No, U.S. Doesn't Have 'Absolute Knowledge' on Iran's
By Eli Lake and Josh Rogin
June 19, 2015
During a video
conference with reporters Tuesday, Kerry was asked whether Iran had to address
outstanding questions about past nuclear weapons work from the International
Atomic Energy Agency as a condition for the West lifting or easing sanctions.
deadline for concluding an Iran agreement less than two weeks away, the
secretary's response raised eyebrows. "We’re not fixated on Iran
specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,"
he said. "We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute
knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged
dwelling on the past, Kerry said, the agreement he was negotiating would stop
Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon in the future.
Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence, was incredulous this week when asked about Kerry's remarks. He
told us, "My only thought here is that the secretary misspoke or did not
understand the question."
He added that
he didn't understand what Kerry meant. "We clearly don't have the picture
that we need of Iran's capabilities. It remains one of the big concerns with any
agreement," he said.
remarks are important because U.S. officials, including Kerry, have previously
said that as a condition of sanctions relief, Iran would have to answer the
IAEA's outstanding questions about efforts to test and develop a nuclear weapon.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said this was still the U.S. position, but
described that position in more conciliatory terms. "We’ve said we’re
not looking for a confession," Kirby said, "We’ve already made
judgments about the past. But the sanctions lifting will only occur as Iran
takes the steps agreed, including addressing possible military dimensions."
remarks represent a subtle but nonetheless important shift in the
administration's position. Kirby said sanctions would be lifted as Iran
takes certain measures. The Joint Plan of Action signed in November 2013 says
Iran would address the outstanding questions about its program before a
final agreement is reached.
would be additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step,
including, among other things, addressing the U.N. Security Council resolutions,
with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the U.N. Security
Council's consideration of this matter," the
agreement says. Iran's past work on nuclear weapons -- such as
testing devices aimed at miniaturizing a nuclear explosion in a warhead -- is a
delicate matter for Iran. The Iranians have repeatedly denied they are building
a nuclear weapon. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has allegedly even issued a religious
edict or fatwa banning them. Acknowledging past weapons work would expose Iran's
Coons, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Bloomberg on Thursday
that requiring an Iranian confession would be a blow to the regime's
allows us to make the case to the world that Iran's repeated assertion ... that
this has always been a peaceful, civilian nuclear program, is just not true,”
he said. “The Iranians will resist any confirmation that they were engaged in
an illicit nuclear weapons program to the very end.”
that he and other senators would judge the quality of a final Iran deal in part
on how the deal compels Iran to fess up about its past weapons work. The U.S.
must understand the details of Iran’s past illicit nuclear weapons work to be
aware of what capabilities they’ve already developed and rebut Iranian
misinformation, he said.
U.S. intelligence estimate of Iran's nuclear program is from 2007. It
said that until 2003, the U.S. intelligence community had high confidence that
"Iranian military entities were working under government direction to
develop nuclear weapons." But that report also acknowledges intelligence
gaps and therefore only assesses with "moderate confidence" that the
halt in 2003 to some activities "represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear
Since the end
of 2007, U.S. spies have had some success in uncovering Iran's clandestine
nuclear work. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration forced Iran to
acknowledge an enrichment facility burrowed into a mountain near Qom known as
U.S. intelligence official who worked on Iran proliferation told us that U.S.
intelligence agencies today maintain lists of several suspected sites that may
be part of Iran's undeclared nuclear infrastructure. Kerry himself acknowledged
that the U.S. has a list of such facilities, in February during a hearing in
Congress when he was queried about claims from a Marxist-Islamist Iranian
opposition group about such an undeclared nuclear facility.
So if Kerry
has acknowledged that the U.S. government suspects some sites may be part of an
Iranian nuclear network, how could he claim the U.S. has "absolute
knowledge" of Iran's past military activities?
One answer may
be that he simply misspoke by claiming U.S. knowledge was absolute, but that
Kerry was correct in stating that the U.S. and its allies have no doubt that
Iran has the knowledge and capability to make a weapon.
one of the authors of the 2007 U.S. estimate, told us that he found Kerry's
statement inelegant but defensible. "We know a lot about the history of the
program, but the most important thing is that we know they have mastered the
ability to create fissile material for a bomb," he said.
the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told us that senior U.S.
officials know a lot about past Iranian weapons work, but "I think
'absolute' is the wrong word."
But he also
says the distinction between "a lot" and "absolute" should
not end the negotiations. "Do we hold the deal up to obtain a more complete
knowledge? No, we need a deal to make sure they do not continue those
activities," Kimball told us.
Not everyone in Washington agrees. Many in Congress fear Iran will freely break its new agreements, if it never even had to admit to violating its old ones.