Following two days of talks last week, officials from Iran and the IAEA threw in the towel, failing again to clinch a deal on access to sites, people, and documents of interest to the agency. The IAEA's immediate priority is to get into certain buildings at the Parchin military base near Tehran, where they suspect Iran may have conducted conventional explosives testing -- possibly relevant to nuclear weaponry -- perhaps a decade or so ago. There is no evidence of current nuclear work there (in fact, the agency has visited the site twice and found nothing of concern). But by inflating these old concerns about Parchin into a major issue, the agency risks derailing the more urgent negotiations that are due to take place between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany). Those talks seek to, among other things, curtail Iran's 20 percent uranium enrichment.
The IAEA again wants access to the site because of secret evidence, provided by unidentified third-party intelligence agencies, implying that conventional explosives testing relevant to nuclear weaponization may have taken place a decade or so ago at Parchin. The agency has not showed Iranian officials this evidence, which has led Iran to insist that it must have been fabricated. (This could well be true, given that forged documents were also passed on to the IAEA before the 2003 Iraq war.) As Robert Kelley, an American weapons engineer and ex-IAEA inspector, has stated: "The IAEA's authority is supposed to derive from its ability to independently analyze information....At Parchin, they appear to be merely echoing the intelligence and analysis of a few member states."
Olli Heinonen, the head of the IAEA's safeguards department until 2010, is also puzzled at the way the IAEA is behaving: "Let's assume [inspectors] finally get there and they find nothing. People will say, 'Oh, it's because Iran has sanitized it....But in reality it may have not been sanitized....I don't know why [the IAEA] approach it this way, which was not a standard practice." And Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, weighed in, stating, "Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site. In a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be." The U.N. Security Council can encourage Iran to cooperate with the IAEA, but they cannot expand the agency's legal authority.
In any case, what is the point of going to Parchin? Even if the allegations of decade-old conventional explosives testing turn out to be true, Iran would not have violated its IAEA safeguards agreement. This is because the agreement's "exclusive purpose" is to verify that nuclear material "is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices," something the agency has verified ever since Iran's safeguards agreement came into effect in 1974. The IAEA itself has admitted that "absent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency's legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited."
The IAEA's insistence to get into Parchin to verify long-ago non-nuclear issues is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot, but by continuing to cast Iran in a negative light -- when, in fact, Iran is within its rights to refuse IAEA entry -- the agency is poisoning the atmosphere of the much more important upcoming talks between the P5+1 and Iran.
These latter talks should focus on the most important issue: curtailing Iran's 20 percent uranium enrichment. In fact, Iran has signaled that it is willing to strike such a deal, given some reciprocation in the form of sanctions relief. Limiting Iran's 20 percent enrichment is sufficiently important that the P5+1 should put sanctions relief on the table in order to obtain this major concession from Iran. As Suzanne Maloney of Brookings suggests, "The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date." In the past, the P5+1 have indicated that there would be "consideration" of easing sanctions "later," after Iran made concessions. This is obviously not a recipe for success: reciprocity should be simultaneous. In general, there needs to be a symmetry of compromise by both sides.
But Obama's hands may be tied by the legislative text of the U.S. sanctions. As I -- and others -- have noted before, U.S. sanctions can only be lifted after the president certifies to Congress that, among other things, "the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary."
Although these are laudable goals, they complicate negotiations by establishing conditions that have nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program. If Iran is going to be sanctioned no matter what it does with its nuclear program, why would they yield on the nuclear issue? As veteran CIA officer Paul Pillar points out, the sanctions are essentially "designed to fail." The message being sent to Iran is that the sanctions are not really about the nuclear program but the regime itself. Although technically the president can waive some of the congressional requirements in the interest of national security, in practice he would run an unacceptable political risk in crossing Congress and appearing "soft on Iran."