Opinion | Why the Past Haunts Talks With Iran

Nuclear talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are said to be making progress, which is good news. But there have been predictable roadblocks. Israel, which is not a party to the talks, appeared to sabotage Iran’s centrifuges just as talks were gaining steam. Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill called the Maximum Pressure Act that would strip President Biden’s ability to lift sanctions on Iran without a vote from Congress, making it impossible for the United States to live up to its end of any bargain.

Neither are likely to stymie the short-term prospects of a return to the deal. The G.O.P. doesn’t have enough votes. But they are sobering reminders of the long-term reality. The Biden administration can strike a deal that buys time and stabilizes the situation — and it should. But unless Israel and members of Congress get more assurances that Iran’s nuclear program will be peaceful, the deal will always be at risk of unraveling under the pressure of Israeli attacks or new sanctions imposed by another American president.

That’s why it is in Iran’s long-term interests to bring more skeptics on board. One way Iran could do that is to clear up lingering questions about its past nuclear work. Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program is peaceful and civilian in nature. Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the first nuclear power plant of its kind in the Middle East, began producing electricity in 2011 after years of struggle and Russian assistance. (The United Arab Emirates has also opened a nuclear power plant and Saudi Arabia says it plans to build 16 of them.)

Iranian diplomats say that longstanding American opposition to the completion of Bushehr — and nearly any technological advancement or investment in Iran over the past four decades — forced their civilian program to operate in shadows. Under the Iran nuclear deal struck in 2015, Iran took steps to assure the world that it would not develop weapons, including pouring cement into the core of a heavy-water reactor.

But Iran has never come clean about the weapons-related nuclear work it undertook before 2003, the year the C.I.A. estimates its nuclear weapons program was largely halted. In recent years, international inspectors have found traces of processed uranium at two sites that Iran never declared as nuclear facilities, adding to the list of unanswered questions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has to answer before being able to state with confidence that Iran isn’t still harboring a secret weapons program. The agency’s list of unanswered questions grew longer after Israeli spies stole a raft of documents from Iran revealing advanced development at undeclared sites. The stolen papers appear to document past activities, not current work. But the only way to know for sure is for Iran to let inspectors do their jobs.

If Iran’s current nuclear program is truly aimed at civilian nuclear power, as its leaders claim, then Iran should answer the agency’s questions with candor. The nuclear deal gives international inspectors access to every inch of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle. But it doesn’t give unfettered access to military areas that weren’t declared as nuclear sites.

The International Atomic Energy Agency knows what it looks like when a country renounces nuclear weapons. South Africa, which built at least six nuclear bombs despite heavy international sanctions, dismantled them quietly as international threats receded and leaders sought to shed their status as international pariahs. South Africa was given a clean bill of health only after inspectors verified that the program was in fact dismantled. Until Iran goes through a similar process, its civilian reactor will always operate under a cloud of deep suspicion. Its scientists will live with the threat of assassination and its economy will remain at risk from sanctions.

The United States also needs to acknowledge history and the ways in which its own policies have contributed to the current crisis. Iran’s nuclear program dates back to the 1960s, when the United States supplied Iran with a nuclear research reactor. At the time, Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a pro-American monarch who saw himself as a great modernizer. Mr. Pahlavi enthusiastically embraced the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which rests on a bargain: Countries that want peaceful nuclear power plants will be given access to technology, in exchange for robust inspections to ensure they are not producing weapons. Countries that already possessed nuclear weapons, for their part, agreed to pursue disarmament and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals, lest they hold an indefinite monopoly on the world’s most powerful weapon. The treaty undoubtedly slowed the spread of nuclear weapons. No signatory has ever managed to build a bomb under international inspections. But there is little to stop a country from building nuclear weapons after announcing a withdrawal from the treaty and kicking inspectors out, as North Korea appears to have done.

In 1974, Iran unveiled an ambitious program to build 20 civilian nuclear reactors to prepare for the day when the country’s oil reserves ran out, a plan U.S. officials commended at the time. In 1975, Mr. Pahlavi struck a deal with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to train the first cadre of Iranian nuclear scientists. Americans were supportive, but leery about letting Iran enrich uranium, a process that could be used to create fuel for a nuclear weapon. According to a new biography about Mr. Pahlavi, “The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty,” a letter to President Gerald Ford begging for enrichment technology went unanswered.

Mr. Pahlavi lent the French government more than a billion dollars to build a commercial enrichment facility in France to supply nuclear fuel to power plants in Iran, France, Italy, Belgium and Spain. But that consortium, known as Eurodif, never gave Iran the nuclear fuel. In 1979, religious revolutionaries overthrew Mr. Pahlavi. At first, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared nuclear power to be “un-Islamic” and withdrew from the project. Later, clerics had a change of heart and sought the fuel, but Eurodif refused to provide it. Eventually, Iran built its own uranium enrichment facility in secret.

Reports suggest that Iran’s nuclear program was revived in 1984, after an invasion by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader who had a nuclear weapons program of his own. The bloody eight-year war with Iraq killed at least 300,000 Iranians, including many who died horrible deaths from chemical weapons. But the international community sided with Saddam Hussein — an outrage Iranians never forgot. It was during this war that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was formed. Iranian scientists like Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — who was assassinated last year — dedicated themselves to developing Iran’s indigenous defenses.

After the Iran-Iraq war ended, a moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, was elected on promises to improve relations with the West. In 1995, Iran struck a deal with Conoco, a U.S. oil company, to develop one of its largest oil fields. But the Clinton administration killed the deal by banning nearly all American trade and investment in Iran, and threatening sanctions against foreign companies that invested there.

Iran’s nuclear program inched forward anyway. In 2002, Iran’s clandestine enrichment facility became international news. The international blowback, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year, shook the Iranian regime. In 2003, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment work and halted most weapons-related development. An Iranian official also prepared a sweeping proposal for U.S.-Iranian talks over a wide range of issues, including the nuclear program, Iran’s posture toward American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for Palestinian terrorist groups. But the Bush administration scoffed at the idea of direct talks and signaled Iran might be next on its regime-change list. Two years later, Iranians elected a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president who pressed ahead with Iran’s uranium enrichment program. By the end of Mr. Bush’s second term in office, Iran was on its way to mastering enrichment.

Analysts disagree about why Iran has been willing to spend so heavily on a nuclear program that it claims is peaceful. Some view it as a matter of national pride. The more the Americans insisted that Iran should not have nuclear technology — or even nuclear knowledge — the more the nuclear program became a symbol of self-reliance and resistance to Western imperialism. Others see the program as Iran’s only bargaining chip in the effort to remove sanctions, some of which have been in place for decades. Still others believe that the Iranian regime needs a nuclear weapon — or at least the option of building one — to survive domestic unrest and intense geopolitical rivalries. The grisly death of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was overthrown with American help after he gave up his weapons program, serves as an unfortunate cautionary tale.

In 2015, the United States and Iran achieved a diplomatic breakthrough after the Obama administration conceded that Iran could enrich uranium on its own soil if it agreed to robust inspections and other measures to make sure its activities remained peaceful. The deal was flawed, but bought time to test the limits of diplomacy. But in 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, and slapped Iran with the most expansive sanctions to date, which have made it hard for ordinary Iranians to purchase medicine and food. As expansive as those sanctions are, they haven’t stopped Iran from marching forward on its nuclear program. That suggests that external forces can slow Iran’s program but not stop it. The only sure way to halt Iran’s nuclear progress is to convince Iranians that they have more to gain from taking the path of South Africa than the path of North Korea.

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