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But what are nuclear scientists in Turkey actually doing?

Not for the first time, when Barack Obama declared April 2 that the greater Middle East has no real alternative to a nuclear accommodation with Iran, advocates of the “cascade of proliferation” theory warned us that Turkey’s future would be nuclear-armed.

In fact, kibitzers on both sides of the Iran divide routinely include Turkey in their quiver of arrows on the basis of a common assumption. Neocons claim that Turkey would “not be far behind” Saudi Arabia in a Middle East nuclear arms race if there’s an Iran deal. Some who instead favor diplomacy likewise fret that, without a deal, Saudi Arabia will get nuclear weapons first, and then will come Egypt and Turkey.  Not only in Israel, where the proliferation domino theory is mainstream, has the view become commonplace that Turkey is heading toward nuclear latency.

Away from the op-ed pages, during the 2015 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference last month I had conversations in which serious people with government intelligence backgrounds asserted that Turkey’s military is all about keeping open or even exercising an option to make nuclear weapons. During a track-1.5 meeting in Moscow three months before, someone who has been in and out of the United States government also put Turkey on the short list of usual suspects.

In 2004, Leon Fuerth’s chapter in The Nuclear Tipping Point suggested that Turkey could go nuclear if certain things happened. Today many or even most of the items he mentioned are, at least to some extent, realities: Turkish doubts about NATO’s resolve; failure to prevent a nuclear-armed North Korea; a “shift in Turkish public opinion toward a more Islamic or nationalist orientation”; resurging Russian expansionism; and–nota bene–the “creation of a power vacuum in the Middle East as the result of the multiple failures of American policy for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq or the failure of the U.S. to make progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

All of the above not withstanding, last week two Carnegie colleagues argued that Turkey will not go nuclear. They pushed back for sound reasons but they drew their conclusions from an altitude of 30,000 feet.

What’s on the Ground?

My problem instead with all the recent loose Turkey talk is that it is out of sync with the facts on the ground in Turkey’s atomic physics installations, uranium purification and processing labs, hot cells, and nuclear training centers.

If Turkey were to aim for a nuclear-weapons capability, it would have quite a long road to travel. I say that because there’s nothing on record–not in the open literature, not on file at the IAEA Department of Safeguards, and apparently not in current U.S. government intelligence dossiers–that documents any Turkish undeclared nuclear activities.

Let’s start with what the U.S. government knows. Right after my Moscow meeting, I asked people who matter if there was anything happening in Turkey as reported to the Executive Branch in real time that would substantiate concern that Turkey is–as this frequently cited German media report insists is the case–following Iran’s example from the 1990s. The answer was categorical: No, there isn’t. The U.S. has asked Turkey about its interest in uranium enrichment. Turkey has reiterated that uranium enrichment is a future long-term option should Turkey build a lot of power reactors–but is not currently being pursued.

For about twenty years before 2000, Washington repeatedly urged Ankara to shut down a stream of nuclear dual-use exports to Pakistan’s centrifuge enrichment program. This matter is mentioned in Fuerth’s chapter, alongside some speculation by the author about a Turkish nuclear weapons option, supported in part by mostly Greek and Indian press reports vaguely suggesting that Turkey was getting some kind of nuclear baksheesh from Pakistan.

I have looked into this.

When the United States government during the 1980s investigated  those Turkish dual-use exports to Pakistan, the intelligence did not conclude that this commerce was part of any broader and secret bilateral relationship between Turkey and Pakistan related to sensitive bilateral nuclear cooperation. Instead, telephone wiretaps led to the finding that there were corrupt relationships involving specific Turkish government officials and executives that provided cover for the exports. When Turkey finally cracked down on this trade, one exporter packed up and moved his business offshore to a location in the Levant and continued to ship sensitive wares to clients of the A.Q. Khan network until this was finally snuffed out.

Turkey’s Additional Protocol

Turkey’s nuclear activities since 1982 have been subject to a comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement. What’s more, since 2001 Turkey has had an Additional Protocol in force. So what does the IAEA know about Turkey?

Thanks to Turkey’s implementation of the Additional Protocol, the Department of Safeguards has been all over Turkey’s nuclear program since 2001. To establish a comprehensive nuclear profile for Turkey, the IAEA carefully reconstructed Turkey’s nuclear history from its beginning in the 1950s.

The IAEA’s Turkey probe was exceptionally thorough and it went on for a decade. That’s a lot of time to spend on a country without any declared sensitive nuclear fuel cycle operations and no nuclear power infrastructure. For a country with this kind of profile, the IAEA might take about half that time to reach a so-called “broader conclusion” that all its nuclear activities are declared and are understood.

There were specific reasons why the IAEA took longer on Turkey. To begin with, there was A.Q. Khan. He was still hard at work when the IAEA and Turkey began implementing the Additional Protocol. So the IAEA unpacked those Turkish dual-use exports to Pakistan, as well as the murky reports about tit-for-tat Pakistani transfers to Turkey. Second, the IAEA drilled into Turkey’s wide-ranging experimental activities concerning the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. For several decades, these included the whole gamut of uranium processing steps from prospecting through to chemical processing and fuel fabrication, as well as research and experiments using thorium that might be useful should Turkey someday intend to irradiate Th-232 in a reactor and then separate the fissile U-233. The IAEA needed to know whether all that front-end material processing and experimenting was accounted for. It was. A little procedural and bureaucratic prickliness was encountered along the way, but after 10 years, the IAEA had found no evidence of any undeclared or clandestine nuclear activities. The IAEA asked questions about centrifuges and was satisfied that Turkish scientists were not enriching uranium. There was no third-party information (read: intelligence from IAEA member states) pointing to clandestine nuclear activities being carried out by Turkish scientists.

In 2012 the IAEA awarded Turkey what it calls the “broader conclusion” on safeguards. That means this:

For each State with a [comprehensive safeguards agreement] and an additional protocol based on [Infcirc/540] in force, a broader conclusion can be drawn for the year concerned that all of the nuclear material in the State had been placed under safeguards and remained in peaceful nuclear activities or was otherwise adequately accounted for. To be able to draw this conclusion, the IAEA must draw the conclusions of both the non-diversion of the nuclear material placed under safeguards and the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for the State as a whole. The conclusion of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities is drawn when the activities performed under an additional protocol have been completed, when relevant questions and inconsistencies have been addressed, and when no indications have been found by the IAEA that, in its judgement, would constitute a safeguards concern. 

Turkey’s broader conclusion has been renewed each year since 2012. Before and after any Iran deal, domino-theory advocates can bang all the drums they like, but as long as Turkey’s broader conclusion is thoroughly vetted and renewed annually, and provided that Turkey refrains from launching a uranium-enrichment program that it doesn’t need, I won’t lose any sleep over this.


Why on earth would Turkey prevent a NATO ally from prosecuting a suspected Iranian nuclear smuggler who had been arrested in Turkey? Police found that companies Hossein Tanideh controlled were used to camouflage exports of German goods to Iran in violation of a United Nations Security Council embargo on assistance to an Iranian reactor that could make weapons-grade plutonium.

When this mini-drama began unfolding in mid-2013 between Germany and Turkey over the fate of Tanideh, an Iranian government procurement agent who landed in pre-trial detention in Istanbul in January 2013, officials from one NATO country government told me, “we didn’t understand why sending [Tanideh] to Germany was causing so much trouble for Turkey.” Turkey finally instead released Tanideh from custody, and last month I gave some tentative answers here to explain why that happened, concerning a closely-held intelligence-sharing relationship between Turkey and Iran.

Since then, Turkish interlocutors have confirmed to me that Ankara last year permitted Tanideh to flee to Iran, and also that that decision followed from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s evolving and complex relationship with the Iranian regime.

But I was also told three weeks ago that in 2013 and 2014 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now Turkey’s President, was not inclined to cooperate with Germany in light of longstanding Turkish grievances over German reluctance to hunt down members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)–a Marxist-Leninist resistance group that Germany,  the European Union, and the United States have all listed as a terrorist organization.

Germany’s PKK Problem

A primer on what the PKK means for Turkish security was published last week by Sinan Ulgen’s EDAM research group and can be found on pp. 26-27 of this report. It explains why Turkey for decades has sought cooperation from foreign governments to criminalize PKK activities and prosecute and extradite PKK activists and leaders.

