for better access to the military sites that might provide a better understanding of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
To render Iran’s intensions transparent, to obtain information, and ultimately to slow down and deter Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear program, American and Israeli intelligence agencies previously resorted to espionage, sabotage, and assassinations. In 2010, the Stuxnet virus, a sophisticated piece of malware the United States and Israel developed and designed to attack infrastructure, was discovered to be targeting and copying blueprints from Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as causing major technical problems. Between 2010 and 2013, Israel’s Mossad and the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a widely disliked Iranian opposition group, are believed to have murdered five Iranian nuclear scientists. In light of these events, Iran’s piecemeal approach to transparency by restricting access to sensitive locations, indigenous technology, and individuals considered national assets is hardly surprising and demonstrates a mere fraction of the distrust that needs to be overcome.
Iranian distrust of US intentions around transparency has not likely eased these past weeks. In early June, John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, headed to Israel for meetings with the head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, the head of military intelligence, Major General Herzl Halevi, and other members of the Israeli intelligence community. In the week preceding the visit, Brennan Indicated that covert measures may continue, remarking in an interview with CBS News that “the U.S. intelligence and other intelligence agencies will need to be able to continue to watch, monitor and see whether or not Iran is adhering and abiding by the various requirements of the deal.” What exactly Brennan had in mind is unclear. But under the Joint Plan of Action concluded in November 2013, the monitoring and verification activities related to a subsequent agreement fell within the mandate of the IAEA, not national intelligence agencies.
A third element heightening Iran’s threat perception is the presence of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in eastern Iraqi provinces close to the Iranian border. The recent collapse of the US-backed Iraqi forces in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, led Iran’s defense establishment to speculate once again that IS is an American and Israeli plot against Iran. Following the closed-door session of parliament on May 24, a leaked tape emerged of an ultra-conservative lawmaker in a shouting match with Zarif. The lawmaker’s gripe conflated the threats connected to the nuclear file with the threat IS poses to Iran. In this sense, transparency demands cannot be completely disconnected from the strategic realities facing Iran. In a rapidly changing strategic environment, secrecy, which is an embedded and longstanding trait of governance in Iran, can be viewed as more advantageous than transparency. Therefore, to win Iran’s confidence on the benefits of transparency and to overcome the decades of mistrust, it is necessary to pursue transparency honestly by arguing for the heightened security it provides. It’s also necessary to refrain from creating perceptions of insecurity by threatening war while negotiating transparency measures.
Internal Secrecy as an Obstacle
Although the IAEA has taken several visits to Iran’s military sites in the past, Iran’s defense industry is generally closed to public scrutiny. To obtain information, outsiders are primarily dependent on information provided by officials through the media or obtained by covert means. It was, after all, Iran’s disregard of its reporting obligations to the IAEA that led to the nuclear crisis in the first place. Successive governments have censored commentary and criticism of the nuclear program since 2003, and academics have argued that the level of parliamentary control (a transparency and democratic mechanism) over the program is weak. Even if an increasingly open debate about the merits of the program has emerged under President Rouhani’s reformist government, the political and legal basis for transparency in Iran is limited. Of course, internal transparency related to a need for good governance may not be explicitly connected to the external transparency of the nuclear program. But transparency does not exist in a political and societal vacuum.
Iran’s political and legal structures are an obscure mosaic of competing power centers with varying interests and levels of influence. The Rouhani administration and the negotiating team hold only limited sway over decision-making on the nuclear file. They have even less influence on access to military sites. Although the Supreme Leader ultimately has the final say, the guardian council on June 24 approved a bill, after having passed the parliament, that concedes the role of approving a deal to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), responsible for handling the nuclear file and determining defense and security policy within the guidelines established by the Supreme Leader. The bill also forbids access to all military, security, and sensitive non-nuclear sites, as well as scientists, but it does not block an agreement. The Additional Protocol refers to nuclear sites and specific locations that the IAEA has identified for investigation. However if the talks collapse, Iran could reverse its level of cooperation with the IAEA.
Parliament pushed the bill in response to what it deemed to be the West’s excessive demands. Both the Joint Plan of Action in 2013 and the Joint Statement issued by Mogherini and Zarif in April provide for clarification with the IAEA of “past issues” related to the program. The factsheet issued by the White House on April 2 went further by insisting that Iran implement an agreed set of measures to address possible military dimensions (PMD). In subsequent clarifications, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who joined the talks earlier this year, ambitiously maintained that the United States wanted “anywhere/anytime access” in Iran, and the P5+1 presented a list of 23 individuals with whom it wants to speak. The list audaciously includes names of Iranian nuclear scientists, a group whose members were previously assassinated, and members of the defense establishment, which is under an array of US, EU, and UN sanctions. Anytime/anywhere access and a right to interview specific individuals constitute the maximum level of transparency. But these requests, in light of the history and opaque procedures of governance in Iran, are unrealistic.
Rather than falling under the Additional Protocol, which Iran seems likely to implement in the event of a nuclear deal approved by the SNSC, the above demands fall under the ambit of an Additional Protocol Plus. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the SNSC, whose name appeared first on the list of the 23 individuals, has argued that the Additional Protocol has legal limits and Iran should not become an exception. The Additional Protocol Plus is intended for states enriching uranium and found in non-compliance with their Agreement on Safeguards with the IAEA (the case of Iran). If the West is intent on humiliating Iran by making an example out of it, insisting on these points will scuttle a deal, block cooperation on the Additional Protocol, and inhibit the IAEA in its efforts to obtain a better understanding of Iran’s nuclear activities.
There is political support in Iran for opening up, and that begins with cooperation with the IAEA. Yet Iran currently views full participation in transparency processes as more of a risk to national security than a benefit. Following the round of talks concluded on June 6, in Vienna, Araghchi told state television that “Our basis is mistrust and this is the reality.” He said: “We don’t trust the other side at all and they don’t trust us either.” Although no government would engage in transparency measures it perceives as threatening its survival, trust is necessary to facilitate gradual implementation of transparency measures over time. In this regard, the reduced insecurity on both sides after a deal and the implementation of the Additional Protocol could help resolve the PMD issues and potentially lead to cooperation in other areas in the long term.
Iran’s leadership has attempted to make clear its current nuclear intentions by maintaining that the nuclear program is for civilian not defense purposes. In addition, the international community has not determined any decision by Iran to pursue a bomb. However, without resolution of the PMD issues, Iran’s capabilities are not transparent. On the one hand that may serve a nuclear hedging strategy, but on the other hand it may indicate a fear of showing weakness and a lack of experience with transparency mechanisms. Thus, a subsequent agreement should not depend on the resolution of the PMD concerns, particularly in view of the US requests for anytime/anywhere access and interviewing specific individuals.
The first priority is to roll back the nuclear program, which Iran would be obligated to do under a deal. For starters, it would have to reduce the number of centrifuges, remove the core from the Arak heavy water reactor, convert Fordow from an enrichment facility to a nuclear and physics research centre, and implement the Additional Protocol. Each step would earn sanctions relief by unblocking funds abroad and gradually building confidence. Further steps could be taken as a path forward suitable to the both the West and Iran becomes clear.
Emma Scott is an assessor and peer reviewer for Transparency International. She also writes for the Jamestown Foundation. She previously worked as a defense and security analyst on the Middle East and North Africa region with Business Monitor International Research in London, and interned on Iran at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. She is also an alumnus of the EU-Middle East Forum of the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin.