Ambiguous ambitions

ILPI Publications > Background Papers

The saga of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the international legal framework regulating weapons of mass destruction

By Reza Lahidji
10 September 2015

The agreement signed on 14 July 2015 by the representatives of Iran and the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany) is considered a major development in international relations by its proponents and critics alike. If it is enacted by both sides and effectively implemented, the agreement will end more than a decade of crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme and twenty-five years of controversies about its policy with regard to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This paper examines the history of Iran’s doctrine on WMD, of the handling of Iran’s case by international institutions governing the production of WMD, and of the internal debate on WMD in the Iranian political system and society. This history sheds light on both fundamental changes within the Islamic Republic of Iran and problematic aspects of the international non-proliferation regime.

Background Paper No 17/2015 Published: September 2015

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Executive summary

Iran’s policy on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has been at the forefront of international relations for more than a decade. This paper analyses the historical and political backdrop for the current situation.

Iran’s doctrine on WMDs has been ambiguous since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although Iran is a party to the core multilateral treaties governing WMD, the extent of its cooperation on matters related to WMDs has fluctuated with its international and domestic policy agendas. From an internal legal standpoint, Iran’s highest reference is Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa (religious interdiction) against WMDs, which by virtue of the Supreme Guide’s position in the Constitution of Iran has precedence over all laws and religious orders in Iran. However, several aspects of the fatwa remain open to interpretation and, furthermore, it cannot be excluded that at some point in the future, the Supreme Guide uses the higher principle of maslahat-e nezam (expediency of the State) to overrule his own interdiction. Even more perplexing is the fact that on various occasions, Iranian authorities have officially or informally admitted to having engaged in the testing or production of chemical and nuclear weapons—but have attributed these initiatives to individuals rather than the government at large.

Iran’s stance on WMDs has been debated since the early 1990s, when it was revealed that the country was importing large quantities of chemical weapon precursors

On the international front, Iran’s stance on WMDs has been debated since the early 1990s, when it was revealed that the country was importing large quantities of chemical weapon precursors. Iran’s ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1998 and its cooperation with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) eventually brought the controversy to an end, even though some uncertainty remains over the possible existence of a stockpile of chemical agents.

In 2002, as an Iranian opposition group revealed that Iran was secretly building a fuel production plant and a heavy water reactor, it became clear that Iran had violated its reporting obligations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such a breach, according to the statute of the Agency, created the possibility to refer Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) if negotiations between the country and the Agency’s Board of Governors (BoG) failed to provide adequate assurances about the peaceful nature of Iran’s activities. Discussions between Iran and the BoG—in particular three of its European members, namely France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—took place from 2003 to 2005. In that period, Iran made significant concessions by opening to more intrusive investigations by the IAEA, but insisted on continuing to develop its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing capability, offering to address the nuclear issue as part of a broader political deal with the United States. The United States, on its side, wanted Iran to cease all uranium enrichment. Sharing intelligence reports of uncertain origins and authenticity, the United States intensely lobbied other member states of the IAEA BoG to send the Iranian case to the UNSC. The negotiations eventually failed in September 2005, the IAEA BoG referring Iran to the UNSC in February 2006.

Between June 2006 and July 2010, the UNSC adopted six resolutions that imposed increasingly severe sanctions on certain Iranian individuals and organisations, as well as restrictions on trade and investment flows. A number of countries, including the United States and the Member States of the European Union, also adopted additional bilateral sanctions against Iran. Despite their debilitating effect on the Iranian economy, these measures did not curb the pace of development of nuclear activities in Iran. On the contrary, the country developed and implemented increasingly advanced centrifuge machines and built a second uranium enrichment plant in Fordow, under a mountain that sheltered it from potential airstrikes.

Intelligence published from 2007 onwards showed that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, and that it seemed to concentrate its efforts on reaching the nuclear threshold,[1] an objective that seemed within reach from 2010 onwards. With the change in the United States administration in 2008 and election of the pragmatist Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran in 2013, the conditions for a renewed dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany) improved. In November 2013, the two sides reached an Interim Agreement that balanced Iran’s right to conduct fuel enrichment and reprocessing activities against its duty to provide appropriate guarantees of non-diversion. From that point onwards, discussions focused on the type and duration of controls and limitations that would be imposed on Iran’s programme—with regard to the number of centrifuges, the stockpile of low-enriched uranium, or the further conduct of enrichment activities—and the timing of the lifting of multilateral and bilateral sanctions. In April 2015 in Geneva, the parties agreed on a general framework for a long-term deal and engaged in a final round of negotiations on its detailed implementation.

Meanwhile, Iran’s internal debate on its nuclear programme had also considerably developed. After a period in which members of the Iranian establishment sent somewhat mixed signals, all representatives of Iran used similar language during the final years of negotiations, emphasising that (1) Iran, like any country, has an ‘inalienable right’ to master nuclear power technologies and develop nuclear power facilities; (2) the international legal framework for nuclear activities is biased and unjust;[2] and (3) the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UNSC and Western countries are illegal. The impression of unanimity, which owed to the Supreme Guide’s role in harmonising the approaches of the various factions of the regime, was reinforced by the population’s high level of support for the government’s pursuit of nuclear energy—which, however, did not extend to the building of nuclear weapons.

With the hardening of the sanctions and the openings made by the US administration, however, the underlying dissent within the Iranian establishment soon surfaced. The debate became central to the 2013 presidential race, in which the two main contenders were both former chief nuclear negotiators for Iran: Hassan Rouhani as the representative of the pragmatist faction (supported by the reformists), and Saeed Jalili as the conservatives’ candidate. With Rouhani’s victory, reformist personalities found the opportunity to express more openly their disagreement with Iran’s past nuclear strategy and, even more fundamental to the identity of Iran, with its long-standing confrontation with the United States. For many in Iran, the on-going international negotiations have therefore become a defining moment for Iran.

The history of the Iranian nuclear dossier offers a number of lessons for the nuclear-non-proliferation regime—and the international framework for WMDs more broadly

The history of the Iranian nuclear dossier offers a number of lessons for the nuclear-non-proliferation regime—and the international framework for WMDs more broadly. First, in its present state, the non-proliferation regime does not seem sufficient to prevent a growing number of states to reach the nuclear threshold, which can be considered a high-risk situation for international peace and stability. Second, it is disputed whether violation of an IAEA safeguards agreement simultaneously constitutes a violation of the NPT. Third, the reliance of the IAEA on classified information provided by certain states and the way its normal decision-making procedures were by-passed in the Iranian case casts a shadow over its independence and objectivity. Fourth, it is clear that geopolitical considerations, in particular Iran’s influence in the various conflicts of the Middle East, had a decisive influence on the emerging agreement over the Iranian nuclear dossier. Non-proliferation concerns, it seems, cannot be decoupled from broader geopolitical considerations.


Iran does not have, nor has it ever had, nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, few states’ nuclear programme has been shrouded in more controversy than that of Iran. Finally on 14 July 2015, after intervals of informal talks and intense negotiations spanning more than a decade, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany) came to an agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran is obliged to reduce its total number of centrifuges by two thirds, remove its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, and reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium by 98 per cent.

On 14 July 2015, after intervals of informal talks and intense negotiations spanning more than a decade, Iran and the P5+1 came to an agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme

In exchange, the international sanctions against Iran will be lifted, some straight away, and others—like the restrictions on trade in advanced weapons—more gradually. The deal is said to extend Iran’s so-called break out time (the amount of time it would take to manufacture one nuclear weapon were Iran to scrap the deal and devote all its resources into the endeavour) from about three months to a full year. This gives the international community at least some time to react.[3] This paper explores the decades that precede the July agreement. It gives an introduction to the ambiguous history of Iran’s stance on WMDs, identifying lessons for the future.