A major focus of Turkey’s attention has been Germany, which is home to an ethnic Kurdish population of perhaps 800,000 people, including suspects whom Turkey wants repatriated for trial as terrorists and/or criminals.

For Germany, far from serving as an opportunity to cement German-Turkish bilateral ties, cooperation with Turkey in pursuing the PKK has been a recurring migraine. When Germany listed the PKK in 1993, it had already been granting political asylum to increasing numbers of Kurds fleeing for a decade from turmoil and official repression in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Again and again, for over 30 years, Turkish extradition requests for suspects it identified as PKK terrorists ran aground on generous German asylum rules and concerns–especially in left-leaning German state governments–that PKK suspects would be prosecuted in Turkey for manifestly “political” charges, and that the accused might be maltreated or tortured.  (Under Germany’s constitution, the states are responsible for law enforcement.)

In 2007, Turkish law enforcement officials complained that, regardless of scores of requests for judicial assistance from Germany, only three PKK suspects were ever extradited to Turkey for prosecution over twenty years. In fact, German prosecutors periodically dismissed extradition requests for suspects Turkey aimed to charge with the crime of  ”contravening the unity of Turkey” and also in cases when they believed that suspects would not get a fair trial. In numerous cases, German judges objected that Turkish extradition requests were not substantiated by any evidence beyond allegations published in Turkish media reports. On the other side of the ledger, German officials have disclosed to foreign counterparts that some German judges appear to believe that the PKK represents the legitimate interests of Kurds in Turkey.

In recent years, Turkey’s AKP rulers have abandoned their all-out attack on the PKK for a strategy aiming at an accommodation with Turkey’s Kurdish minority. That change, however, has not appreciably reduced tensions with foreign governments over extradition requests. In 2013, assassins who might have been Turkish nationalists gunned down a Kurdish separatist in Paris two years after Germany refused to extradite her to Turkey. Experts in Turkey last month said that efforts by Ankara to have PKK suspects extradited and put on trial have continued in parallel with Erdogan’s conviction that Bashar al-Assad in Syria is harboring PKK extremists.

Hakan Fidan, the Erdogan confidant and MIT intelligence chief whom NATO-country sources in 2014 told me was instrumental in Turkey’s decision to set Tanideh free, has also been a key player in Erdogan’s attempted rapprochement with the PKK. While talking with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey at the same time wants to combat the PKK  to make it a more pliant negotiating partner.

Turkey, meanwhile, is keeping eyes peeled for any signs that Germany might decriminalize the PKK. Last month Germany’s ex-communist Left party formally proposed delisting the PKK in Germany and the EU. Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition however is not inclined.

For its part, Germany has accumulated some experience in extradition cases having nuclear proliferation dimensions. During the 1990s, Germany requested that Brazil extradite knowledgeable German centrifuge engineers from the Urenco uranium enrichment program to Germany. Brazil balked–as German prosecutors likewise did on Turkish requests–by raising objections that Germany’s intention to charge these suspects with treason for having betrayed Germany’s deepest industrial secrets to Iraq was a “political” offense and not a crime.

Four Conclusions

Iran is a player: A number of factors may together have prompted Turkey’s denial of extradition in the Tanideh case. The fact that Turkey did not exercise the option of prosecuting Tanideh in Turkey suggests that the most direct explanation for Turkey’s actions would be its considerations about Turkey’s relationship with Iran.

“Minimalist” approach: Frustration over German unwillingness to extradite alleged PKK terrorists may well have encouraged Turkey not to honor Germany’s own extradition request in 2013. If so, Turkey’s actions would be consistent with what some NATO-country officials describe as a consistently “minimalist” approach by the AKP to a panoply of nuclear and security issues of concern to Western countries, where other, unrelated issues are factored into decision-making. In this regard,  some experts also mention Turkish opposition to efforts by some NATO countries in recent years to formally list Iran as a security threat to the alliance.

Threat perception and opportunism: Since the 1990s, nuclear security and nuclear nonproliferation have become increasingly high priorities for Western countries. Western governments have accordingly urged others to take positive nonproliferation actions on a voluntary basis. These include extradition of suspects in cases involving illicit and proliferating nuclear commerce. But governments that do not share equally acute nuclear threat perceptions will instead be guided by opportunism in considering requests for cooperation beyond their international legal obligations.

Sovereign sensitivities: Extradition is an area where, absent specific bilateral legal obligations, governments’ behavior frequently reflects the state of play in their bilateral relationships with countries requesting judicial cooperation. When Brazil and Turkey conclude that Western powers like Germany take their cooperation for granted or do not act on the basis of reciprocity, they may deny requests for extradition.



Two months from now in New York, cabinet-level officials from 189 countries will read out national statements filled to the brim with resolve to combat the spread of nuclear arms, as they do every five years when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is reviewed by its member states.

The NPT imposes legally binding obligations on its parties. These include putting peaceful-use nuclear materials under safeguards, and not manufacturing nuclear weapons. But there are other things that constitute good nonproliferation behavior that the NPT does not require. When governments don’t do those things, it is often because internal conflicts arise at the level of national government decision-making–especially when more than one policy goal competes for supremacy, and when perceived strategic interests are at stake.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the United States became increasingly annoyed by two Turkish companies that were supplying power inverters for Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program. After having requested Turkey for ten years without avail to halt this trade, in 1988 U.S. President Ronald Reagan personally raised it with Turkey’s President, Kenan Evren. But after that tete-a-tete another decade passed before Turkey snuffed out the assistance to Pakistan. For Ankara, the bottom line then was that Pakistan was a critical bilateral partner–and more important than Turkey’s nonproliferation interest in this instance.

U.S. officials were deterred from taking action by their own internal policy conflicts. Some concluded that allegations against the Turkish firms justified halting aid to Turkey under terms of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which barred recipients from contributing to foreign nuclear-weapon programs. But that proposal got nowhere because the need to keep Pakistan on board Washington’s proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan “was always in the way,” as one former U.S. diplomat recalled.

Turkey and Tanideh

Turkey also figured in a recent case where nonproliferation interests and perceived strategic interests collided.

Beginning in April 2013, Germany’s Federal Attorney General’s Office prosecuted four businessmen accused of supplying a wealth of equipment for Iran’s IR-40 heavy water reactor project, a unit which, it said, “may be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.”

Berlin then requested Ankara to extradite to Germany an Iranian citizen, Hossein Tanideh, who prosecutors, on the basis of wire taps and other evidence, concluded had been directed in 2006 by Iran to procure equipment for the primary circuit of the IR-40 reactor. Tanideh had been arrested in Turkey in early 2013 after Turkish investigators, cooperating with foreign counterparts, probed Tanideh’s commercial activities in Turkey. Prosecutors believed that Tanideh had used shell companies and false identities to try to obtain the equipment for Iran. Germany’s Attorney General determined that Tanideh was working for the company responsible for construction of the IR-40 and that is subject to Security Council sanctions since 2006. The U.S. Department of State identifies that organization as the Modern Industries Technique Company (MITEC).

In November 2013, a German court convicted the four businessmen of export control violations, including of the Security Council embargo of assistance to Iran’s nuclear program, and for seriously disturbing Germany’s foreign relations.

Tanideh remained in custody in Turkey, and Germany still aimed to prosecute him. The Turkish government mulled its options. It could honor the German extradition request. Or it could prosecute Tanideh in Turkey for export control violations that its probe of Tanideh found had been perpetrated.

Instead, Turkey released Tanideh from custody in early 2014, and it is now assumed by Western governments closely following the case that Tanideh has returned to Iran.

Tanideh is by all accounts not an insignificant player in Iran’s clandestine nuclear procurement effort. Since 2012 his name has been on the list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department subject to sanctions and asset seizure for aiding Iran’s nuclear program.

So why didn’t Turkey extradite Tanideh to Germany or put him on trial in Turkey?

The short answer you get is that Tanideh was released as a consequence of bilateral intelligence cooperation between Iran and Turkey. Sources report that what happened in the Tanideh case was generally consistent with unconfirmed published accounts asserting that Hakan Fidan, from 2010 until this month head of Turkey’s intelligence agency, MIT, had riled Western governments by cooperating with Iran, and who may have passed on to Iran classified U.S. government intelligence assessments that had been shared with Turkey. This month, Turkish media assert that Fidan had been implicated in a Turkish judicial probe targeting pro-Iran officials in the Turkish government, and that the government thereafter pressured Turkish prosecutors to drop their investigation. Effective February 10, Fidan, a close associate of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, resigned, according to Turkish press reports, in order to run for parliament.

