Iranians are famously savvy negotiators, so recent revelations that, under the U.S.-led global nuclear deal, Iran has far more leeway than we had thought to hide its nuclear progress and test ballistic missiles shouldn’t surprise us.
It should, however, alarm us.
The revelations – reflecting the precise wording of resolutions by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors and the United Nations Security Council – come amid increasingly aggressive Iranian behavior in the region, mocking any remaining hopes that the nuclear deal would moderate Tehran.
Iran watchers and nuclear experts were stunned to learn this month that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, believes he has new instructions on what the agency should report on Iran’s nuclear program. The agency, he said, no longer should report broadly on the program but, now, only on whether Iran is meeting specific commitments under the nuclear deal.
Those instructions came from last July’s Security Council resolution that ratified the nuclear deal and then a December resolution from his agency’s board of governors, Amano said, claiming these resolutions overrode previous Security Council and board of governors resolutions that called for broader reporting.
The agency’s stance flies in the face of repeated administration assurances that the nuclear deal would force more transparency about Iran’s nuclear activities, not less. See President Obama’s pledge of last August, “The bottom line is, if Iran cheats, we can catch them – and we will.”
Amano’s remarks also evoked strong concerns from Olli Heinonen, a former top International Atomic Energy Agency official, David Albright, who runs the Institute for Science and International Security, and others that, under this new policy, the global community can’t be sure that it will know enough about Iran’s activities.
Unlike previous reports, the agency’s February 26 report on Iran’s nuclear program – its first under the nuclear deal – included no information on the uranium stockpile that Iran had enriched to 20 percent and little on the uranium enriched to below 5 percent. It also included scant information on Iran’s research, development and production of advanced centrifuges that allow faster enrichment and insufficient information to determine Iran’s current “break-out” time for developing a nuclear bomb.
Meanwhile, Iran apparently freed itself of previous Security Council restrictions on its ballistic missile program by insisting on a small but significant wording change in the most recent Security Council resolution, transforming a tight legal prohibition into a strong rhetorical admonition.
Earlier this month, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps tested varieties of ballistic missiles with the range to hit U.S. allies in the region; among them, the IRGC tested a Qadr-H missile, with a range of 1,250 miles, with the Hebrew words “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth” stamped on it.
Top U.S. officials condemned the tests and sought a strong Security Council response, with a State Department spokesman suggesting “strong indications” that the tests were “inconsistent with [Iran’s] U.N. Security Council” obligations. But outside the State Department, even Iran’s fiercest critics acknowledged that the United States now has little legal basis on which to mount the effort.
As top Iranian and Russian officials noted, the Security Council’s resolution in July changed the language about such tests, removing the tight legal roadblocks. Resolution 1929, which had been in effect since 2010, stated that Iran “shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” July’s resolution, however, stated that Iran “is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles.”
The new evidence that Tehran out-foxed Washington during the long hours of negotiating the nuclear deal, leaving the Islamic Republic far freer to advance its nuclear and related military programs, comes against a backdrop of continuing Iranian anti-American belligerence and regional mischief.
In just the last few days, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the United States remains fundamentally hostile to Iran and warned his citizens not to trust it; the IRGC said it plans to build a statue of the 10 U.S. sailors Iran captured and detained; and an Iran-backed militia in Iraq warned ominously said it would treat U.S. forces that are in Iraq to fight the Islamic State as “forces of occupation.”
That Iran remains hostile and is now better equipped to hide its nuclear progress and test missiles on which to mount warheads is sobering news indeed.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.