The paper starts by analysing Iran’s policy doctrine on WMDs from an internal legal standpoint. Shifting its focus from words to acts, it then reviews the history of the international controversy about Iran’s WMD policy, with particular attention to the role of international law and institutions. The paper describes in some detail the experience of the international negotiations between 2003 and 2005, which has striking similarities to the current period. The third section of the paper considers Iran’s internal debate on WMDs, and what it reveals about the Iranian position vis-à-vis the international legal framework. Finally, the paper seeks to derive some lessons of the Iran case for the international legal framework regarding WMDs.


Iran’s ambiguous position on WMDs

Iran’s official policy on WMDs

According to official statements, Iran is opposed to any use of WMDs. This position is rooted in history: until recently, Iran was the only state in the Middle East that had signed all the multilateral agreements restricting recourse to biological and chemical modes of warfare since 1899.[4] Iran is a party to most of the international treaties and regimes governing the three categories of WMDs (see Table 1).

Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian officials have regularly insisted that, despite what they see as serious deficiencies in the missions and modes of operation of international institutions in charge of monitoring and controlling activities related to WMDs, they are in favour of full cooperation with these institutions. Iran, they claim, has taken all the necessary steps to implement the treaties that it has ratified.

Until recently, Iran was the only state in the Middle East that had signed all the multilateral agreements restricting recourse to biological and chemical modes of warfare since 1899

The government’s acts, however, have not always been in line with its words. Two points can be briefly mentioned here as illustrations, leaving a more thorough analysis of the actual policy of Iran with regard to international institutions to the next section of the paper.

First, having signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in January 1993, Iran did not deposit its instrument of ratification of the convention before November 1997 and did not submit its initial declaration before November 1998, much behind the 30-day deadline prescribed by the Convention.

Furthermore, the National Authority in charge of implementing the CWC and liaising with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is placed under the Supreme National Security Council but has its Secretariat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a possible indication that its activities are essentially of a diplomatic nature.

Second, while Iran signed an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2003, the protocol has still not been ratified.

As these examples indicate, Iran has shown in the past three decades that in practice, its cooperation with international institutions on WMDs is not unconditional and can fluctuate as a function of its internal and foreign policy agendas.

Foundations of Iran’s official policy

Iran has no general legislation or publicly available policy doctrine on WMDs beyond the limited stipulations mandated by the international treaties. The official position of Iran rests on a number of declarations made by the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei[5] since October 2003, in which the following points have been constantly repeated:[6]

The use of WMDs is considered a major sin and is consequently strictly forbidden on religious grounds.

Iran wants ‘nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for none’ and calls for the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East (to which Iran would be a party).

The international legal framework governing WMDs is an instrument of some countries to establish exclusive control over specific technologies; the NPT, in particular, is used by nuclear-weapon states to control the production of nuclear fuel and nuclear energy.

The first of these points underpins the idea that Iran’s opposition to WMDs is not merely tactical or even strategic, but a matter of principle. It is of particular significance in Iran because of the role of the Supreme Guide as the ultimate authority on matters of religion as well as politics. The Supreme Guide derives his dual (religious and political) authority from the principle of velayat-e faqih, developed as a religious doctrine by Khomeiny, integrated in the 1979 Constitution (Article V) and enhanced in the 1989 Constitutional revision. Velayat-e faqih places the Supreme Guide at the heart of the institutional architecture of Iran, with considerable discretion in controlling the three branches of government, since his decisions are virtually not submitted to any mechanism of checks and balances. In addition, the principle gives the Supreme Guide precedence over all Shiite clerics (and therefore authority over their followers) on any public matter. His statements are both imperative orders for the government at large and indisputable principles within Iran’s State religion. It is therefore hardly surprising that Hassan Rouhani, current President of Iran, once deemed Khamenei’s fatwa against WMDs ‘more important […] than the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol, more important than any other law.’ The fact that Khamenei’s (and before him, Khomeiny’s) statements pledge the country not to produce, stockpile, or use any type of WMD has actually become an important element of the Iranian government’s rhetorical line of defence regarding its nuclear programme.[7]

His statements are both imperative orders for the government at large and indisputable principles within Iran’s State religion

The ambiguity of Iran’s official policy

However, many logical steps in the ‘fatwa argument’ have been contested and remain open to debate. These steps include whether Khamenei’s declarations actually concern the production and possession of WMDs, or merely their use; whether they are sufficient to nullify the substantial jurisprudence established by other clerics in favour of some uses of WMDs;[8] whether they could be reversed at little cost at a later stage; and, most importantly, whether they would not be overruled, if need be, by the principle of expediency of the State (maslahat-e nezam), Iran’s equivalent to the notion of raison d’Etat.[9] A key feature of Iran and one of Khomeiny’s foremost doctrinal and political legacies, the principle of expediency establishes the pre-eminence of the higher interests of the State—as the expression of the interests of the community of believers—over both the laws of the Republic and Islamic law itself. The Iranian Constitution even provides for an advisory body, the Expediency Council, to support the Supreme Guide in judging when and to what extent circumstances allow for actions that go against Islamic principles.[10]


Further undermining the idea of a fundamental opposition of Iran to WMDs is the fact that the country’s authorities have already acknowledged having engaged in the production of WMDs. In 1998, one year after ratifying the CWC, Iran admitted that it had started a chemical weapons programme in 1983. According to Iranian officials, the programme was designed by a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for deterrence purposes, in reaction to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran–Iraq war, in particular when civilians were targeted. But it was soon to be rejected by Khomeiny and stopped.[11] On the matter of nuclear proliferation, even though Iranian officials have never admitted the existence of a covert programme in Iran, however limited, there has been at least one case of informal acknowledgement.

The Iranian authorities have tried to protect the fatwa argument by attributing WMD programmes to individual initiatives, rather than to deliberate policies

In October 2003, immediately after Khamenei’s first anti-nuclear fatwa, Hossein Shariatmadari, director of the Kayhan newspaper and part of Khamenei’s entourage, was quoted as declaring that ‘those in Iran who clandestinely believed they could develop nuclear weapons have now been forced to admit that is forbidden under Islam’.[12] In both cases, then, the Iranian authorities have tried to protect the fatwa argument by attributing WMD programmes to individual initiatives, rather than to deliberate policies.

The hypothesis that some actors could undertake and pursue for some time a chemical or even parts of a nuclear weapons programme without having the full backing of the executive authorities is not necessarily absurd in Iran. The Iranian political system is not a top-down hierarchical structure, but rather a complex web of entities that are competing and cooperating to varying degrees, under the overall—but sometimes distant—supervision of the leadership. This enables the Supreme Guide to maintain a range of policy options open within the system, and to choose one when circumstances require his intervention. Had Iran been about to be invaded by the Iraqi army, would Khomeiny have stopped the production of chemical weapons? Had Iran not been under the pressure of the IAEA Board of Governors, would Khamenei have issued his own anti-nuclear fatwa? The answers to these questions are uncertain at best.

Conclusion on Iran’s official policy on WMDs

Considering the ambiguities in Iran’s position and the aggressive rhetoric favoured by parts of the regime, it is difficult to give much credit to the fatwa argument—and, indeed, Western capitals have not done so. At the same time, however, it would be misguided to dismiss the fatwa as a mere gimmick and assume that Iran’s position on WMDs is only determined by material interest.

For better or for worse, the politics of Iran involves a mix of Realpolitik and ethical principles—the latter being dictated by both the cultural values manifest in society and the theocratic nature of the regime. It is a fact that during its war against Iraq (1980–1988), Iran suffered several chemical-weapon attacks—which actually changed the course of the war—without retaliating in kind.[13]

The politics of Iran involves a mix of Realpolitik and ethical principles—the latter being dictated by both the cultural values manifest in society and the theocratic nature of the regime

Any offensive use of WMDs, particularly if civilian populations were deliberately targeted, would likely by considered a major offence to the country’s culture and recent history by a large fraction of the population, and to Islamic principles by most religious authorities. Any government of Iran that resorted to it would therefore seriously risk undermining its own legitimacy. The same cannot be said, however, of more restricted uses of WMDs for defensive purposes and—even less so—the development of a ‘virtual deterrence’ capacity.[14]

The Iran Saga (1990–2015)

How the controversy about Iranian chemical weapons dissolved (1990–2002)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, various sources reported that Iran was importing chemical weapons (CW) precursors from the United States,[15] India,[16] and later China.[17] Iran’s decision to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention when it was adopted in 1993 did not soothe suspicions about an Iranian CW programme, particularly as it took the country almost five years to ratify the Convention and another year to make its initial declaration.