Behind Turkish-Iranian intelligence cooperation however may lie deeper interests–including protecting Turkey’s 500-mile-long border with Syria, to say nothing of its 200-mile-long frontier with Iran. Since 2014 perimital security may be a more strategic concern for  Turkey in the wake of Turkish efforts since 2013 to assist combatents who aim to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, some of whom may be jihadists. Separately, Turkey’s AKP rulers may be minding other bilateral interests with Iran that in 2014 outweighed Ankara’s nonproliferation interest in cooperating with an important NATO and European Union partner country to halt illegal procurement to Iran’s nuclear program–including in Turkey. These might include lucrative trade ties with Iran; compensation to Iran for Turkish deployment of technology related to NATO’s anti-missile defenses; cooperation with Iran on managing political and security developments in Iraq and Kurdistan; and, in the future, cooperation with Iran in fighting jihadist terrorists.


On Monday, February 9 and Wednesday, February 11, the Australian parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) will take up Australia’s nuclear cooperation agreement with India. According to a National Interest Statement from the Australian government, the agreement will enter into force after the JSCOT hearing and after parliament finds that the agreement meets Australia’s legal requirements for EIF.

Before lawmakers sign off on the agreement, however, it is possible that on a few points the text will have to be re-negotiated with India and amended.

The Agreement Between the Government of Australia and the Government of India on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy was concluded on 5 September 2014. The text of the agreement is here.

On the basis of this agreement, Australia’s uranium producing industry aims to export uranium to India.

Last week I explored this subject here. In a nutshell, I said that prior to Australia’s pending negotiations with India over the fine print of terms to facilitate implementation of the agreement, India has weakened the information-sharing provisions in such arrangements negotiated with Canada and the United States. India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) collects data for nuclear security purposes which, if provided to its foreign partners, would permit them to track Canadian and U.S.-obligated nuclear material through India’s nuclear fuel cycle. DAE will not agree to provide tracking information to Canada or the U.S., compelling these countries to derive other, partly indirect ways of tracking the material in India.

The contentious issue is so-called administrative arrangements (AAs) which must be agreed upon by both sides to facilitate the nuclear cooperation agreement.

There are two main rationales for negotiation of AAs in Australia’s bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements: 1.) Providing what Australia calls “safeguards-related” confidence in partner countries’ peaceful use intentions and obligations, and 2.) identifying and locating nuclear material which is subject to Australian obligations.

Peaceful Use Obligations and Intentions

In the big picture, the AAs ultimately follow from Australia’s partner countries’ commitment that they will dedicate to peaceful use all nuclear materials and other items that are supplied under nuclear cooperation agreements with Australia.

This is what the National Interest Statement says about the bilatleral agreement, AAs, and India’s peaceful use committment:

Australia’s bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements provide assurance that Australian-obligated nuclear material (AONM) is used solely for peaceful purposes and is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other military uses. At present, Australia has 23 such agreements in place, providing for the transfer of AONM to up to 41 countries, plus Taiwan. These agreements build on the IAEA’s safeguards system in order to assure the peaceful and non-explosive use of AONM. They also serve Australia’s nuclear nonproliferation security interests by establishing a high standard of safeguards and accountability for a significant proportion of the world’s uranium in peaceful use.

…Article III, paragraph 4 [of the agreement] requires also that nominated national authorities establish an Administrative Arrangement to facilitate effective implementation of the proposed Agreement. Australia’s national authority would be the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO).

Article III, paragraph 5, requires each Party to establish and maintain a system of accounting for and control of items subject to the proposed Agreement. Both India and Australia maintain systems of accounting and control for nuclear material to meet IAEA safeguards requirements. Additional procedures to separately track nuclear material and other items subject to the proposed Agreement will be addressed in the abovementioned Administrative Arrangement.

The requirement for tracking of Australian-obligated material in India, accordingly, is separate from and complementary to the requirement for IAEA safeguards on the material. But the main thrust in the Australian perspective is this:

Australian policy is to include safeguards-related conditions in nuclear cooperation agreements that are additional to the requirements of IAEA safeguards. These conditions aim to build confidence between the parties (and among other members of the international community) about their peaceful intentions.

‘Safeguards-Related’  Conditions

The conditions in nearly all of Australia’s bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements which go beyond IAEA safeguards, and which provide an important rationale for tracking Australian-obligated material in the recipient state, include:

• Australia’s written consent for transfers to third parties; Š high enrichment; and Š reprocessing

• Fallback safeguards if IAEA safeguards cease to apply in the state concerned

• Internationally agreed standards of physical security are to apply to nuclear material in the state concerned

• Provision for the cessation of supply and the removal of Australian-obligated material in the event of a breach of the agreement

India Irregularities

Kalman Robertson at the Australian National University argues, in an intervention he submitted for next week’s JSCOT hearing, that the Australia-India agreement is unique in a number of aspects. These include:

The broad definition of how Australian-obligated material may be used: The agreement would permit India hypothetically to use fuel containing a mix of 75% unsafeguarded nuclear material and 25% Australian-obligated material in a reactor for a short period of time in order to produce irradiated fuel containing weapons-grade plutonium. Afterward, and provided that 25% of the irradiated fuel remained under safeguards, the other 75% could be taken to an unsafeguarded facility and used as a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons. In this case, “It might be reasonably argued that Australian uranium could indirectly benefit an Indian nuclear weapons program and that this represents a significant lowering of the safeguards standard when compared with [Australia's] agreements with Russia and China.” It is possible that DAE will not provide tracking data to its foreign partners as a consequence of those governments having granted India the right to use foreign-obligated nuclear material in facilities which also produce material for India’s nuclear weapons program.

Consent to reprocessing: Unlike other agreements, the agreement with India gives India advance consent to reprocess Australian-obligated material.

 Right of Return: Unlike other Australian agreements including those with Russia and China, the Australia-India agreement does not include any provision dealing with the consequences of a failure by the recipient state to comply with the core provisions of the nuclear cooperation agreement (or a failure by the recipient state to comply with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA).

 Fallback Safeguards: Australia’s agreements with China and Russia provide for fallback safeguards which would be the eqivalent to IAEA safeguards should the IAEA not be able to safeguard Australian-obligated material for any reason. The Australia-India agreement calls only for vague “appropriate verification measures” in such a case.

No Arbitration Clause: The Australia-India agreement departs from most others in this regard. That could spell trouble given considering the weakness of provisions for fallback safeguards and absence of right of return conditions in the agreement. This might also be interpreted to imply that Australia would tolerate a dispute remaining indefinitely unresolved

If JSCOT after the hearings concludes that there are deficiencies in these or other areas, the Australia-India agreement might have to be amended following further discussion or negotiation with India.

John Carlson, who was Australia’s chief safeguards officer from 1989 until 2010, had this to say about whether the agreement concluded last September should stand, in a statement he submitted to JSCOT:

 In 2006, when discussions between Australia and India on a nuclear agreement first started, India insisted on being treated the same as Australia’s other agreement partners. But now India has moved the goal posts, expecting an agreement that contains less than all other Australian partners have agreed to. Far from building confidence in its intentions, India’s position has the opposite effect…that India is not prepared to meet the standards accepted by all our other partners is a strong reason not to proceed on such a basis…[I]n 2006 Indian officials said they wanted the same conditions as Australia has with other countries. Now however it seems they want much less. The fact that India wants to weaken Australia’s longstanding safeguards conditions shows it is not thinking in terms of assuming the same responsibilities and practices as other leading countries – this is not an encouraging start either for this agreement or for a closer bilateral relationship.

It’s also not a very encouraging sign of how India might behave should it be invited to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But that’s another post down the road and a subject that will be up for 48 governments to decide for themselves. In the meantime, all three governments that face the consequences of DAE’s policy on information-sharing–Australia, Canada, and the United States–strongly favor Indian membership.

The rest of the submissions to JSCOT on the Australia-India agreement are here.


After the powers and Iran in late 2013 concluded the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), I cautioned that, a year later, when everything else is supposed to be settled, the toughest nut to crack might be what to do about Iran’s nuclear past. Happy talkers who didn’t like that message marginalized it for months. But right now, questions raised by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano about what he calls “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program are standing tall between the negotiators and a comprehensive settlement of the crisis.

While the powers and Iran were negotiating the JPA, they and Iran set up a Framework for Cooperation on a parallel track which committed the IAEA and Iran to resolve PMD issues. That  began with confidence-building steps which were supposed to coax Iran to give the IAEA enough data for it to tell its Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council that things with Iran were working out.

After six months, all the low-hanging fruit was picked. This May, the IAEA and Iran agreed to a third set of “practical measures” under the Framework, with an August deadline. The list included “exchanging information with the Agency with respect to the allegations related to the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran.”

The last we heard about this from the IAEA was in its 7 November report to the Board, GOV/2014/58:

Iran and the Agency held technical meetings on two separate occasions in Tehran to discuss the two outstanding practical measures agreed in May 2014 in the third step of the Framework for Cooperation. Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures in the next step of the Framework for Cooperation.

Iran responded to that in a comment filed on 1 December to the IAEA Secretariat as GOV/INF 871:

During technical meetings in Tehran on 7 and 8 October 2014 and 2 November 2014 [and regarding high-explosion initiation allegations] Iran… provided detailed explanations on the documents shown by the Agency to Iran and provided pieces of evidence that indicate such documents are fabricated. Those forged documents have no sign to prove that they are of Iranian origin and contrary to such claim; the documents are full of mistakes and contain fake names with specific pronunciations, which only point toward a certain Member of the IAEA as their forger… Indeed, invalidity of Agency’s information or better to say invalidity of information given to the Agency and lack of substantiated evidences at the disposal of the Agency are the major problems on these issues. In continuation of our cooperation with the Agency, we intend to arrange another technical meeting on these two practical measures as soon as we receive specific questions of the Agency with substantiated documents in order to conclude them and once these issues are clarified and closed, we can start considering implementation of new practical measure.

I read Iran’s statement to mean that, unless the IAEA provides Iran “substantiated evidences” that Iran agrees are valid, the Framework for Cooperation is on ice. Iran says Amano’s information on high-explosion initiation is falsified. Finito la musica.

But in mid-November once again it was Iran, not Amano, that moved next. In the IAEA boardroom it told the IAEA Iran would permit inspectors to carry out one managed access at Marivan, one of two sites (the other being Parchin) mentioned in the IAEA November 2011 report concerning explosives allegations. The IAEA through a spokesman thereafter blurted out that it wouldn’t take up Iran’s offer.

AP Article 8

Not without consistency, Gareth Porter and Robert Kelley then went into print taking issue with the IAEA’s decision not to go to Marivan. Porter published an article speculating that the reason the IAEA passed is that it has no evidence for any weapons-related activity–befitting the thesis of his previous magnum opus which claims that the Iranian nuclear crisis was concocted by the U.S. and Israel to confront Iran. Kelley’s contribution instead cited details from the IAEA November 2011 report and lamented that the IAEA chose not to chase them down in Marivan because–as Kelley has opined–these activities would not likely have been carried out at Parchin.

These authors didn’t mention that the IAEA might consider pursuing Iran’s Marivan gambit for another reason: Promoting the implementation of Iran’s Additional Protocol.

Iran’s AP includes Article 8:

‘Nothing is this Protocol shall preclude Iran from offering the Agency access to locations in addition to those referred to in Articles 5 and 9 or from requesting the Agency to conduct verification activities at a particular location. The Agency shall, without delay, make every reasonable effort to act upon such a request.’ 

That language might imply that the IAEA should go to Marivan if Iran invited inspectors to go there.

I talked to one safeguards aficionado about this. He recalled that he was in the room when a Board working committee conceptualized the AP back in 1996. Director-General Hans Blix, he said, “asserted that, if there is a claim that a state has carried out non-compliant activities at a location, the state could voluntarily call upon the Agency to assist in clearing its name by visiting the location on the state’s invitation and reporting what it found. Blix insisted that would be the best way to resolve such claims, and [that such a provision] should be in the AP… That concept was formulated as Article 8.”

Yesterday I asked Blix if that version of events was basically correct. He confirmed to me that it was.

“I remember vaguely a view I had that while any demand by the Agency for a special inspection would be perfectly legal, it would be somewhat dramatic and likely to lead to controversy, so a possibly less difficult path to inspection and facts could be if the state was given an opportunity itself to invite the inspection. I seem to remember that the special inspections we had had before the DPRK were in fact by such invitation. This might be an explanation for Article 8.”

On this basis, the IAEA might argue that, if a visit were held and it cleared up suspicion about Marivan, Iran might also benefit if it permitted the IAEA to see what it wants to see at Parchin and, along the way, have an interview with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a scientist and officer in the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps who is suspected of having guided nuclear weapons work in Iran. So far Iran has not permitted the IAEA to go back to Parchin or meet with Fakhrizadeh.

How Much IAEA Leverage?

So why didn’t the IAEA grab Iran’s bait?

First off, Iran’s AP isn’t in force. Until it is, IAEA verification work in Iran is mandated by Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the JPA, the Framework for Cooperation, and resolutions passed by the IAEA board and by the Security Council. AP Article 8 doesn’t apply.

Far more significantly, were the IAEA to agree to Iran’s terms for a one-off visit to Marivan, and if the IAEA failed to find anything, Iran would probably shut the door. That happened at Parchin, where the IAEA in 2005 failed to detect non-compliant activity and Iran then barred the IAEA from visiting a specific location it now wants to see.

Cheryl Rofer joins Porter in suspecting that the IAEA would find nothing at Marivan–but also for the reason that Iran could hide evidence which after a decade may have also eroded, not because allegations are groundless.

There may be internal deliberations concerning the IAEA’s authority and priorities. While UNSC resolutions endorse the IAEA’s pursuit of PMD-related activities in Iran, Iran’s CSA (and for that matter the AP) expressly endorse the IAEA’s authority to inspect as deriving from a nexus to nuclear materials. To my knowledge, no allegations have come forth that Iran used nuclear materials in any undeclared activity at Marivan. The IAEA may be more interested in pursuing allegations at Parchin if it has information suggesting that nuclear materials may have been involved in undeclared activities at that site.

The Kelley and Porter articles have resonated among some pundits and trolls who appear to share as an article of faith Iran’s claim that PMD is is a conspiracy of a big power and its allies abusing a multilateral agency to beat up on a recalcitrant adversary. Their argument follows the approach which Russia pressed home during the 2014 IAEA safeguards symposium in Vienna in October. There, Russians asked the IAEA again and again: “How do you know you are not being manipulated by sources giving you third-party information?”

This Russian question, as I said in Moscow last month, is a good question. But the correct answer doesn’t have to be that the IAEA’s use of third-party information must be poisoned by manipulation and bias. Amano knows that the IAEA’s impartiality is under scrutiny; it would therefore be premature to conclude that the IAEA is foolhardy and is being rope-a-doped by a dozen states sharing data alleging that Iran carried out high-explosives work. Lest we forget: None of the people speculating about what happened or didn’t happen at Parchin and Marivan have access to the IAEA’s current inventory of safeguards confidential data on Iran.

In the short term, it looks like Iran has maneuvered Amano into a corner. If the IAEA doesn’t go to Marivan on Iran’s terms, Iran’s spin doctors will claim that the IAEA is not cooperating to resolve PMD allegations. If the IAEA instead goes to Marivan, and finds nothing, Iran will declare the case closed.

Iran’s chess-playing with the IAEA, in parallel with its negotiations with the powers, is ultmately aimed at release of sanctions. If Iran is hiding evidence of activities related to nuclear weapons development, its moves will be designed to protect that knowledge, including at any site where undeclared activities may have taken place. The IAEA might tell Iran: It is up to the IAEA to decide where its safeguards resources are best put to use. If you want us to go to Marivan, then bring Iran’s AP into force now and assure us in advance that this won’t be a one-off visit. But as long as Iran views its cooperation with the IAEA as a bargaining chip in a negotiation with the powers for future benefits, it may not agree.

The IAEA isn’t powerless in this game. It needs to recall that  under UNSC/RES/S/1929 (2010), nuclear sanctions cannot be rescinded without an IAEA statement to the UNSC that “Iran has fully complied with its obligations under the relevant resolutions of the Security Council and met the requirements of the IAEA Board of Governors, as confirmed by the IAEA Board of Governors.”



Yesterday the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Speakers made several references to South Africa’s nuclear past and what it means for the six powers trying to negotiate a verification agreement with the Islamic Republic.

The IAEA and South Africa twenty years ago successfully resolved questions about South Africa’s former nuclear weapons activities. That record is resonating now among critics of the Iran/P5+1 process because Iran is currently challenging the IAEA’s authority to do the kind of verification the powers want to see included in a comprehensive agreement. But Iran won’t and can’t follow South Africa’s example without a fundamental rebooting of its relationship with the IAEA.

South Africa swung toward exceptional cooperation with the IAEA at a time when its strategic threat perception was changing and it was facing near-certain regime change. I suspect at least some of the critics who see South Africa as a model for Iran understand that and will draw their own conclusions. Neocons among them should be aware that the pressure which drove white supremacists to give up nuclear weapons was generated inside the country, not outside.

South Africa: The Record

Beginning in the 1970s, South Africa’s Apartheid regime, facing growing international isolation and conflict on its periphery, set up a secret program to develop and make nuclear weapons. By 1989 it produced six of these. In November 1989 it ordered the program terminated and by July 1991 South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons. That same month it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiated a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) which entered into force two months later. Only then did the IAEA obtain access to what was left of that program including, most importantly, the highly-enriched uranium used in the weapons. In less than two years, the IAEA had more or less accounted for all of South Africa’s declared nuclear materials. During this process involving about 150 inspections, the South African government never acknowledged or otherwise made known that it had secretly made nuclear weapons; the IAEA concerned itself with verifying the correctness and completeness of South Africa’s nuclear material inventory. The IAEA did not focus upon allegations of the kind of nuclear weapons activities which today suggest to the IAEA  ”possible military dimensions” (PMD) in Iran’s nuclear program.

In March 1993, South Africa declared that it had in the past made nuclear weapons. The IAEA then, also on the basis of extensive cooperation from South Africa, verified that all the nuclear material in the weapons program was accounted for and under safeguards, and that the nuclear weapons program was terminated.

The IAEA is confident that essential nuclear material-related activities in the nuclear weapons program are accounted for. It investigated PMD-type activities to the extent they were deemed critical to assure that at some future time South Africa would not re-constitute this program. It closed the books on this exercise in 2010.

No Change? No Cooperation

Some advocates of a robust verification arrangement for Iran under a comprehensive nuclear agreement now argue that South Africa’s extensive cooperation should be the standard for how Iran proceeds with the IAEA.

What was said on July 29 about South Africa by SFRC Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and by ex-IAEA safeguards director Olli Heinonen echoed a cyberspace exchange I had a few days before, in which Senator Menendez and also Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) were linked in. On Twitter last week, Robert Zarate, a former Congressional staffer now here, put it this way to me: “S Africa decided 2 ‘come clean’ on nuke prog’s military dimensions. It’s the baseline 4 Iran.” Senator Kirk described what South Africa permitted the IAEA to do as “anywhere, anytime” inspections and he posted on Twitter a simple chart which checked boxes identifying South Africa as a poster child of transparency and Iran as a non-cooperator.

At the SFRC hearing a week later, a critical moment came when Menendez asked Heinonen “ Is a good model the South African model” which featured “unprecedented cooperation by allowing anywhere, anytime inspections?” Heinonen replied by qualifying that that approach “was successful [in South Africa because] that government had changed their view. They had given up their nuclear weapons program. They wanted to close that chapter.” But “if that change doesn’t take place in Iran,” he said, then effective verification is “going to be difficult as it was in North Korea” where the IAEA had extremely limited access under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Menendez concluded that the two cases were “very different… the two paradigms here, between where Iran is at and where South Africa is at.”

What are the Drivers?

What Heinonen didn’t say about South Africa’s re-evaluation of nuclear weapons is what others on the ground in South Africa have told me over the years that have elapsed since 1993–that the Apartheid state’s decisions from 1989 through 1993 to terminate the secret program and destroy its infrstructure were based upon a strategic calculation. That calculation ultimately expected that a black majority would in the near future take power, spearheaded by an African National Congress that ruling white supremacists did not want to see inherit a nuclear weapons arsenal or capability.

This version of events is decidedly not the official view of the ANC today, and since taking power it has formally embraced policies clearly in favor of disarmament and nonproliferation. But South African observers and witnesses then and now, white and black, have recalled to me again and again that at the end of the 1980s, the writing was on the wall.  A process of internally-generated regime change in South Africa was a major driver of that country’s cooperation with the IAEA.

So Senator Kirk’s cyberspace broadside–that because transparency in South Africa was “good enough for Mandela” it should be “good enough for Iran”–won’t hold true so long as drivers for political change, such as those which made the difference in South Africa in the early 1990s, are not at work in Iran today. So long as the organizations and personalities who are determined to expand Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities are confident that they are invulnerable and enjoy the support of the leadership, it would not be wise to count upon Iran suddenly shifting gears and fully cooperating with the IAEA.

On June 14, six months after Iran and the six powers concluded the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) setting up a roadmap for negotiation of a comprehensive agreement, Iran instead fundamentally challenged the IAEA’s authority to pursue PMD-related investigations, telling the IAEA in an official communication (Infcirc/866) that:

  • the IAEA is not authorized to make requests for access based on United Nations Security Council or IAEA Board of Governors resolutions which are “politically motivated, illegal, and unjust”, and that
  • the IAEA is not authorized or required to verify the completeness and correctness of states’ nuclear inventory declarations.

Regardless of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation touted as the beginning of a reset in Iran’s relationship with the IAEA hand in hand with the conclusion of the JPOA, Iran’s positions concerning the IAEA’s verification mandate haven’t changed since 2005. The IAEA’s authority to pursue what the JPOA calls “past issues” in Iran however critically rests on those resolutions and upon support and endorsement by member states of its work including to assure that Iran’s declarations are complete and correct. In South Africa, verification of completeness and correctness was an essential component of the IAEA’s work to resolve questions about that country’s nuclear program–even before South Africa revealed that it had secretly made nuclear arms.


Underground at Anhalter Bahnhof and waiting for the S2 train a couple of mornings ago,  a reporter rang me up to talk about Iran.

He had read this piece written a few days before, in which I had run down why the Russians had become increasingly perturbed in recent months about Iran’s claim that it needed to enrich and fabricate fuel for its Bushehr-1 reactor. Based on what Russian sources have told me since November, I’m nearly certain that vendor Rosatom has no real desire to permit Iran to make this fuel anytime soon, regardless of my encouragement back in the beginning of 2013 that Russia and other powers negotiating with Iran seriously think about that long-term option.

The journalist, Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg, roped me into a discussion (by this time I was coasting on the S-Bahn through Berlin-Zehlendorf) about whether Iran, in lieu of fabricating fuel for Bushehr, could scratch its itch by enriching some uranium and shipping it off to Russia to be fabricated into fuel for the reactor.

That conversation contributed to this story which Tirone’s editors sent out on the wire later the same day. Going beyond the point that everyone and his uncle had noticed the day before–that the Iranians were openly using separative work units (SWU) instead of the number of centrifuges as a benchmark in framing their “practical needs” to enrich uranium–the piece established that, in principle, a gambit could be thought up permitting Iran to enrich some fuel for its power reactors, as I had suggested 18 months ago.

Thinking along those lines, and going beyond what made it into print in the wire article, the powers and Iran, were they so inclined, could agree to something like this:

  • Iran could use a specified and limited number of centrifuges (or instead installed centrifuge capacity expressed in SWU/year) to produce enriched uranium product (EUP) which would be shipped to Russian fuel fabricator TVEL to make a limited amount of fabricated fuel for the reactor at Bushehr.
  • Iran might initially be permitted to enrich up to about 10,000 SWU/y (roughly consistent with the number of centrifuges Iran is currently operating), and gradually increase this amount.
  • The agreement would expressly allow the enrichment for the purpose of producing a specific amount of EUP dedicated to fueling specific reactors in Iran only.
  • Since a Russo-Iran understanding from 1992 calls for Russia to supply the fuel for Bushehr for the entire operating lifetime of the reactor, going this route would penalize Russian industry. So Iran and the powers would have to work out a deal to compensate Russian industry for the revenue it would forfeit in permitting Iran to enrich the uranium.
  • This arrangement would obtain for as long as the comprehensive agreement between the EU3+3 and Iran remained in force. Thereafter Iran would be free to tailor its nuclear fuel production infrastructure to meet its “practical needs” by a combination of domestic activities and reliance on the world market.
  • With that end in sight, the powers and especially Russia could in coming years negotiate with Iran a longer-term cooperative arrangement underpinned by political incentives (not necessarily limited to nuclear energy) that would encourage Iran to rely on outside sources for fuel and enrichment services for most of what it needs after the “final step” expires.
  • How much centrifuge capacity Iran would be permitted under the comprehensive agreement to produce EUP for its reactor (or reactors, should enrichment for the IR-40 unit be included in such a deal) would depend on the extent to which Iran satisfies the EU3+3 on issues it believes essential.
  • Accordingly, the longer the term of a comprehensive agreement, and the more Iran cooperates with the IAEA in answering PMD-related questions, addresses concerns about the IR-40, and permits access and verification beyond what’s in Iran’s Additional Protocol (AP-plus measures would be developed in part from what the IAEA learned from Iran about its nuclear weapons-related capabilities), the more centrifuges Iran would be permitted to produce the EUP it needs.


If, as we have heard, the negotiation between EU+3 and Iran is getting hung up over the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, the above approach might overcome that impasse, especially if Iran accommodates the powers on other significant matters as I suggest above, and Russian industry is compensated.

Breakout is the Bottom Line

But every plan which has been advocated so far to deal with Iran’s demand for “enrichment equity” has come with its own potential risks and perceived downsides.

My boss George Perkovich, for example, last week dusted off the proposal that, instead of allowing Iran to enrich uranium for Bushehr or fabricate the fuel in Iran, Russia should fabricate several years’ requirements for fresh fuel for Bushehr which could be stored in Iran. That’s a good idea. But it, as well as a separate plan put forth by colleagues at Princeton, would also encourage Iran to transition to far more powerful centrifuges.

At least until recently, some people looking in at the EU3+3 group, thinking about the future of Iran’s centrifuge R&D program, aimed to blunt development of more advanced centrifuges by Iran, at least for as long as the comprehensive agreement with Iran would be in force. They were not comfortable with a deal that would suspend for a limited time uranium enrichment by Iran but allowed Iran without restraint to develop centrifuges capable of producing significant quantities of weapons-grade uranium far more quickly than P-1s and which–as soon as the comprehensive agreement expired–could be set up in more compact and more easily-hidden cascades. (Question: Would the EU3+3 also inform NSG members they may permit export to Iran of the carbon fiber and other nuclear and dual-use items it needs for advanced centrifuges? You may bet that Iran will request this courtesy.) The counterargument is that ultimately, after the expiration of the comprehensive agreement, nothing can prevent Iran from revving up its centrifuge R&D effort, and that, from the point of view of verification, it won’t matter to the IAEA how capable Iran’s centrifuges are.

The alternative approach I put forth above presents completely different problems.

Using recent long-term enrichment contracts as a benchmark, the cost of compensating Russian industry (in fact, Tenex) for foregone enrichment business in Iran during the term of the comprehensive agreement might be something like $14 million per year if Iran were eventually to enrich enough uranium for one reload per year. That’s peanuts compared to the $20-billion barter deal which Iran and Russia have reportedly put together, or an equivalent-priced arrangement for four new VVER power plants not yet finalized.

The deal I outline above puts Russia onto a slippery slope, however, as it could be expected that, once Russia honors Iran’s demand to enrich uranium for a portion of the Bushehr fuel, Iran would squeeze Russia to permit Iran to enrich all the fuel needed for Bushehr and any new reactors. If Iran and Russia eventually conclude the sale of four more VVER power plants, if we assume an operating regime based on quarter-core reloads, these plus Bushehr-1 (beyond the first cores) would annually require about 500,000 SWU/y–the equivalent of perhaps 700,000 P1 centrifuges or about 20,000 advanced machines if Iran’s throughput estimate of 24 SWU/machine/y is credible. At that point we’re talking serious money for Russian industry:  If Iran enriches all the uranium needed for these reactors, the Russians would forfeit maybe $70-million per year in revenue from performing enrichment services under long-term contracts with Iran.

But at the end of the day, and for better or worse, any plan permitting Iran to enrich its own power reactor fuel anytime soon runs aground on the formidable iceberg of the Joint Plan of Action’s breakout logic–developed in part to come up with hard numbers to persuade critics of diplomacy in Israel and the U.S. Congress that the JPOA right from the outset would turn back Iran’s clock to dash to a bomb.

The western powers–and until now Russia has been in agreement with them–don’t want to see Iran justifying more enrichment by producing power reactor fuel–period. According to Bob Einhorn, who has transmitted quite a bit of U.S. government thinking about the negotiations into the public space, Iranian demands for “an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability” and therefore be a “show-stopper.”


Transparency is an elusive commodity in international nuclear affairs. Routinely cited as a universal virtue and not without a certain sanctimoniousness, this aspiration is sacrificed time and time again on the altar of political expediency.

Transparency doesn’t factor into the IAEA’s routine work in Iran, which is mostly about monitoring and verifying the accounting of declared materials and activities. Instead, it’s a battleground in the IAEA’s efforts to arrive at a holistic picture of Iran’s nuclear history, including things that Iran, so far, has not seen fit to declare. That includes what the IAEA calls “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program.

In this context, the use of the T-Word has been breathtaking. As pressure gradually builds toward the July 20 expiration date of the Joint Plan of Action’s “first step,” we have been told variously that there is a transparency deficit in Iran, that more transparency is on the way, that Iran is being more transparent in its relationship with the IAEA, and, conversely, that it isn’t.

There is also the separate but related issue of how transparent should be the process by which the IAEA, the powers, and ultimately the Board of Governors conclude that enough is known about Iran’s past and perhaps current activities to warrant lifting sanctions and returning to routine verification.

Complete transparency would imply that the roles of the IAEA and the powers would be absolutely separate:  The IAEA and Iran would confer in a different box from Iran’s negotiations with the powers, along the lines of the Framework for Cooperation which Iran and the IAEA concluded last November just before the powers and Iran followed up with the JPOA. When both tracks are finished the IAEA Secretariat, fully autonomously, would inform the Board of Governors about what it knows.

The real world is not so cut-and-dried. It might be useful to think of the state of play like a Venn diagram where the circles represent the interests and views of individual member states (including Iran and each of the six powers) plus the IAEA Secretariat; decisions emerge in the space where these sets intersect (that’s the area abc in the picture above right) . Left to itself, that space might be quite opaque.

On paper, decisions might happen either in the IAEA General Conference, where all 162 member states convene, or in the 35-member Board of Governors. In fact, no significant decision in the Iran crisis has ever been taken at a General Conference, and the Board is too big, too indiscreet, too prone to division, and meets too infrequently to serve as the locus for sensitive discussions about Iran’s ongoing relationship with the IAEA as negotiations continue. Instead something like an iterative process takes place in bilateral meetings between the Secretariat and key member states and in small colloquia involving the six powers, Iran, and the IAEA. U.S. negotiators have acknowledged that the powers have been getting briefed by the IAEA on its progress with Iran on a monthly basis. It would be fair to assume that this discussion in fact takes place in something closer to real time.

It would certainly be a mistake to conclude, based on the pains taken in some quarters to underline that the Iran-powers track and the Iran-IAEA track are separate, that the IAEA and the powers will wait until the end of the negotiation of the “final step” to find out whether Iran is disclosing to the IAEA what the IAEA needs to know

It is in that light that we should consider this item published a few days ago by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a mini-think tank which has no track record of having a strong interest in the details of how the IAEA, Iran, and the powers are handling PMD.

FPRI stops just short of asserting that the U.S. has pressed the IAEA to accept what it calls “limited disclosure” of PMD activities to facilitate making a deal with Iran. It documents that, since negotiations with Iran have accelerated after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, personalities involved in how the powers frame the PMD issue have departed from the view that Iran must “come clean” or “confess” that it had a nuclear weapons program. The author, Gary Gambill, pits in this debate David Albright and Bruno Tertrais, Gary Samore, and Emily Landau, Shimon Stein, and Ephraim Asculai against Jon Wolfsthal, Jofi Joseph, and Bob Einhorn.

Wendy Sherman, now negotiating with Iran on behalf of the U.S. State Department, is singled out by Gambill for having told Congress in 2011 that the U.S. “rallied the P5+1 to co-sponsor” an IAEA Board of Governors resolution “urging Iran to come clean about PMD,” while, in February 2014, she was vague about how the PMD issue would be put to rest.

