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Iran and the Possible Military Dimension: Case Closed?

Emil Dall and Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Commentary, 10 December 2015
Iran's Nuclear Programme, Iran, UK Project on Nuclear Issues, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Global Security Issues, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Middle East and North Africa
Last week’s IAEA report suggests that years of uncertainty over the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme are finally coming to an end, enabling the P5+1 and Iran to move forward with the implementation of the July agreement

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) first opened its file on the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear programme in 2003, following revelations of undeclared nuclear activities and facilities. Since then, allegations have persisted that Iran conducted nuclear activities with possible military applications, including nuclear simulations and contained explosive testing. For more than a decade these issues have remained unresolved due to a lack of Iranian co-operation and transparency.

The establishment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 this summer at last added a much-needed sense of urgency – the plan could not be implemented until all questions over PMD (set out in a 2011 IAEA report) had been answered. Within only five months, the IAEA has released a final report, suggesting the issue may at last be shelved.

It appears that the IAEA now has a good understanding of Iranian activities before and after 2003, following months of conversations with Tehran as well as on-site inspections. The new report – entitled ‘Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme’ – concludes that ‘activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted prior to the end of 2003’ and therefore had a definite military dimension. Those activities that continued beyond 2003 ‘were not part of a coordinated effort’ and all activities apparently ceased after 2009. Importantly, the report concludes that none of this activity ‘advance[d] beyond feasibility and scientific studies’.

The assessment certainly offers many answers to outstanding questions on the PMD issue, covering twelve areas of concern outlined in 2011. But grey areas remain.

The first is Tehran’s development of explosive bridgewire (EBW) detonators, typically used in the construction of implosion-type nuclear devices. Iran could not justify their use when asked in 2011, but has since explained that they were needed to prevent accidental explosions, as well as more recently being used in the country’s oil and gas sector.

Although such uses of EBW detonators are not uncommon, the explanations do appear to be inconsistent – which is possibly why the IAEA’s latest report explicitly acknowledges that EBW detonators ‘have characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device’, despite their growing conventional use.

A second concern is the alleged construction of an explosives containment chamber at the Parchin military site. In its 2011 report the IAEA suggested that this would allow for the use of nuclear materials together with high explosives – an indicator of weapons-development activity.

Iran – silent on the subject in 2011 – has since argued the site was used to store chemical materials – but the IAEA’s on-site sampling indicates otherwise. However, satellite imagery reveals extensive work at the site since 2012, including the demolition of several facilities. Thus the IAEA cannot verify the past use of the complex and a possible explosives containment chamber that no longer exists.

Other concerns raised in the 2011 report, including Iranian possession of designs for a nuclear explosive device, have not been mitigated. Iran has stated that no work was undertaken specifically on nuclear devices, but has been unwilling to provide information on similar work with non-nuclear application. The recent report also only confirms that nuclear-specific modelling ceased after 2009; the continuation and nature of conventional high-explosives modelling remain unclear.

Despite these unanswered questions, the recent report will likely bring an end to the PMD issue. As part of the implementation of the JCPOA, the P5+1 and Iran met in Vienna this week to discuss the report. The meeting produced a draft resolution to be voted on by the IAEA Board of Governors on 15 December. According to this resolution, ‘all the activities ... for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program were implemented in accordance with the agreed schedule’.

This, then, appears to be ‘case closed’ – not because every concern has been answered (the IAEA was not expected to be able to verify every claim in granular detail), but because the international community has gained better insight into Iran’s past activities. The full extent of Iran’s nuclear aspirations may never be known. But politically, the closure of the PMD file paves the way for the implementation of the JCPOA – and the gradual lifting of international sanctions as Iran, for its part, curbs its most sensitive nuclear activities.

However, the IAEA’s work is not yet done: it will now focus on monitoring and reporting on Iran’s obligations under the JCPOA, with a final assessment due in 2023 to outline whether Tehran has kept its word. These conclusions will be the ultimate proof that Iran has no remaining undeclared activities and facilities.

Thus, while the final assessment on PMD may disappoint some in failing to provide a full and thorough account of Iranian activity in the past, it nevertheless smoothes the way for the IAEA to obtain credible assurances about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme in the future.

*Header image: IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. Image courtesy of IAEA Imagebank.


Emil Dall
Research Fellow, Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies

Emil Dall is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies at RUSI, where his research focuses on sanctions... read more

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Research Fellow

Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is a Research Fellow at RUSI and a Visiting Fellow at War Studies, King's College London. Her research is... read more

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