In 1998, as it finally made its initial declaration under the CWC, Iran revealed that it had started a limited chemical weapons programme in 1983.[18] The following year, Iran informed the OPCW that it could be added to the list of countries having formerly possessed a chemical weapons capability, but no stockpile of chemical agents.[19] The Iranian authorities revealed that the country’s CW industry had consisted of two production facilities.

According to US authorities, however, Iran’s CW programme had continued and developed during the 1990s. In 2000, the United States denounced violations of the CWC by Iran (along with China, Russia, and Sudan) and passed the Iran Nonproliferation Act, a sanction bill that had been promoted for several years by the US Congress (being vetoed by President Clinton in 1998). Yet following the Iranian authorities blunt rejection of the accusation, the United States did not pursue its claim through the CWC’s mechanism for challenging inspections. The OPCW’s inspectors were able to verify that the facilities declared by Iran had effectively been inactivated and found no trace of non-compliant activities. The Director General of the Organisation then declared that the Secretariat had ‘no reason whatsoever to question Iran’s full compliance with the CWC’.[20]

The United States repeated and further specified its claims in a 2002 Central Intelligence Agency report estimating that Iran had a stockpile of several thousand tons of chemical agents, including nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents.[21] From 2003 onwards, however, US officials gradually changed their position, apparently on the basis of new intelligence.[22] In the last decade, US claims have referred to dual-use industrial facilities and a capability to weaponise chemical agents in various delivery systems, rather than to chemical agents per se.[23] However, it is currently not possible, at least on the basis of publicly available information, to determine if Iran has, or had at some point in the past, a stockpile of chemical weapons.[24]

Phase one of the nuclear-weapons controversy: The case against Iran (2002–2005)

At the turn of the century, it was Iran’s nuclear industry that became the focal point of proliferation concerns. Until then, Iran’s officially recognised nuclear facilities had consisted of the Bushehr nuclear power plant under construction, the Tehran research reactor, and the various installations of the Esfahan nuclear technology centre.[25] US authorities had made a number of declarations about Iranian activities and taken some sanction measures in the second half of the 1990s,[26] but had not publicised any intelligence to substantiate their concerns. At the IAEA, the existence of an undeclared Iranian programme had not been officially mentioned.

The failure to declare the Natanz installations was a breach of Iran’s obligations under the agreement with the IAEA

In August 2002, however, the issue suddenly came to the forefront of global relations as the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) published information indicating that Iran was about to complete the construction of a fuel production plant in Natanz and had also started to build a heavy water reactor in Arak.[27]

The two facilities would not have been problematic from the standpoint of international law, had Iran declared their construction in due time to the IAEA. Indeed, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) contains no provision restricting fuel cycle activities (uranium enrichment, reprocessing of spent fuel assemblies, etc.); nor did Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement[28] extend to heavy water facilities. But the failure to declare the Natanz installations was a breach of Iran’s obligations under the agreement with the IAEA, which the representative of Iran acknowledged in rather allusive terms at the September 2002 session of the IAEA General Conference: ‘Iran is embarking on a long-term plan […] to construct nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 6000 MW within two decades. Naturally, such a sizeable project entails with it an all-out planning, well in advance, in various fields of nuclear technology such as fuel cycle, safety and waste management.’[29] In May 2003, Iran declared to the IAEA that it was about to begin the construction of another component of its ‘sizeable project’, namely a uranium conversion facility in Esfahan.

The revelations of the summer of 2002 opened a period of three years of intensive discussions and diplomatic activity about the extent of the Iranian programme and the international control mechanisms that should apply to it

Beyond the breach of Iran’s duty to inform the IAEA, an even more serious problem with the Arak, Natanz, and Esfahan installations was that they represented a breakthrough in the country’s dual-use nuclear capabilities: the Arak reactor could be used to produce plutonium as a by-product of electricity generation, and then to take it from reactor-grade to weapon-grade enrichment levels; the Esfahan facility enabled Iran to process uranium from concentrate powder (‘yellowcake’) into tetrafluoride UF4 and hexafluoride UF6 gases; in turn, these gases could be used in the Natanz plant’s centrifuge machines to produce enriched uranium at reactor-grade levels, and possibly (with a sufficient number of centrifuges) weapon-grade levels.

The revelations of the summer of 2002 opened a period of three years of intensive discussions and diplomatic activity about the extent of the Iranian programme and the international control mechanisms that should apply to it (see Box 1 for a detailed discussion of the timeline of the discussions).

At the IAEA Board of Governors, two strategies with regard to Iran coexisted. European countries, led by France, Germany, and the UK (the so-called ‘E3’), as well as Russia and China, favoured negotiation in order to achieve adequate international oversight of Iran’s activities through a sequence of ‘confidence-building measures’. The US government, by contrast, openly expressed scepticism with regard to a cooperative approach on the Iranian dossier, and made it clear that from its standpoint, the role of the Agency was to establish that Iran was not complying with its obligations under the NPT, and to transfer its file to the UNSC for further action.

The statute of the IAEA specifies the procedure for such a referral:[30] upon their observation of a case of non-compliance with the Agency’s safeguards, IAEA inspectors must send a report to the Director General, who transmits it to the Board of Governors; the Board then directly negotiates with the country and, in the event of a failure of these negotiations, reports non-compliance to all Agency members, to the UNSC and to the UN General Assembly. Acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UNSC can then authorise the use of armed force or impose other sanctions on the country.

The Director General of the IAEA informed the BoG about Iran’s failures to meet its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement in June 2003.[31] This led to the adoption of a strongly-worded resolution by the BoG in September 2003, calling on Iran to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities, to ‘promptly and unconditionally’ sign and implement an Additional Protocol, to provide complete information on its activities to the IAEA, and to grant IAEA inspectors unconditional access to its facilities.[32] The resolution did not mention non-compliance, leaving room for negotiations between Iran and the Agency. But the possibility that Iran’s case would be referred to the UNSC had become tangible.

Predictably, the E3 and the United States usually presented their diverging stances on Iran’s case as complementary. But important differences existed between the Western states in both strategic approaches and legal interpretations of the non-proliferation regime. Strategically, the preference of the United States for the toughest possible stance against Iran was at that time only mitigated by the imperatives of war against Iraq,[33] while the E3’s objectives were the establishment of normal economic relations with Iran. The United States insisted during the entire period (and actually until a new administration took office in 2008) that Iran should be barred from any nuclear fuel cycle activities. The E3, by contrast, claimed on numerous occasions that fuel enrichment and processing were included in the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (granted by article IV to all NPT parties), and that the objective of the Iran dossier was to establish guarantees that these activities would not be diverted into a weapons programme.

The Iranian negotiating team, led by Hassan Rouhani, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council,[34] was under considerable pressure throughout the negotiations. On the one hand, it was confronting several of the most influential members of the IAEA Board of Governors, particularly the United States. On the other hand, although the team reported to the Supreme Guide Khamenei and therefore benefitted from his tacit support, it was under continuous fire from the conservative wing of the Iranian regime. At any new concession, the negotiators were harshly criticised by hard-line media outlets and politicians for deserting the battlefield and relinquishing the country’s sovereign rights (see Section 5).

Iran-box1aThe Iranian side agreed to some important concessions during the 2002–2005 period: to have facilities inspected by the IAEA even when they did not fall within the scope of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement (albeit with some limitations); to provide explanations on past use of nuclear material and enrichment activities; to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment and stop the production and assembly of centrifuges; and most importantly, to sign and immediately implement an Additional Protocol to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement,[35] which considerably enhanced the scope of IAEA investigations. Iran’s strategy at the negotiations was a mix of (1) a general compromising line, (2) instances of manipulation and concealment, and (3) a high level of persistence and intransigence regarding the country’s rights to conduct fuel cycle activities. This strategy, which clearly indicated the limits of what Iran was ready to negotiate, also reflected the difficulties of reaching consensus within the Iranian regime.