Over the last half-year, I have asked officials from countries negotiating with Iran about the apparent shift on this issue. There are long answers (some of which are couched in legalese about what people think the IAEA’s legal mandate is and isn’t) but the exceedingly short answer is something like “That was then, and this is now,” because in 2014 Iran is at the table and in 2011 it wasn’t.

That brings us full circle to the T-Word. If the powers, the IAEA, and Iran all agree at the end of the day that they aim to retire the PMD conundrum, what will they say and on what basis will they decide? One conclusion by FPRI’s author might suggest that they will want to disclose as little as possible: “Insisting on full transparency may well jeopardize the progress of the negotiations.”



On September 18, 1990, long-held suspicions about Brazil’s nuclear intentions seemed to be officially and dramatically confirmed. Brazil’s first popularly elected President in 29 years, Fernando Collor, on the scene of what his aides suggested was a nuclear test site, terminated a covert nuclear weapons project which had been steered by the military. The New York Times reported it out from Brazil:

In a first step to dismantle the bomb project, Mr. Collor flew photographers and officials to a previously off-limits air base in the Cachimbo mountain range of remote central Amazon. As the heads of the three military services watched – looking ill at ease in the photographs – the President threw a symbolic shovelful of cement into a hole four feet in diameter and 1,050 feet deep.

I read this article the day after it appeared in print, and its conclusion–neatly summarized by the International Herald Tribune‘s front-page headline: “Brazil Uncovers Plan by Military to Build Atomic Bomb and Stops It”–has been with me and has probably subconsciously influenced my thinking about Brazil’s nuclear program for nearly a quarter-century.

Last month, my colleague Togzhan Kassenova published this account of Brazil’s nuclear program. Her introduction included these remarks about frequently encountered narratives that try to explain what Brazil was doing in the nuclear energy field:

“Brazilian” voices are less heard, outside of official statements, are are quite different from the external observers. Whereas the commonly accepted external view is that Brazil pursued a nuclear-weapons program, Brazilian political, technical, and intellectual elites still debate whether the country undertook such an effort.

Many people living in the northern hemisphere might be surprised to learn that Brazilians don’t agree about what we had been told decades ago was an open and shut case: that Brazil had a secret nuclear weapons program, and that a charismatic, vigorous, and democratically-empowered leader shut that program down. What was there to disagree about? After all, the Brazilian government itself exposed the project to the world. Weren’t those holes at Cachimbo all the proof that Brazilians required to conclude that their country was secretly working on nuclear weapons and, further, that the masterminds were probably far enough along to begin preparations for a nuclear test?

Collor’s photo-op at Cachimbo is just one detail in a long cat-and-mouse history of Brazilian nuclear activities. But prompted by Togzhan’s passage about the importance of nuclear narratives, I decided to look into that detail and see for myself if what the New York Times was told then matched what Brazilians conclude about this matter today.

I found some “Brazilian voices” which were in and around the nuclear program when these events began unfolding after Collor won a run-off presidential vote at the end of 1989. What they relate significantly qualified the picture at Cachimbo which in 1990 seized the imagination of the outside world and which has lingered in our collective memory.

What Collor Knew

In September 1990, government officials told reporters that military officers shocked the President by disclosing a clandestine nuclear project, and after a stormy confrontation, Collor flew into Cachimbo with a bevy of top officials and reporters and filled up one of two bore holes (one participant last week told me there were in fact three holes) with cement (I was told instead that he used lime).

Last week I was also reminded by Brazilian sources that in 1990 the holes at Cachimbo had already been known to the Brazilian public and parliament for four years, after local media reported that the Air Force beginning in 1981 had systematically studied the terrain’s geology and hydrology and then drilled shafts meant for a nuclear weapons test or for disposing of nuclear waste. The government brushed off the story, but the holes weren’t a secret.

Brazilian witnesses in all of this told me that, shortly after Collor won the 1989 election, the military asked him to support their nuclear project, as they had asked his predecessor Jose Sarney. Collor, I’m told, would not agree, and thereafter prepared to exploit the Cachimbo matter for all it was worth.  For starters, Collor aimed to curb the Brazilian military’s independence in nuclear affairs–first and foremost by short-circuiting officials in the Army and the Air Force who under Sarney had been angling for political and financial support to develop the capability to conduct peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs). “Collor was a genuine public relations talent,” one former official recalled, and “the holes in the ground were, in effect, a hoax.” During the 1980s, he said, “some people in the military wanted government money for their own nuclear projects, and they couldn’t get it unless they showed that they were making progress. That’s why they drilled the holes.”

When Collor’s officials inspected the shafts, they found that they were worthless for testing nuclear explosives. There was no cabling or other support infrastructure, and the bottom of the holes was full of water. The shafts weren’t perpendicular. “If anyone would have tried to test a  nuclear bomb in there, they would have failed,” the former official said.

The military ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985, and in retrospect it would appear that the holes at Cachimbo provided Collor a golden opportunity to set back potential adversaries to civilian rule. But other things were on his mind as well. Beginning in 1980 Brazil and Argentina embarked on a bilateral nuclear cooperation relationship, and both Collor and Argentine President Carlos Menem, elected a few months before Collor, were committed to deepening it. Demonstrating that civilians were firmly in control of Brazil’s nuclear program would help. Collor’s biggest domestic challenge was to defeat hyperinflation. Part of the recipie was to generate international confidence, and filling the holes was in step with a broader message that Collor’s leadership would be transparent, reliable, and dedicated to international cooperation.

Brazil and PNEs

Brazil was interested in PNEs from the beginning of its nuclear program. This cable shows that the U.S. Department of State was closely following Brazil’s interest in PNE’s as early as 1967. Brazil wasn’t alone in looking into PNEs in those days, of course, but because it was not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty its interest–like South Africa’s–didn’t preclude that the technology would be used for atomic weapons. Brazil’s military was, in fact, keen to pursue the PNE option, and, eventually, it was the Army and the Air Force that pressed to do PNE work, while the Navy instead set its sights on centrifuge uranium enrichment and development of a propulsion reactor for submarines.

In South Africa, a PNE program morphed into a secret program to develop a  nuclear weapons deterrent. In Brazil, the trajectory of the military’s PNE interest was blocked by civilian leaders, so the nature of Brazil’s interest in nuclear explosives was, in the view of Brazilians I talked to last week, more ambiguous. But not long after his Cachimbo appearance, Collor formally repudiated his country’s interest in PNEs before the United Nations General  Assembly.

In 2009, a Brazilian research scientist at the Army Technology Center (CETEX) published his doctoral thesis presented to Brazil’s Institute of Military Engineering, containing many details on the science behind nuclear explosions. The publication led to questions from the IAEA about the relationship between the author and the military’s nuclear legacy. The U.S. government may also have had questions about references in the text to U.S. warhead development. There were initial differences of official opinion about how Brazil should respond, and problems with the IAEA. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim ultimately dismissed the matter as irrrelevant to Brazil’s nuclear program. “The mere possibility of publishing this work in Brazil, and the material’s free circulation, serve as eloquent proof of the non-existence of an unauthorized nuclear program in the country,” Jobim said. But could information in the book have come from Brazil’s military past?

A More Nuanced Context

Every country that partakes in nuclear activities has an official narrative to explain these activities to the world. Here are 111 of these narratives from 2013, all posted on the IAEA website.

Brazil’s narrative has evolved over time, subject to both internal and external developments. Re-examining the record of events from a quarter century ago, it appears that Brazilians have walked the government’s 1990 story line back. What transpired at Cachimbo then appears to have a different context today where these elements prevail:

  • Collor viewed Cachimbo as an opportunity to throw the military onto the defensive while demonstrating to Argentina, the U.S. and others that his government would be a reliable foreign partner
  • Prior to the Cachimbo event Collor had been interacting with the military for nearly a year including about its current and future nuclear ambitions.
  • In 1989-90 all three branches of Brazil’s military sought government funding and support for nuclear activities which Collor was not willing to provide.
  • Collor and his aides were particularly determined to prevent the military’s pressing interest in a PNE project from becoming a nuclear weapons project.
  • During the 1980s the Air Force dug the holes at Cachimbo to convince Sarney it was making progress related to a PNE effort. Collor found out that the shafts could not have been used to test nuclear explosives or dispose of nuclear waste.

