Iran Stalls U.N. Probe Into Its Atomic Past

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowed in Mashhad, eastern Iran, Saturday.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowed in Mashhad, eastern Iran, Saturday.

Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past.Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past, say people close to the negotiations.

In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal U.N. sanctions against the country.

“Progress has been very limited,” Yukiya Amano, who heads the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “No more new issues” have been addressed.

Secretary of State John Kerry is resuming talks on Thursday in Lausanne with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, in pursuit of a nuclear agreement.

The two diplomats—who are expected to be joined later in the week by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, U.K., China, Russia and the European Union—are seeking to forge a political understanding by a March 31 deadline that would constrain Iran’s nuclear program in return for a lifting of Western sanctions. Key U.S. allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have publicly spoken out against the Iran diplomacy. And Congress could move to implement new sanctions on Iran if no political deal is reached this month.

U.S. and European diplomats have voiced guarded optimism that the deal could be reached by the late March deadline.

But Iran’s refusal to implement the IAEA work plan threatens to undermine the prospects for this comprehensive agreement, say diplomats involved in the talks. The ability of the IAEA and global powers to verify whether Iran is abiding by any future deal to prevent it from racing to develop a nuclear weapon depends, in part, on an understanding of its past work, according to these officials.

The IAEA was empowered by the U.N. to investigate Iran’s alleged weapons research, and reports back to the Security Council. Lifting U.N. sanctions on Iran are supposed to be tied to a resolution of the dispute. But the six powers negotiating with Tehran have the power to set their own terms for an agreement.

“We are concentrating on verification issues,” Mr. Amano said about the specific role his agency plays.

The West has accused Iran of conducting weapons-related tests at military sites near Tehran, and having secret government offices dedicated to this work. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Iran had a dedicated nuclear weapons program, which they believe largely ended in 2003.

As a result, the U.S. and its negotiating partners are seeking to get Iran’s upfront approval to implement a scaled-back version of the IAEA’s 2013 agreement with Iran to a 12-step work plan to resolve questions related to possible weaponization work. Mr. Amano said Iran has addressed only one of the 12 areas.

The new plan would seek access to some of Iran’s sites and documents believed tied to past weaponization work, known in diplomatic parlance as “possible military dimensions,” or PMD.

Under the new plan, Tehran wouldn’t be expected to immediately clarify all the outstanding questions raised by the IAEA in a 2011 report on Iran’s alleged secretive work. A full reckoning of Iran’s past activities would be demanded in later years as part of a nuclear deal that is expected to last at least 15 years.

“PMD is important and has always been part of the package,” said a senior European official involved in the Lausanne talks.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest indicated Wednesday that a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would address the IAEA’s concerns.

“Those ongoing disagreements about Iran’s compliance with inspections related to the possible military dimensions of their program are something that we would expect to resolve in the context of these ongoing talks,” Mr. Earnest said.

Iran has denied it has pursued nuclear weapons and charges that the IAEA’s dossier is based on falsified documents provided by Israel and other Western countries.

France is taking the lead in compiling the new list of demands to present to Tehran, diplomats say. Paris, from the start of nuclear negotiations with Tehran more than a decade ago, has focused on Iran’s past work, concerned that any kind of concession could set a bad precedent that weakens international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

French diplomats in recent weeks also have appeared to break from the Obama administration, by publicly calling for tougher terms in any agreement. By handing France a lead role on the weaponization issue, Washington may hope to ensure Paris will back a final deal, these Western diplomats said.

Mr. Amano, however, painted a bleak picture of Iran’s willingness to cooperate in clarifying the evidence suggesting past weaponization work.

The Japanese diplomat said Iranian President Hasan Rouhani enthusiastically engaged with the IAEA when his government came into office in 2013. Included in this was its agreement to pursue a “step-by-step” approach to addressing all 12 areas of concern raised in the 2011 IAEA report.

Mr. Amano said Iran and the IAEA did make progress with respect to exploring the issue of “exploding bridge wires”—electronic equipment that could be used both for conducting conventional and for triggering nuclear blasts.

But the next two issues to be addressed on the work plan—concerning large-scale explosives and neutron modeling of nuclear yields—stalled.

Mr. Amano has said he’s stepped-up meetings in recent weeks with senior Iranian officials, including Mr. Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, to try to breathe new life into the inspections regime. But he said he’s received no clear commitment from either men.

“There was no progress,” Mr. Amano said, referring to a trip this month by the IAEA’s technical staff to Iran.


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