In return for its relative cooperation, Iran received little more than vague promises of political, economic, and technical cooperation from the E3

In return for its relative cooperation, Iran received little more than vague promises of political, economic, and technical cooperation from the E3. Either way, Iran’s insistence to control the nuclear fuel cycle collided with the United States’ insistence that Iran should not conduct any fuel cycle activity at all. Accordingly, in February 2006, the IAEA BoG referred Iran’s case to the UNSC.

Phase two of the nuclear-weapons controversy: Sanctions lead to… sanctions (2006–2010)

Between July 2006 and June 2010, the UNSC adopted six resolutions on Iran’s nuclear activities, four of them applying sanctions against Iranian individuals or organisations or restricting trade and investment in particular areas. In parallel, a formal framework for international discussions between Iran and a group of countries that now included China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and was known under the acronyms of E3+3 first, and later P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany) was created in June 2006.

Iran-box1cResolution 1696, adopted on 31 July 2006 by 14 votes in favour and 1 against (Qatar), demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities within a month and, invoking Article 41 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, specified that Iran would undergo sanctions if it did not comply. While the Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani initially signalled a desire to cooperate, both the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bluntly rejected the demand to suspend enrichment. In response, on 23 December 2006, the UNSC unanimously passed Resolution 1737 which applied the first set of sanctions targeting the Iranian fuel cycle, heavy water, and ballistic missile programmes. The sanctions were later stepped up by Resolutions 1747 (adopted on 24 March 2007 by unanimity) and 1803 (adopted on 3 March 2008 with a 14–0 vote and 1 abstention). Resolution 1835, passed on 27 September 2008 by unanimity, did not impose new sanctions but aimed at demonstrating that the UNSC members still had a unified position. Finally, Resolution 1929, passed on 9 June 2010 with a 12–2 vote and 1 abstention, extended the list of sanctions again and recommended a large ban on financial transactions with Iran.[36] In addition, a number of countries imposed specific sanctions on Iran, including the United States, the Member States of the European Union (and Norway), and Japan.

The sanctions did little to modify Iran’s policy. The country gradually moved towards more sophisticated enrichment technology with the testing and implementation of new generations of centrifuges. In September 2009, in a letter to the IAEA Director General, the representative of Iran to the Agency declared that Iran was building a second uranium enrichment plant in Fordow. Simultaneously, American, British, and French officials revealed that their intelligence services had discovered what they presented as a facility hidden under a mountain that offered it some protection against an air attack.

The sanctions did little to modify Iran’s policy. The country gradually moved towards more sophisticated enrichment technology

The hardening of the stance of the P5+1 towards Iran during this period was likely motivated by the possibility of Iran having a covert nuclear weapons project, labelled the possible military dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian programme. The PMD case initially consisted in large part in the controversial ‘alleged studies’ presented by US intelligence services, which were instrumental in the IAEA BoG’s September 2005 and February 2006 decisions to transfer Iran’s case to the UNSC (see Section 6). Investigations carried out by the IAEA, various intelligence services, and private organisations later reinforced the PMD case. In the United States, six National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) scrutinised the PMD of the Iranian programme (2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2012).

Until 2007, the intelligence pointed towards an ambitious programme rooted in the context of the Iran–Iraq war, at a time when Saddam Hussein’s government was itself involved in a considerable effort to produce an atomic bomb.[37] From its onset in the late 1980s, the programme was placed under the authority of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics—and more specifically the IRGC. Within the IRGC, the Education Research Institute coordinated defence research activities, with the specific aim to connect and oversee developments in Iran’s nuclear energy and ballistic missile programmes. The operational core of the programme was the Physics Research Centre (PRC), located in Lavizan (Tehran) and directed by Revolutionary Guard commander and physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

The 2007 NIE considerably changed the PMD assessment by describing in greater detail Iran’s covert nuclear programme and, at the same time, asserting that it had been halted in 2003. The PRC had been shut down and its facilities dismantled. When the IAEA visited the Centre in 2003, its inspectors found that the buildings had been demolished and did not observe any trace of radioactivity. The site was later donated to the Tehran municipality and became the Kowsar public park. Some of the PRC’s activities seemed to have continued under successive organisations such as the Field of Expansion and Deployment of Advanced Technologies (FEDAT). In 2006 and 2007, for instance, FEDAT had launched several studies and a four-year plan to develop a neutron initiator.[38] The programme was still led by Fakhrizadeh, but apparently had become less centralised and intensive. In intercepted email and telephone calls in 2006, Fakhrizadeh seemed to complain that the government had frozen his funding and activities.

The intelligence on PMD fed into the work of the IAEA as well as the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, and Iranian government was asked to provide explanations on a variety of issues, including exploding bridge wire detonators, the initiation of high explosives, and calculations of neutron transport in compressed materials. The government of Iran recently provided a plausible, if unlikely,[39] explanation for the first issue,[40] relating the research to oil industrial applications, but does not seem to have offered any justification with regard to the other two areas.

In any event, after 2007, the intelligence on Iran did not indicate that the country was undertaking the type of systematic, coordinated, and intensive efforts needed to produce an atomic weapon. Rather, it seemed more interested in reaching the nuclear threshold. This re-evaluation of Iran’s objectives gradually modified the policies of the P5+1 regarding Iran, particularly in the United States

After 2007, the intelligence on Iran did not indicate that the country was undertaking the type of systematic, coordinated, and intensive efforts needed to produce an atomic weapon

Third phase of the nuclear weapons controversy: Sympathy for the devil (2010–2015)

The change of the US administration with the election of Barak Obama in 2008 created an opportunity to re-assess relations with Iran, in particular on the nuclear dossier. A January 2010 memo addressed to the President’s national security adviser, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, acknowledged that the strategy to prevent Iran from progressing steadily towards nuclear capability had not been successful.[41] He pinpointed in particular the challenge of preventing the development of a ‘virtual’ nuclear capacity by Iran.

Iran initially ignored the openings made by the Obama administration, but with the replacement of Ahmadinejad by Rouhani as the President of Iran in 2013, the situation changed immediately. With the choice of Mohammad Javad Zarif as Minister of Foreign Affairs and the transfer of the leadership for the international discussions to his ministry, the team that led the negotiations for Iran between 2003 and 2005 was taking charge again, this time with larger room for manoeuvre. In November 2013, after only three months in office, the Rouhani administration reached an Interim Agreement with the P5+1, setting the stage for a longer-term deal. This was the most significant development in the negotiations since the Paris Agreement was signed nine years earlier.

In November 2013, after only three months in office, the Rouhani administration reached an Interim Agreement with the P5+1, setting the stage for a longer-term deal

From the beginning of the discussions, all of the P5+1 countries clearly recognised Iran’s right to conduct the entire range of activities related to the peaceful use of nuclear energy once it had given appropriate guarantees of non-diversion. Compared to the previous period, this was in itself a major step forward in Tehran’s favour. With this caveat, Iran pledged under the Interim Agreement to cap its enrichment of uranium to 5 per cent, to blend down or convert its entire stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, to reduce its stockpile of 5 per cent enriched uranium to 7 765 kilograms, not to install any major components at the Arak heavy water reactor, and to allow the IAEA to inspect the Fordow and Natanz enrichment sites on a daily basis, including visits to ‘centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities’.

After the Interim Agreement, discussions focused on the magnitude of the controls and limitations that would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear programme in the longer term, in particular with regard to the number of centrifuges, the stockpile of low-enriched uranium kept by Iran, and the duration of any restrictions imposed on its fuel cycle activities. On 2 April 2015 in Geneva, after seventeen months of intense discussions, Iran and the P5+1 reached a Framework Agreement on the limitation and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities under the NPT and the lifting of international sanctions. The detailed implementation of the Agreement was left for discussions that were concluded in July 2015.

Conclusion on Iran’s strategy in international negotiations on WMDs

While maintaining, all in all, a compromising line during twenty-five years of international controversies around its policies toward WMDs, Iran has also managed to preserve its chances of advancing towards a complete control of dual-use technologies, in particular the nuclear fuel cycle. Under considerable international pressure, Iran constantly insisted that any suspension of enrichment activities was voluntary and temporary, used the resumption of its fuel cycle activities instrumentally,[42] and openly pursued nuclear activities that it had not (and sometimes had) explicitly agreed to suspend. Iran has shown a fairly strong aptitude to negotiate within the international legal framework on WMDs,[43] to manoeuver around it, and to pay high political and economic costs in order to further its objectives.

Iran’s line of conduct has not been that of a country that recklessly advances towards the possession of WMDs. Iranian authorities have always seemed to carefully evaluate the balance of forces and not to take chances of significant damage for the sake of their chemical or nuclear programmes

Iran’s line of conduct has not been that of a country that recklessly advances towards the possession of WMDs. Iranian authorities have always seemed to carefully evaluate the balance of forces and not to take chances of significant damage for the sake of their chemical or nuclear programmes. Their objectives, in line with their doctrine, seem to have consisted in gradually acquiring dual-use capacities, whether in a deterrence perspective or for matters of prestige and of international bargaining power.Iran3

The Iranian debate on nuclear weapons

The apparent internal consensus over Iran’s nuclear policy

Irrespective of the political climate and orientation of the administration, the representatives of Iran have constantly repeated the same arguments in defence of their nuclear policy since 2002. Their official discourse, in particular inside the country, has revolved around three main themes: first, nuclear power generation and, as one of its components, uranium enrichment as an ‘inalienable right’ that cannot be compromised; second, the international legal framework for nuclear activities is biased and unjust; and third, the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UNSC and Western countries since 2006 are illegal.[44]

In order to substantiate the first point, Iranian officials have on several occasions highlighted that Iran’s nuclear endeavour actually started under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy with the help of Western countries, and was merely continued under the Islamic Republic—a very exceptional recognition that the Republic has considered it worthwhile to pursue some of the Shah’s policy objectives.[45]

Iranian officials have also constantly claimed that Iran respects the international legal framework on nuclear activities, even though it is biased in favour of nuclear weapon states. In addition, Iran has sharply criticised the IAEA’s action, particularly with regard to several aspects of its cooperation with the UNSC since 2006:

The Agency’s interpretation of its own mandate and of the duties and obligations of a Party to the Treaty, as reflected in its reports and assessments on the Iranian programme;

  • What Iran sees as a license given to the UNSC to implement the Safeguards Agreements or redefine their content;
  • Requests put forward by the IAEA on the basis of UNSC resolutions;
  • The suspension of the Agency’s technical support to Iran, a measure that Iranian representatives allege has been imposed by the UNSC;
  • Confidentiality breaches.

Finally, Iranian officials have raised a number of objections against the UNSC resolutions and the sanctions regime, stating in particular that:

  • The UNSC’s involvement with the Iranian nuclear case violates articles 1, 2, 24, and 39 of the UN Charter;
  • Iran ‘has not violated the terms of the NPT, nor has it been a threat to international security and peace’;
  • To the extent that they would ignore or aim at blocking Iran’s right to engage in nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, the resolutions would constitute violations of international law;
  • The UN Charter does not give the UNSC authority to instruct Iran to ratify its Subsidiary Arrangements with the IAEA.

The apparent consensus on this general line among Iran’s rulers is primarily due to the fact that nuclear policy making is a direct responsibility of the Supreme Guide who, as the ultimate guarantor of the expediency of the regime, also distributes power among its various factions and arbitrates their conflicts. When strategic decisions have to be made, Khamenei plays a key role in harmonising the positions of the various factions of the regime and determining the country’s course of action. For instance, to take the critical decision to resume fuel cycle activities in June 2005, a meeting headed by Khamenei gathered Mohammad Khatami (outgoing President), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (President-elect), Mir-Hossein Mousavi (former Prime Minister and future presidential contender) and possibly Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsandjani (former President)—i.e. a group of high-ranking representatives of the three main political factions within the Iranian system (principalist, pragmatists, and reformists), some without any formal responsibility on nuclear issues at that time.[46]

The apparent consensus on this general line among Iran’s rulers is primarily due to the fact that nuclear policy making is a direct responsibility of the Supreme Guide who, as the ultimate guarantor of the expediency of the regime, also distributes power among its various factions and arbitrates their conflicts

The impression of cohesion has been reinforced by the reported support of the Iranian population for the country’s nuclear programme. In a rare display of public opinion data,, the semi-official Iranian media, provided the results of polls on the country’s nuclear policy conducted mostly by foreign institutions since the start of the international sanctions in 2006. The polls exhibit rates of support for the existing policy (or for its official objective, i.e. the development of the country’s civil nuclear energy capacity) between 57 per cent and 90 per cent.[47] In an independent survey conducted in July 2014, at a time when the Iranian economy was often described as crippled by the sanctions, Mohseni and his co-authors found that 94 per cent of Iranians deemed it necessary for the country to make a peaceful use of nuclear energy and 69 per cent believed that such is the objective of the government. Furthermore, 75 per cent and 70 per cent respectively found it unacceptable to limit nuclear research activities and to dismantle half of the exiting centrifuges in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions, even though 91 per cent thought that the sanctions were having a negative impact on the lives of ordinary people.[48] A study even found that economic incentives—whether rewards or sanctions—for Iran to scale down its nuclear programme actually increased the support of a ‘relatively small but politically significant’ fraction of the population for the government’s efforts to acquire nuclear energy.[49]

Under this apparent unanimity, however, there have always been differences of appreciation regarding the desirable scope and objectives of Iran’s nuclear programme, the acceptable price to pay for it in terms of economic sanctions and risks of conflict, and the stance to adopt towards Western countries. With the hardening of the sanctions and—particularly—the political developments of recent years, these differences have evolved into dissensions.

International negotiations as an issue of dissension

Two of the main contenders in Iran’s last presidential elections were former chief nuclear negotiators: Hassan Rouhani, who represented the pragmatist faction and had the support of the reformists, headed the negotiations between 2003 and 2005 (under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami). He resigned when Ahmadinejad took office. Upon Rouhani’s resignation, the mantle was taken up by Saeed Jalili, who was responsible for the negotiations between 2007 and 2013, during most of Ahmadinejad’s two-term presidency. Jalili was the 2013 presidential candidate favoured by the more conservative elements of the regime.

As shown in the controversial election of Ahmadinejad in 2009, the winner of the presidential ballot in Iran has to be vetted—if not chosen—by the Supreme Guide. Rouhani’s victory in the first round of the 2013 election therefore meant that Khamenei had already opted for a dialogue with the West. However, as usual with the institutions of Iran, he encouraged the most vocal critics of such dialogue at the same time, in order to keep all options open and to strengthen his own position as an arbiter.

Since the election, and particularly since the November 2013 Interim Agreement with the P5+1, the positions and ultimate objectives of Iran in the international negotiations have therefore become a topic of a fierce debate between the hardliner conservatives on one hand, and pragmatists and reformists on the other. Public debates about strategic issues have been common in Iran, but dissensions have probably never been so openly exposed—in the media, and particularly on the occasion of ‘conferences’ organised by both sides in order to monitor and influence Iran’s position in the negotiations.

In May 2014, in reaction to the Interim Agreement, conservative politicians and former members of the Ahmadinejad administration organised a ‘Conference of the concerned’, in which they severely criticised the compromising stance adopted by the government. Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency and subject to an asset freeze by the UNSC for his alleged role in the covert weapons programme, declared at the conference that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Minister of Foreign Affairs, had ‘weakened our national interests’. This was a serious attack by Iranian standards, but not nearly as bad as the verdict given by the reformist newspaper Ensaf News, which polemically claimed that the participants at the conference had interests similar to those of the Israeli statesman Benjamin Netanhayou, one of the most vocal opponents of Iran’s nuclear programme.[50]

In reaction to the conference, Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at the University of Tehran and considered close to Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsandjani, wrote an open letter to two prominent conservatives in which he openly questioned the usefulness of the nuclear programme for the country. Zibakalam was immediately convicted of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran and sentenced to 18 months in prison, but never served the sentence.[51]

On the government’s side the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office of International and Political Studies organised a ‘National congress on the analysis of the way forward for the government’s nuclear policy’ in August 2014. This was the first time that the issue of the international discussions over the country’s nuclear programme was addressed in a forum that brought together both representatives of the government and academics—all either not politically affiliated or in favour of the reformist agenda.

Speakers from academia, the administration and the reformist opposition addressed various aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, particularly its international legal dimensions. In his closing address, Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for international and legal affairs, who was also a senior member of the Iranian team in the international talks, opined that the Interim Agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva in 2013 was a ‘cease-fire between the two sides’ and ‘a win-win game’, since Iran’s right to enrich uranium has been acknowledged and any restriction accepted by the country ‘is not eternal’, while the ‘other side’s concern with respect to Iran’s possession of the atomic bomb will be addressed’.[52]

In the spring of 2015, reformist figures were able to capitalise on the government’s popularity and the momentum provided by progress in international negotiations to challenge some of the key dogmas of the regime

In the spring of 2015, reformist figures were able to capitalise on the government’s popularity and the momentum provided by progress in international negotiations to challenge some of the key dogmas of the regime. In a conference organised at the University of Tehran in December 2014, Ahmad Shirzad, former member of Parliament, deemed that the country would not have the technical know-how to run any kind of nuclear programme even if it developed one. Zibakalam said that dissenting voices on the nuclear issue were just starting to be heard because they had been censored under the previous administration, and compared the cost of the sanctions to that of the Iran–Iraq war—thereby indirectly criticising Khomeiny’s decision to continue the war.[53]

In December, on the eve of President Rouhani’s trip to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly, Zibakalam wrote him, in an open letter: ‘Have the people not expressed their opinion regarding previous policies, such as anti-Americanism, by giving 19 million votes to you and 4 million votes to Dr. Saeed Jalili? […] Mr. President, know that a significant fraction of the people are fed up with the continuation of anti-American policies that are aimless and devastating to national interests. Know that a significant fraction of the 19 million that voted for you wanted to end this useless enmity with America.’[54]

The response to Zibakalam’s question did not come from the government, but from the conservative Committee for the Protection of Iran’s Interest: ‘Enmity with America is an unchangeable identity of the Islamic Republic. […] Does changing the relationship with America from enmity to friendship have any other meaning than a soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic?’[55]

Lastly, in a debate following the 2 April 2015 Framework Agreement, Zibakalam went so far as to explain and justify the standpoint of Iran’s adversaries in the negotiations, while at the same time questioning Iran’s trumpeted enmity with Israel: Iran ‘is the only country that openly and officially says it wants to destroy a country by the name of Israel. […] This concern exists: A country is enriching uranium that officially says it will destroy another country. […] Who gave us this responsibility to destroy Israel?’[56]

The broader context of Iranian politics

The nuclear debate has in fact revived the schism that appeared in the Iranian regime during the 2009 presidential elections and in their aftermath, when the reformist camp was severely suppressed and its two candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were placed under house arrest. The Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and all institutions of Iran then supported Ahmadinejad and the principalist camp, in some cases after undergoing a purge (for instance among the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps). However, the magnitude of the popular revolt and the divide within the establishment deeply affected the regime and, combined with the country’s isolation on the international scene and the effects of the sanctions, made it clear that the principalist line was not a viable long-term option for Iran.

The election of Hassan Rouhani resumed not only the kind of pragmatic, cautiously reformist approach that prevailed (with variations) under the presidencies of Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsandjani (1989–1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005). It also closed a period of increasing polarisation in Iranian politics, and showed that some conservative elements of the regime—and, above all, Ali Khamenei—wanted to assuage the political tensions that peaked in 2009. In other words, Rouhani’s moderate government seemed to enjoy a larger degree of support from the Supreme Guide and other conservatives than any of its predecessors. To date, the most visible sign of this support has been the Supreme Guide’s endorsement of the government’s position in the nuclear negotiations, including after the unprecedented concessions it made to reach the Framework Agreement.

The regional context has also contributed to bringing Iran out of its isolated position on the international scene, particularly the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Through its strategic ties with the Iraqi and Syrian governments and the influence of its local proxies (the shiite militias in Iraq, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Yemenite Houthis), Iran has become one of the key actors on whom the outcome of the conflicts and the future of the region depend. Importantly, the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council have acknowledged that Iran must be a part of the solution in these regional crises. The West’s willingness to cooperate, or even simply to discuss, with Iran on issues other than its nuclear programme is also in stark contrast with the situation of the last decade.

After several years of confrontation, the beginning of a détente between Iran and the West raises hopes of further normalisation, notably in economic relations. Several delegations of economic decision-makers from European countries travelled to Iran after the signing of the 2013 Interim Agreement. Major oil, gas, and industrial companies have started preparing for the opening of trade and investment opportunities. In case of a ratification of the nuclear deal by both sides and the lifting of international sanctions, Iran might well be flooded with foreign investment. The richness of its natural resources and the size and growth potential of its internal market could make Iran one of the Middle East’s major hubs of economic activity.[57]

Conclusion on the state of the debate on WMDs in Iran

The magnitude of the internal and geopolitical changes brought about by the success of the nuclear negotiations cannot be exaggerated. What is at stake in Iran’s nuclear debate is much more than nuclear policy, an area in which the regime seems to have already attained its main objectives, namely becoming a threshold state and increasing its prestige and bargaining power internationally. What is at stake is Iran’s foreign policy as a whole—an identity-defining issue—and the viability of the regime in a post-sanction context. While the conservative core of the regime—the Supreme Guide and the IRGC—has given a mandate to the pragmatist government of Rouhani to end Iran’s isolation and the international sanctions, it is becoming increasingly nervous regarding the larger consequences of a success.

The re-emergence of factional tensions within the Iranian regime around the topic of nuclear negotiations should therefore not be understood as an actual debate about policy options, but rather as an attempt to control Iran’s dive into the unknown of normality. On the international stage, the possibility that this reaction derails the nuclear deal and cooperation between Iran and the West cannot be excluded, particularly if similar tendencies are at play among Western countries as in 2005. On the internal stage, paradoxically, improved relations between Iran and Western countries could lead to the Iranian regime tightening its grip on Iran’s society and economy, at least in the short term.

Non-proliferation through the lens of the Iran saga

Enforcement issues

The Iranian case sheds light on some problematic aspects of the international legal framework, institutions and policies regarding WMDs. Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements (CSAs) with the IAEA are one of the key NPT instruments, being mandatory for NPT non-nuclear-weapon State Parties. Their purpose is to establish the basis for the verification of non-diversion of declared nuclear activities. Ensuring that the declared activities are also complete is dependent on the IAEA Additional Protocol that each State is free to sign or not. As illustrated by the Iran case, non-diversion and completeness both entail significant enforcement issues.

Verifying non-diversion entails ensuring that dual-use fuel production facilities and nuclear power plants are not engaged in the production of nuclear weapons under the cover of a civil nuclear programme. In itself, the task is technically feasible. To take reactor-grade fissile material to the weapon-grade level of enrichment, a nuclear reactor needs a particular configuration in its design; then it needs to be stopped, emptied from its spent fuel and re-started specifically for higher enrichment. A uranium enrichment plant has to be re-organised, with a very large number of centrifuges disposed in larger cascades. Both operations take months to complete and are easily detectable—provided, of course, that the facilities are controlled on a regular basis. The difficulty of ensuring non-diversion resides in this latter condition. If a country breaks out of the NPT and is no longer submitted to the IAEA’s control mechanisms, it can use its civil installations to produce weapons. Its breakout period (the amount of time required to manufacture one nuclear warhead if the full industrial effort were directed toward that aim) is then dependent on a number of technological parameters that prove difficult to estimate precisely—in the case of Iran, current estimates vary from 6 to 18 months.

Thus, while the full implementation of CSAs curbs proliferation through building trust between states and other actors, CSAs cannot ensure that a growing number of countries will not reach the nuclear threshold with short breakout periods, particularly as nuclear technologies become more easily accessible. Such a situation would considerably increase the risks of nuclear proliferation and conflict.

The enforcement of completeness remains optional as long as Additional Protocols are not mandatory. Negotiations with Iran have precisely attempted to mandate the signing, ratification, and actual implementation of an Additional Protocol since 2003. The legal bases for such a mandate, however, are uncertain at best.

In contrast to North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, Iran never left the NPT. (The NPT’s Article X establishes a sovereign ‘right to withdraw’.) This was, of course, crucial to the way in which the Iran saga unfolded. Indeed, the main justification for the UNSC’s and the IAEA BoG’s case against Iran was precisely the fact that Iran chose to remain an NPT State Party. As the case of North Korea demonstrates, however, such commitment to the NPT cannot be taken for granted. Consequently, ways of enhancing loyalty to the Treaty should be explored.

The IAEA’s independence called into question

Around mid-2004, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned for the first time that the United States possessed information about a covert nuclear-weapons programme in Iran.[58] The new intelligence, which was said to originate from a laptop provided by an unknown Iranian source, consisted in one thousand pages of computer simulations and experiments related to the design of a nuclear warhead. US intelligence officials refused to provide more information about their sources, but insisted that they were not Iranian opposition groups. Despite the obvious fragility of the information,[59] the US authorities used it as the key tool for intense diplomatic efforts aimed at influencing the IAEA BoG. Displayed in a PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘A history of concealment and deception’, the information was presented to the British, French, and German governments over the course of 2004, in other words before the Paris agreement and the November 2004 Resolution of the IAEA BoG; the same information was displayed for the management of the IAEA Secretariat in July 2005, and for officials from Argentina, Ghana, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Tunisia—all members of the BoG in 2004/05–in August-September 2005.

By taking the critical decision to refer Iran to the UNSC in September 2005, all of the IAEA’s normal procedures of dispute settlement and evidence verification were by-passed. The details of the intelligence file were not disclosed to the Secretariat; nor did Iran ever receive a list of facts to explain or reject. IAEA Director General Mohammed El Baradei declared that his services had to ‘follow due process, which means I need to establish the veracity, consistency and authenticity of any intelligence, and share it with the country of concern.’ In this case, he added, ‘[t]hat has not happened.’[60]

Four years later, the status of the United States’ so-called alleged studies had still not been clarified. The IAEA Director General was harshly criticised by France and Israel for not disclosing available intelligence. In his statement to the IAEA BoG on 7 September 2009, the IAEA Director declared:

I should repeat that all information made available to the Agency relevant to Iran’s nuclear programme which has been critically assessed by the Agency in accordance with its standard practices has been brought to the attention of the Board. I am dismayed by the allegations of some Member States, which have been fed to the media, that information has been withheld from the Board. These allegations are politically motivated and totally baseless. Such attempts to influence the work of the Secretariat and undermine its independence and objectivity are in violation of Article VII.F. of the IAEA Statute and should cease forthwith.[61]

Although the PMD of the Iranian programme were investigated and documented by additional sources, the evidence produced by the United States has since been considered inconclusive at best and probably fraudulent.[62] There have been indications that the documents did originate from the MEK organisation, with the likely support of Israel’s secret services.

The Iranian case is not isolated. In 1993-94, the Agency received intelligence on the nuclear programme of Iraq which, according to a former director of the Agency, proved to be ‘very complex forgeries’ that slowed down investigations by a couple of years. In 2002, in order to support its case for a war against Iraq, the US administration also used documents that turned out to be forged.[63] The novelty of the Iranian case is that it sheds light on a number of weaknesses of the IAEA institutional setup, in particular: the exposure of the Secretariat to political pressure from influential Board members;[64] the Agency’s dependence on intelligence provided by these same members; and the impossibility to submit this information to the same discussion and verification procedures as observations made in the field by inspectors.

(Non-)Proliferation as a bargaining chip

The Iranian case also shows that the non-proliferation regime is just one element of the international order and that non-proliferation can easily become a part of geopolitical posturing and diplomatic ploys. Between 2003 and 2005, the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami attempted to bring three decades of mutual animosity with the United States to an end thanks to a ‘grand bargain’, of which the nuclear case was only one element. The Iranian government had already taken the first step towards détente in the aftermath of the September 2001 terror attacks, when it provided the United States with detailed maps of Taliban governmental forces and their Al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. America’s reaction at that time consisted in George W. Bush’s mention of Iran as a link in the ‘Axis of Evil’ in his State of the Union address of January 2002—probably a disappointing response from the Iranian standpoint.

Iran increased the stakes after the invasion of Iraq by United States forces in 2003, offering to cooperate with the United States on the matters of non-proliferation, the fight against terrorism, and the Middle East peace process, while the United States would agree to re-establish diplomatic relations, lift economic sanctions, and provide assurances regarding Iran’s future security. Again, US officials dismissed the offer—although, this time, the administration had apparently been divided over the appropriate response.[65] A decade later—now with Iran significantly closer to nuclear weapon capabilities—a similar position is assumed, only this time with a more favourable response from Washington. Beyond the Iranian case, these issues show that global non-proliferation is in want of a stronger legal and institutional framework than the NPT and its enforcement mechanisms allow for.


According to available intelligence, Iran has not been engaged in a systematic effort to produce a nuclear weapon since at least 2003. However, Iran has constantly sought to increase its uranium enrichment and reprocessing capacity in order to reach the nuclear threshold, probably in both a deterrence and an international bargaining perspective. This strategy has been successful, since Iran has considerably developed its technological capabilities with regard to the nuclear fuel cycle and at the same time established the basis of a gradual normalisation of its foreign relations.

This success, however, has come at a high price. The Iranian economy has been severely affected by years of trade and investment sanctions and is in dire need of an opening. The international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme have uncovered (rather than caused) a deep fracture within the political establishment. And enmity with the West will no longer provide cement for the Supreme Guide to bring together the various factions of the regime—or at least not to the same extent as in the past. Considerable economic needs, a divided political scene and a normalised international status are existential questions now facing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

From an international standpoint, the Iran crisis and its resolution have demonstrated that WMD proliferation concerns are often influenced by geopolitical interests and objectives, that the IAEA itself can be instrumentalised by particular countries, and that the NPT and its legal and institutional instruments are not sufficient to prevent the proliferation of dual-use nuclear capabilities, even when they are backed by a considerable international mobilisation as in the case of Iran. The Iran nuclear problem might have found a solution, but global nuclear proliferation has not.



[1]       A country is said to be at the nuclear threshold when it has the level of technical know-how and the practical capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a limited time if it decided to.

[2]       Distinguishing between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, the NPT is a rare example of an explicitly unequal contemporary international treaty.

[3]       See Barack Obama, ‘Statement by the President on Iran’, Washington, DC, 14 July 2015; Olli Heinonen, ‘Iran’s Nuclear Breakout Time: A Fact Sheet’, The Washington Institute, 28 March 2015.

[4]       That is, if one excludes Jordan, which achieved independence in 1946 and assumed at that date the commitments of the United Kingdom with regard to biological and chemical weapons. See G. Bucht,et al. (2003), Iran’s Disarmament and Arms Control Policies for Biological and Chemical Weapons, and Biological Capabilities, Swedish Defence Research Agency report FOI-R-0904-SE.

[5]       The site of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran presents an excerpt from one of Khamenei’s declarations as ‘Iran’s policy with regard to nuclear weapons’. See (in Farsi).