In 1990, Brazil’s new civilian leaders made a dramatic statement that was intended to hold the military at bay and assure the world that the new government would be a reliable and transparent partner–including in line with global concern about nuclear weapons proliferation which would intensify as soon as the first Gulf War was over. Collor stepping into the breach to symbolically crush what was described as a secret nuclear weapons project helped convey that message.

Today, witnesses to those events present a more nuanced and modest picture. They recall now that some personalities in the armed services wanted a more ambitious, military-run nuclear program including a PNE effort, but also that no Brazilian government had ever approved or funded this, and that Brazil’s “secret nuclear program” was less a reality than it was a vision entertained by its advocates.

Prior to Collor’s election, denials in Brazil and elsewhere discouraged Brazilians from seeking the whole truth about their country’s nuclear activities. During the 1980s, senior Brazilian nuclear executives seeking foreign cooperation routinely claimed there was no “parallel” nuclear project. German government spokesmen asserted on the record–in contradiction of Bonn’s own intelligence findings–that Brazil’s nuclear program had no military dimension.

Today, Brazilians have better resources to help them draw their own independent conclusions. Researchers led by Matias Spektor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas are reconstructing the history of Brazil’s entire nuclear enterprise. What they are finding so far documents a long-term interest in both PNEs and nuclear weapons in Brazil, but also that there was never a top-down nuclear weapons effort anywhere in the government, and that Collor, in addition to keeping the Army and Air Force away from nuclear matters, also defunded the Navy’s nuclear program. A chunk of the research, from Carlo Patti, is here.

One critical piece of evidence in the government’s 1990 story has never been confirmed. The New York Times reported that Collor acted in response to a “50-page classified report” on the secret nuclear program which had reached his desk. That report has never surfaced. Some people in and around Collor’s government last week suggested to me that its existence may have been a rumor.

Did Brazil’s military in the past harbor hidden nuclear weapons ambitions? Were the services actually doing any work on nuclear weapons development? One government adviser told me the answer was a qualified yes. “There was a secret project, but it was at a very preliminary stage” when it was interrupted in 1990. Since  then the version of events reflected in the New York Times story has largely prevailed in the United States. But Brazilians have moved on. The 1990 narrative has been revised.  That may have led a few people to claim that Brazil never had any interest in nuclear weapons, but, far more importantly, it may have encouraged Brazilians to be more confident about their country’s nonproliferation profile.


Russia and Iran are conferring about the supply of new nuclear power plants at the Bushehr site on the Persian Gulf. Iran operates one Russian reactor there and building more could contribute to a comprehensive agreement between the six powers and Iran.

Let’s be clear that so far there’s no hard and fast deal for new Russian reactors in Iran, and also that there should be no concern about Russian sanctions-busting related to new reactor construction that is clearly linked to a comprehensive agreement between the powers and Iran. A news report that grabbed some attention on March 12, claiming that “Russia has agreed” to build two more reactors came from Iranian media–not Russian sources. More nuanced accounts said Iran and Russia were still discussing a “draft agreement.”

If we take for granted that this discussion is for real–since vendor Rosatom has confirmed that its deputy director was in Tehran this week to to hold talks about it–then the critical question for the future negotiation between Iran and the six powers is whether Russia will supply the low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel–for new reactors but also for the first Bushehr unit when Iran’s current 10-year fuel contract with Russia expires.

After Russia and Iran agreed in 1992 to complete the first Bushehr reactor, a contract was signed committing Russia to supply all the fuel for the initial ten years of operation, and committing Iran to returning the spent fuel to Russia. The reactor began operating in 2011. There’s no contract yet for Iran’s procurement after the first ten years.

Iran’s ‘practical needs’

What does this have to do with negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran?  Negotiators must arrive at what the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) calls “a mutually defined enrichment programme [for Iran] with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.”

At the end of the day, the parties must decide how many of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges Iran may operate for a specific period of time. Some observers speculate that the powers might agree to let Iran use between 3,000 and 5,000 centrifuges–with estimates trending in the upper part of the range should Iran agree to convert the IR-40 reactor from natural uranium to LEU fuel and then enrich the uranium for that and any other future research reactors under construction during the term of the agreement.

But the calculation of Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity would dramatically increase should it be agreed that Iran would make LEU fuel for power reactors. A Bushehr-type VVER reactor, with a nominal power rating of 910-megawatts and operating with a commercial capacity factor and duty cycle, would require about 100,000 separative-work units of enrichment capacity per year to meet the needs of refueling the reactor. Should Iran propose that it enrich the uranium for just a quarter of the fresh fuel that the reactor would require, it would need an enrichment capacity somewhat larger than Iran’s current population of  centrifuges. Should Iran aspire to make a lot more of this fuel, that could in its view justify development and deployment of more advanced centrifuges. These would include a model perhaps four times more powerful than its current IR-1 workhorse, and, as Iranian experts have suggested, a carbon-fiber machine maybe 15 times more powerful than IR-1 which apparently is still on the drawing board.

Because a primary objective of the JPOA is to lengthen Iran’s breakout timeline and, following from that, to strictly circumscribe its centrifuge enrichment capacity, the negotiation should preclude any understanding that a large centifuge population and an unbridled advanced centifuge R&D program in Iran would be justified by Iran’s vision for power reactor deployment.

Who will enrich Iran’s power reactor fuel?

Continued Russian supply of LEU fuel for reactors at Bushehr under commercial contracts would be the most straightforward solution from the point of spent fuel management, economics, safety, and successful negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Were Iran to include substantial enrichment requirements for future power reactors in its assessment of its “practical needs” under the JPOA, the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran would overnight become imperiled.

For the foreseeable future Iran will not be able to make fuel assemblies for the VVER reactor design used at Bushehr. Last fall, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), asserted that a fabrication plant to make uranium dioxide fuel for power reactor fuel would soon be fully operational. But Iran has no agreement with Russia licensing the AEOI to make Bushehr fuel, giving Iran access to the intellectual property for the design of the reactor core internals, for the design of the fuel assemblies, and for the chemical and physical specifications of the fuel. Without that, Iran cannot make the Bushehr fuel.

Iran has no diagnostic quality assurance program for making power reactor fuel. Russia and Rosatom–with serious asperations in the global commercial nuclear power market at stake–would never permit Iran to load any domestically-produced fuel into the Bushehr reactor without acceptable safety assurances and legal liability coverage.

Russia has a strong commercial interest in making sure that there will be a Russian fuel supply component in any future reactor contract with Iran. Russia lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the first Bushehr project, and Rosatom sees fuel supply as an important route to recouping its losses.

The contract for Bushehr fuel delivery was signed for 10 years, but a 1992 bilateral government agreement to build the plant specifies that Russia will deliver the fuel during its whole life cycle, Anton Khlopkov pointed out. According to Article 5 of this agreement. “Russian organizations shall supply the Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear fuel for the nuclear power plant being built there in accordance with the present Agreement for the entire lifespan of the nuclear power plant. The fuel shall be supplied in the form of finished sets of fuel assemblies and control rod assemblies.”

In negotiations over Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity, Iran may pull a joker out of the deck: aspirations to build an indigenous 300-MW power reactor at Darkovin. If Iran were to claim that it needs enrichment capacity to support this venture, the same dangers for the negotiation with the powers loom as in the case of any Iranian designs to enrich VVER fuel. Most caveats about Iran’s ability to make power reactor fuel for Bushehr would also apply–to say nothing about Iran’s doubtful capabilities to make critical pressure-boundary components and other safety-significant items for a wholly-indigenous power reactor project.

Iran Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and other Iranian officials have explained that, in the past, Iran kept secret its nuclear activities and sought fuel cycle autonomy because the regime was convinced that Western powers aimed to thwart Iran’s success. On the basis of the JPOA and flanking measures, were the powers to provide Iran access to the global nuclear market, Iran would not need a loss-making autarchic nuclear fuel cycle industry.

The geopolitics of uranium enrichment are at a crossroads and how Iran and the powers resolve this issue will have signal global imporance. For reasons which to some extent resonate with Iran’s national narrative, Brazil has embarked on an indigenous centrifuge enrichment program to serve a future line of power reactors. After several decades of development Brazil’s centrifuges are meeting about 5% of the country’s demand for enrichment services. On the other side of the ledger, South Korea, whose industry has recently favored plans to set up a domestic enrichment plant to supply fuel to about two dozen operating power reactors, may instead become a shareholder in an existing uranium enrichment plant located elsewhere.