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Why we need Iran to reveal all: A response to Jeffrey Lewis

Teheran cannot be compelled to back away from its nuclear military ambitions so long as it denies these ambitions exist.
Iran continues to deny having any nuclear military ambitions.
Iran continues to deny having any nuclear military ambitions.

As we move to the November 24 deadline for P5+1-Iran negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal, the issue of Iran’s past weaponization activities is becoming critical. Iran’s most recent stonewalling on the IAEA’s outstanding questions regarding what it calls the “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s program was evident when Iran missed the August 25th deadline for providing answers (then claiming it never agreed to the deadline). Meanwhile, Iran continued to prevent entry into the military facility at Parchin, where it is suspected of carrying out activities relating to its military nuclear program.

A debate has been ongoing over the past year among officials and non-official arms control experts on the importance of confronting Iran on the weaponization issue. In early June, my INSS colleagues Ephraim Asculai, Shimon Stein and I made the case for the need to include the weaponization aspects of Iran’s program. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Lewis claims that making Iran come clean about its past nuclear weapons activities before a deal is secured is “a terrible idea”, potentially devastating for the prospects of a nuclear deal. His piece underscored for me the need to re-emphasize what the real problem is, and why it is truly imperative to press Iran on this issue.

Iran must be pressed on its military nuclear activities, not in order to humiliate it, nor to serve the agenda of those Lewis describes who are “ideologically opposed to any deal at all.” Quite the contrary. Insisting Iran be confronted with the evidence has everything to do with enhancing the prospects of getting a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. Not just any nuclear deal – a good and effective nuclear deal. A deal that will actually eliminate Iran’s ability to quickly move to a military nuclear capability at a time of its choosing.

Lewis does concede that Iranian disclosures of past military work might possibly boost the international community’s ability to forge adequate verification measures for a comprehensive deal. But that is only part of the story. The more important reason for insisting that Iran admit its past work on a military nuclear program is to dispense with Iran’s narrative that it has ‘done no wrong’ in the nuclear realm.

You might be thinking: Iran’s narrative? Is this negotiation about narratives or state interests? When considering how negotiations have unfolded over the past decade, the answer is that of course interests are the basis for Iran’s desperate attempt to hold on to its breakout capability. But narratives are woven into the negotiations dynamic, and can make a huge difference as far as getting the deal the P5+1 say they want.

Iran’s narrative plays to its clear advantage. Since 2003, Iran has stuck by its story that it has ‘done no wrong’ in the nuclear realm; it repeats incessantly that no corroborative evidence has been produced that it has worked on a military program. Iran’s ability to hang on to its story is a powerful asset in negotiations, paving the way for the bizarre dynamic whereby the P5+1 negotiators demand that Iran back away from its military ambitions, while Iran denies these ambitions exist.

As incredible as it may sound – and even though most officials (and experts) know that Iran has worked on a military program – the narrative has created enormous difficulties for negotiators over the years. The steadfast Iranian claim has effectively undercut the alternative P5+1 narrative, and has considerably weakened the hand of the international negotiators facing Iran. Indeed, for years the question mark floating over Iran’s military activities has bolstered those who accuse the West of building a false case against Iran, as it did regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities. Even today, Iran’s dogged narrative enables some of the P5+1 parties – most notably Russia – to continue to insist that there is no evidence of military nuclear activity in Iran.

Iran’s narrative must be discredited, and the charade must end. In fact, if Iran was confronted with clear-cut evidence that it had worked on a military nuclear program for years, the case for taking a harsh international approach would gain considerable traction. It would help the P5+1 tremendously with their demand for significant dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. Today Iran refuses outright to even consider any dismantlement, because, of course, ‘it has done no wrong.’

The case against Iran in the nuclear realm is immeasurably grounded in its ongoing violation of the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): its work on a military nuclear program for decades, and its blatant lies to the international community about these activities for years.

Iran is also an especially dangerous nuclear proliferator: it is a state sponsor of brutal terrorism in the Middle East, it has aggressive hegemonic regional ambitions, and Khamenei makes no secret of Iran’s interest in annihilating Israel (he recently said it was the only answer to fighting in Gaza). So the international community’s demands from Iran in the nuclear realm critically hinge on exposing these violations – exposing that Iran has been working on a military nuclear program, and yes, it has done wrong.

The problem with a nuclear deal that does not clear up the issue of Iran’s blatant violation of the NPT is that the very fact that a deal was concluded will lend credence to Teheran’s lies. Iran will forever refer back to the deal that never clarified the military activities issues. And anyone who thinks that after a deal has been secured Iran can be compelled to clear up any issue of concern – whether PMDs, Iran’s long-range missile capabilities, or more advanced centrifuge R&D – has probably not been paying too much attention for the past ten years.

A final word to Jeffrey Lewis: The only way to get a good nuclear deal with Iran is by exposing the deception and applying massive pressure. Otherwise, admit it: Iran won’t be interested.

About the Author
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation'