“Interviews with scientists is completely out of the question and so is inspection of military sites,” Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s senior negotiator on its nuclear program, announced on state television on Saturday, just as Secretary of State John Kerry was conferring with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a final push to meet the June 30 deadline for an Iran nuclear agreement.
Araqchi’s announcement, echoing the comments of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Hassan Rouhani, is one of three recent developments on the military aspect of Iran’s nuclear program that should have Washington preparing to scrap the U.S.-led negotiations rather than recommit to them.
The other two are a new International Atomic Energy Agency report that Iran is refusing to cooperate with its inquiries over previous alleged military-related nuclear work, and a report from an Iranian dissident group that Tehran is working closely with nuclear experts from North Korea.
In the drawn-out negotiations, Washington has made significant concessions over how many centrifuges Iran can keep, how much it can enrich uranium, whether it can research advanced centrifuges for enriching higher-grade uranium, whether it can retain its enriched uranium, and how many of its nuclear sites can remain open. All of that makes the military issue – whether Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian or military purposes – that much more important. Unless Tehran agrees to unimpeded inspections, answers the International Atomic Energy Agency’s questions and comes clean about North Korea, Washington should walk away and tighten anew the sanctions it had temporarily eased.
Let’s be clear: The military aspect of Iran’s nuclear program is not just an issue of U.S.-Iranian disagreement – like sanctions relief, centrifuges and enrichment – but, really, what the negotiations are all about. Whether Iran is pursuing its nuclear program for military purposes will do more than determine whether it has lied about the issue for more than a decade. More to the point, it will determine whether Tehran will obtain the capacity to pursue its genocidal threats against Israel, back up its “death to America” vows, arm its terrorist clients with nuclear weapons and insulate itself from outside pressure over its regional hegemonic ambitions.
France – a member of the U.S.-led global negotiating team that also includes Britain, Russia, China and Germany – recognizes the importance of unimpeded inspections at Iran’s military sites. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris won’t sign a final agreement without them. But whether Paris will maintain its stance in the face of predictable U.S. pressure is an open question.
Iran’s refusal to allow access to its scientists is also troubling in light of last week’s International Atomic Energy Agency report to its 35-nation board and the United Nations Security Council, which stated that without more Iranian cooperation, the agency can’t “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency has long sought unimpeded access, for instance, to the Parchin military site, where Iran allegedly has pursued nuclear weapons-related activities. While barring such access, Iran has sought to hide its activities by sanitizing, demolishing and reconstructing parts of the site, according to the Institute for Science and International Security. In late March, the International Atomic Energy Agency complained that it still lacked access to what it wants to see at Parchin.
Meanwhile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group that has previously revealed important details of Iran’s nuclear program, charged last week that a seven-member group of North Korean nuclear and missile experts visited a military complex near Tehran in late April. It was, the group said, the third North Korean visit this year, with another scheduled for this month.
The national council’s report is just the latest credible evidence that, along with its internal nuclear progress, Iran is working with North Korea to advance its nuclear capacity and its ballistic missile program – the latter of which is important for Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear payload. In fact, North Korea expert Gordon Chang wrote this spring that the two nations are closely cooperating on nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea has sold nuclear-related material to Iran, “hundreds of North Koreans have worked at about 10 nuclear and missile facilities in Iran,” Iranian weapons specialists have worked at a base in North Korea, and Iranian officials have attended North Korean atomic tests, according to Chang. If the Iranians are assembling a nuclear bomb in North Korea, Chang wrote, “they will be one day away from a bomb – the flight time from Pyongyang to Tehran – not one year as American and other policymakers hope.”
The world needs answers about Iranian nuclear militarization, not a global agreement that sidesteps the issue.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.