Lawmakers Say Iran Unlikely to Address Suspicions of Secret Weapons Program

U.S. administration says full disclosure about program’s history isn’t critical to verify future commitments

By Jay Solomon

The Wall Street Journal

July 26, 2015

An Obama administration assessment of the Iran nuclear deal provided to Congress has led a number of lawmakers to conclude the U.S. and world powers will never get to the bottom of the country’s alleged efforts to build an atomic weapon, and that Tehran won’t be pressed to fully explain its past.

In a report to Capitol Hill last week, the administration said it was unlikely Iran would admit to having pursued a covert nuclear weapons program, and that such an acknowledgment wasn’t critical to verifying Iranian commitments in the future.

Details of the report, which haven’t been previously disclosed, indicate the deal reached this month could go ahead even if United Nations inspectors never ascertain conclusively whether Iran pursued a nuclear weapons program—something Tehran has repeatedly denied.

The issue of Iran accounting for its alleged past work has emerged as a flash point in the debate between Congress and the White House over the July 14 agreement. Lawmakers initiated a two-month review of the accord last week, and many have demanded answers about Iran’s nuclear weapons history.

Under the deal, Tehran is required by mid-October to give U.N. inspectors access to Iranian scientists, military sites and documents allegedly tied to a covert nuclear-weapons program to have international sanctions repealed. Iran has balked at such requirements in the past.

U.S. lawmakers and outside nuclear experts are skeptical the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be able to conclusively determine in two months an investigation it has failed to resolve in more than a decade.

The IAEA is required to publish a report by year-end on Iran’s alleged past military work as part of the deal.

A secret agreement between the IAEA and Tehran spells out how the U.N. agency will complete the probe. But U.S. lawmakers have bristled in recent days over the confidentiality.

Some senators complained last week that they were told by administration officials that Iran would be allowed to manage some of the IAEA’s investigation. They said they were told Tehran would conduct its own soil sampling at a military site called Parchin, where, allegedly, explosive devices were tested.

“We’re going to trust Iran to do their own testing? This is absolutely ludicrous,” Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) told Obama administration officials at a congressional hearing last week.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said: “Chain of custody means nothing if, at the very beginning, what you’re given is chosen and derived by the perpetrator.If that is true, it would be the equivalent of the fox guarding the chicken coop.

U.S. and IAEA officials have declined to detail the terms governing the agency’s investigation into Iran’s alleged past military work. The IAEA said it was standard practice for such agreements to be kept confidential.

“These arrangements meet the requirements of the IAEA for the clarification of outstanding issues,” said an IAEA spokesman in Vienna.

The Obama administration presented its assessment to lawmakers July 19 in a package of documents required by Congress to help vet the Iran accord.

The documents included classified and unclassified sections on the verification process that will be used to ensure Iran is abiding by the agreement. The package also includes a section on Iran’s future nuclear research and development plans.

On Iran’s alleged past weapons work, the Obama administration said it concluded: “An Iranian admission of its past nuclear weapons program is unlikely and is not necessary for purposes of verifyingcommitments going forward, said a copy of the assessment viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

“U.S. confidence on this front is based in large part on what we believe we already know about Iran’s past activities,” the report said. “The United States has shared with the IAEA the relevant information, and crafted specificmeasures that will enable inspectors to establish confidence that previously reported Iranian [weaponization] activities are not ongoing.”

A senior U.S. official said Sunday the IAEA had already concluded most of its probe into Iran’s alleged weaponization work and that the recently concluded deal in Vienna gives the agency more leverage to complete it. The official added the U.S. intelligence community long ago concluded Tehran had a nuclear-weapons program up until 2003, and that “an admission of what Iran did in the past is scientifically not needed to evaluate Iran’s compliance with the [agreement] in the future.”

Iran and the IAEA, which have been in a decadelong standoff over Tehran’s suspected arms work, forged an agreement this month to address the weaponization issue. It included demands that Tehran provide access to sites, scientists and documents it repeatedly refused to allow in the past.

This makes IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano something of a wild card in the Obama administration’s efforts to formalize the Iran deal and gain congressional approval by year-end, diplomats and nuclear experts said.

U.S. and IAEA officials have said the process will be credible and that sanctions on Tehran won’t be lifted if the country doesn’t cooperate in the probe. But outside analysts said the political pressure on Mr. Amano and the IAEA to resolve the weaponization issue was immense, given that the broader Iran deal is contingent on how it is addressed.

Iranian officials in recent days have disputed the U.S. position that sanctions can be lifted only after the issue is addressed.

Ali Akbar Salehi, chief of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, told state media last week that the IAEA’s investigation was independent of the broader deal.

Outside nuclear experts said understanding Iran’s past nuclear work was critical to verifying the new agreement because it establishes a baseline for what Tehran has done in the past.

Former U.S. intelligence officials have questioned White House claims that it already knows enough about Iran’s overall program to ensure the Vienna agreement is properly verified.

They said the U.S. and IAEA initially failed to detect major advances in Iran’s nuclear program, such as the construction of a uranium enrichment facility in the city of Natanz and a heavy water reactor in Arak.

“We, of course, do not have total knowledge of how much progress the Iranians had made,” the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, told a recent congressional hearing. “I know of no American intelligence officer who could claim that we have absolute knowledge of the Iranian weaponization program.”

The Obama administration said the Iran deal provided the best opportunity to resolve the weaponization issue. Enhanced access by the IAEA into Iran’s nuclear program also will make it much easier for the agency to detect any cheating, the administration said.

Corrections & Amplifications:
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. intelligence community long ago concluded Tehran had a nuclear-weapons program up until 2003. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Tehran had the program up until 2013. (July 26, 2015)