What Iran’s Inspection Rebuff Says About Prospects for Nuclear Diplomacy

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Office of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei / AFP / Getty Images

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with local nuclear scientists in Tehran on Feb. 22, 2012.

To those mesmerized by the drumbeat for war with Iran, Tehran’s rejection on Tuesday of an International Atomic Energy Agency request to visit a sensitive military site signaled grim prospects for diplomacy resolving the nuclear standoff. The IAEA delegation had made its request to visit the military munitions facility at Parchin a litmus test of Iran’s readiness to cooperate with efforts to investigate possible weapons research work Tehran is alleged to have carried out, particularly before 2003. Iran rebuffed the request, failing the litmus test. But alarmed headlines notwithstanding, all that the episode revealed is that despite signaling a renewed interest in dialogue amid mounting sanctions pressure, Iran is not about to cry uncle and capitulate on its nuclear program. It’s more likely to seek to drive hard bargains for any concessions it offers.

U.S. and other Western governments condemned Tehran’s intransigence, but left the door open to further diplomacy — Iran is expected to meet in the coming months with the P5+1 group (comprising the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) in search of a diplomatic solution to a standoff that threatens to spark a war as Israel weighs whether to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Obama Administration officials suggested to the Wall Street Journal that the decision to bar access to Parchin reflected divisions within Iran’s leadership. Others said the hard line may be a result of Iranian domestic politics as rival conservative factions prepare to square off in next month’s parliamentary elections. But there may be a simpler logic at work: Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei followed up the IAEA rebuff on Wednesday by defiantly declaring: “Iran’s nuclear path must continue firmly and seriously… Pressures, sanctions and assassinations will bear no fruit. No obstacles can stop Iran’s nuclear work.” At the same time, however, he stressed that Iran was not building nuclear weapons because possession of such weapons would be “a sin,” or “useless, harmful and dangerous.”

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The U.S. intelligence consensus is that Khamenei has not yet decided whether to build nuclear weapons, although he is defiantly maintaining — at mounting cost to Iran —  a nuclear program that steadily accumulates the capability to build such weapons should he deem them necessary on the basis of a rational cost-benefit analysis. Iranian officials have promised to bring new proposals aimed at resolving the standoff over its suspected military nuclear ambitions to talks with Western powers. But years of previous talks have failed to resolve the standoff, and more hawkish voices dismiss such negotiations as a way for the Iranians to simply play for time. Tehran’s reaction on Parchin certainly confirmed the testimony of Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Robert Burgess to the Senate last week that despite the unprecedented pain it is feeling from sanctions, “Iran is not close to agreeing to abandon its nuclear program.”

There’s nothing unusual, in light of the past decade’s patterns, about Iran’s response to the IAEA delegation; the real shocker would have been agreement by Tehran to the request to visit Parchin at this time. Iran is simply remaining consistent with an approach that requires that steps it deems “concessions” to Western concerns — if they are going to be taken at all — will come at a significant price in reciprocal concessions.

The Obama Administration says non-cooperation with the IAEA delegation was a self-inflicted p.r. setback for Tehran, and it may indeed prompt China and Russia to press Tehran to be more compliant. But Iran argues that is not required by its existing obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to grant the request. That’s because Parchin is a military facility rather than a declared nuclear site, and under Iran’s current NPT obligations, it’s required to grant inspectors access only to designated nuclear sites.

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Tehran would have been obliged to grant access to Parchin were it still voluntarily abiding by  an Additional Protocol to its NPT safeguards agreement that it had accepted in December of 2003, granting more intrusive and short-notice inspection powers to the IAEA. Indeed, agency inspectors twice visited Parchin during the period that Iran voluntarily observed the Additional Protocol, and declared themselves satisfied that no military nuclear work had been undertaken there. The IAEA’s November 2011 report, however, based on intelligence from Western agencies, suggested that a steel tank unseen on the inspectors’ previous visits may have been used in 2000 to conduct experiments on what may have been high-explosive trigger devices for nuclear warheads.

But Iran’s parliament never ratified the Additional Protocol, and Tehran — claiming the European powers had failed to deliver on promised concessions, and with a new leadership insisting that Iran give no “free” concessions to the West — suspended its voluntary compliance with the Additional Protocol in 2005 as its position began to harden.

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Iran once again abiding by — and formally adopting — the Additional Protocol has long been cited by observers as a key element of any diplomatic solution to the standoff. But the track record suggests that if Iran intends to do that, it may be expecting to first extract a significant price in concessions from its adversaries. The message from Tehran’s rebuff of the IAEA’s Parchin request, then, appears to be that a diplomatic process to resolve the standoff is going to be far more protracted, complicated and politically risky then its protagonists would prefer.

Iran, at this stage, appears to be in no hurry to make it easier for Western leaders to persuade Israel’s increasingly agitated hawks to dial back their threat to launch air strikes. Presumably, Khamenei and those advising him believe either that Israel is bluffing, or that Iran can withstand whatever blows the Israelis are capable of delivering.

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