A Test of Resolve: The IAEA Judges the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s Nuclear Programme

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by Iran and the P5+1 – more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal – will face one of its most significant hurdles yet when the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) Board of Governors meets on 15 December 2015 to decide whether or not to close the IAEA’s investigations into the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The stakes are high for all parties at the Board’s meeting because the JCPOA explicitly commits the P5+1 to direct the Board to take action “with a view to closing the issue” of its investigations into the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities, while in turn committing Iran to both maintain a peaceful nuclear programme and to address evidence in a 2011 IAEA report that it had been developing nuclear weapons at least as late as 2003.

Last week, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano released a final updated assessment of Iran’s nuclear programme, in which he reiterated his 2011 report that Iran had been developing nuclear weapons since at least as late as 2003, but added that he had no ‘credible evidence’ of such weapons development after 2009. It is possible that this assessment may be unacceptable to the Board, which is comprised of 35 member states, including the P5+1, and which is tasked generally with governing the IAEA’s role as monitor of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.

Much hinges on whether or not Board members consider possible weapons development as late as 2009 to be too recent to characterize Iran’s nuclear programme as peaceful. On 26 November 2015, Director General Amano reported to the board that the IAEA was still “unable to say that Iran’s nuclear activities are completely peaceful.” Amano’s inability to characterize Iran’s programme as wholly peaceful may point to difficulties in securing full Iranian cooperation with his updated investigation, especially since many Iranian politicians have expressed concern about having international inspectors at Iranian military sites. The extent of Iranian cooperation with IAEA investigations will also factor into the Board’s decision tomorrow.

If the Board is not satisfied that Iran has completely halted its nuclear weapons development, then the JCPOA cannot be implemented. Moreover, if the Board does not vote to close its investigations into the PMD of Iran’s nuclear programme, then Iran will not implement the JCPOA, because an unfavourable Board decision would likely result in continued sanctions, at least in the short term.

Almost as important, however, is that the Board’s meeting constitutes a test of the resolve of the parties to the JCPOA: are they truly committed to implementing the agreement?


Majlis Signalling Iran’s Resolve

In any international negotiation, parties struggle to assess the credibility of their interlocutors’ commitments – their resolve to do what they say they’ll do. On this issue, both Iran and the P5+1 have cause for concern and encouragement, with encouraging signs in particular coming from Majlis.

From the perspective of Iran, the United States (US) has in particular given both encouraging and worrisome signs with respect to its resolve to implement the JCPOA. On the one hand, the US has committed to lifting the sanctions regime against Iran at the UN; it sponsored the Security Council resolution adopting the JCPOA. On the other hand, however, it promises to maintain most of its own domestic sanctions against Iran, and many of its leading candidates in the forthcoming presidential election promise to rip up the JCPOA.

From the perspective of the P5+1, Iran has also offered both positive and negative indications of its resolve, in particular from the conservative-dominated Majlis. When Majlis passed legislation approving the JCPOA, parliamentarians explicitly included a clause reaffirming Iran’s commitment to a peaceful nuclear programme – an encouraging signal. However, on the other side of the ledger, since the signing of the JCPOA Iran has twice tested precision-guided ballistic missiles – potential delivery systems for nuclear weapons, one of which was the first Iranian missile capable of striking Israel.


The IAEA Board of Governors Meeting

Ultimately, the language of the resolution the IAEA’s Board of Governors passes and how the parties choose to interpret that language will demonstrate their resolve. The Board is most likely to produce a compromise resolution of some sort – one that does not unambiguously shut the door on investigating the PMD of Iran’s nuclear activities, but also one that enables the parties to move forward in implementing the JCPOA – if they so choose.

The P5+1 could demonstrate its resolve by taking Director General Amano’s report to the Board as sufficient evidence that Iran has acted in good faith and committed to a peaceful nuclear programme, and by voting in favour of a resolution either mostly or completely halting investigations into Iran’s past nuclear military activities. Iran could demonstrate its resolve by being willing to accept a compromise resolution that would enable the P5+1 to proceed with lifting sanctions, even if such a resolution leaves the door open to some future investigation into the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.


Majlis and the JCPOA Going Forward

In response to concerns about American resolve to lift sanctions, Majlis passed legislation mandating Iran’s resumption of its nuclear activities if the international sanctions regime is not lifted as promised in the JCPOA. If the Board of Governors does not close investigations into the PMD of Iran’s nuclear activities, and if sanctions are not lifted as a result, then Majlis’ legislation requires the government to halt the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. Of particular sensitivity will be the extent to which international inspectors have access to Iran’s military sites, as Majlis’ bill aims to restrict such access. Ultimately, a compromise resolution that is sufficient to ensure the lifting of sanctions would satisfy Majlis’ legislation and enable the JCPOA to move forward to full implementation.


Check out our timeline for a snapshot of the Iran Deal