[6]       Including in meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (August 2012), IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei (January 2008), or on the occasion of the 16th Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries (Tehran, August 2012).

[7]       See, for instance, the statement made by the representative of Iran at the meeting of the Board of Governors of the IAEA in August 2005.

[8]       Selfscholar (2013), ‘Go, Learn about Atoms: Iranian Religious Discourse on Nuclear Weapons, 1962-present’,

[9]       M. Khalaji (2011), ‘Shiite Jurisprudence, Political Expediency, and Nuclear Weapons’, in M. Eisenstadt and M. Khalaji, Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy, Policy Focus n. 115, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

[10]      Article 112: ‘Upon the order of the Leader, the Expediency Council [majma-e tashkhis-e maslahat-e nezam] shall meet any time that the Guardian Council [shora-ye negahban] judges a proposed bill of the Islamic Consultative Assembly [majles-e shora-ye eslami] to be against the principles of Sharia or the Constitution, and the Assembly, considering the expediency of the State, decides not to meet the expectations of the Guardian Council […].’

[11]      G. Porter (2014), ‘When the Ayatollah Said No to Nukes’, Foreign Policy, 16 October 2014.

[12]      R. Collier, ‘Nuclear Weapons Unholy, Iran Says’, SF Gate, 31 October 2003.

[13]      See P. Razoux (2013), La guerre Iran-Irak, première guerre du Golfe, 1980-1988, Paris, éditions Perrin. According to the author (p. 314), Iran had a small stock of chemical ammunitions at its disposal, which it had inherited from the Shah.

[14]      The concepts of ‘virtual deterrence’ and ‘near-nuclear’ arsenals were developed in the context of nuclear disarmament; however, they also apply to countries that do not possess nuclear weapons (and therefore can be non-Nuclear Weapon State parties to the NPT), yet maintain the know-how and industrial base to quickly develop an arsenal if they decided to do so. See Molander, R. and P. Wilson (1993), The nuclear asymptote: On containing nuclear proliferation. Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation.

[15]      US District Court for the District of Maryland, United States of America v. Seyed Kharim Ali Sobhani and Peter Walaschek, Superseding Indictment, 23 March 1989. See also J.B. Tucker (2008), Trafficking Networks for Chemical Weapons Precursors: Lessons from the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

[16]      S. Hazarika, ‘India Says It Sold Iran a Chemical Used in Poison Gas’, The New York Times, 1 July 1989.

[17]      C. Coughlin, ‘China Helps Iran to Make Nerve Gas’, London Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1998.

[18]      The CBW Conventions Bulletin, n. 42, December 1998.

[19]      Technical Secretariat Background Paper, Consolidated Unclassified Verification Implementation Report (April 1997-December 2002), OPCW document RC-1/S/6, 24 April 2003.

[20]      The CBW Conventions Bulletin, n. 51, March 2001.

[21]      Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January through 30 June 2002, Central Intelligence Agency.

[22]      Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2007, Director of National Intelligence.

[23]      Global Security, ‘Chemical Weapons’,

[24]      A review of official documents and statements produced by third countries about Iran’s chemical and biological warfare capabilities shows that this was already the case ten years ago: ‘The official disclosures are thin and uncertain in their content, and fail to display evidence of data analysis competently conducted.’ See J.P.P. Robinson (2005), Dual Technology and Perceptions of Iranian Chemical and Biological Weapons, Harvard Sussex Origramme, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

[25]      Implementation of the NPT safeguards agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report by the Director General on 6 June 2003, Annex 1, GOV/2003/40, IAEA.

[26]      The United States passed 24 laws and regulations enacting sanctions against Iranian entities or trade and investment in Iran between 1980 and 2013. Among these, the following explicitly referred to Iran’s activities related to WMD: Iran-Iraq Arms Non-proliferation Act of 1992, Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, Executive Order 13059 (1997), Iran Non-proliferation Act of 2000, Executive Order 13382 (2005).

[27]      The information provided by the MEK was inaccurate on two accounts: first, the activity of the Natanz site concerned uranium enrichment, which is only one—albeit crucial—stage of fuel production. Second, the source of the leak was indicated as being inside the Iranian government system, but proved to be Israeli intelligence (see R. Bergman, ‘Will Israel Attack Iran?’, New York Times, 25 January 2012). The organisation made several additional revelations regarding Iran’s nuclear activities between 2003 and 2006 (listed in However, several cases of misinformation and the apparent collusion between the MEK and Israel’s secret services seriously undermined the organisation’s credibility as a reliable source of information (see footnote 75).

[28]      Comprehensive Safeguard Agreements are the NPT’s main non-proliferation instruments. Every non-Nuclear Weapon State that is a party to the Treaty is required to sign such an agreement with the IAEA.

[29]      Reza Aghazadeh, statement to the 46th general conference of the IAEA, Vienna, 16 September 2002.

[30]      IAEA Statute, article XII paragraph C.

[31]      Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report by the Director General on 6 June 2003, GOV/2003/40, IAEA.

[32]      Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Resolution adopted by the Board on 12 September 2003, GOV/2003/69, IAEA.

[33]      E. Sciolino, ‘Iran Will Allow UN Inspections of Nuclear Sites’, New York Times, 22 October 2003.

[34]      Hasan Rouhani was elected president of Iran on 13 June 2013. Mohammad Javad Zarif, current Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the Iranian delegation in the spring 2015 negotiations with the P5+1, was also closely involved in the international discussions between 2003 and 2005.

[35]      Iran formally rejected the IAEA BoG’s call to ‘promptly and unconditionally’ sign and implement an Additional Protocol, but in practice responded to it. Negotiations started in October 2003 and, in December, the representative of Iran signed the Additional Protocol. Although the Iranian Parliament refused to ratify it, the government committed to implementing it on a provisional basis, with immediate effect, from February to June 2004, as part of the Brussels Agreement, and again from November 2004 to August 2005, as part of the Paris Agreement.

[36]      Four additional resolutions passed since June 2011 simply renewed the annual mandate of a panel of experts.

[37]      As later testified both by Iraqi nuclear scientists (I. Khadduri, Iraq’s Nuclear Mirage, Memoirs and Delusions. Springhead Publishers, 2003; K. Hamza, ‘Crossfire transcript’, CNN, February 7, 2003) and US officials (D. Perry, Israel and the Quest for Permanence. McFarland & Co Inc, 1999).


[39]      According to Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the James Martin Center of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute, cited by B. Flavin, ‘IAEA Report on Past Iranian Nuke Research May Hamstring Deal’, Al Monitor, 5 September 2014.

[40]      Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of the Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report by the Director General on 5 September 2014, GOV/2014/43, AIEA.

[41]      D.E. Sanger and T. Snanker, ‘Gates says US lacks a policy to thwart Iran’, The New York Times, 17 April 2005.

[42]      In return for the commitments made in the Brussels Agreement, Iran expected the E3 to convince the IAEA Board of Governors to close its case at its June 2004 meeting. Since this did not happen, Iran unilaterally withdrew from the Agreement not only to resume but also to accelerate uranium enrichment and the production of centrifuges, and threatened that it would start operations at the Esfahan conversion plant. A new deal was negotiated and signed in Paris in November 2004.

[43]      The way the Iranian delegation has conducted the last round of talks has been described as ‘highly professional’ by their counterparts, and the discussions have been considered ‘demanding’. See L- Rozen, ‘Diplomat: “Limited Progress” in Iran Nuclear Talks’, Al Monitor, 26 September 2014.–talks-status-un-926.html.

[44]      These arguments presented in the following three paragraphs were all listed on the semi-official website, which the current Iranian administration launched in November 2013 as part of its communication arsenal (accessed on 9 April 2015). The website provided general information about Iran’s nuclear programme and the ‘controversies’ surrounding it, seen from the Iranian government’s standpoint. It was suspended in April 2015, as Iran was engaging in negotiations on the implementation of the Geneva Framework Agreement.

[45]      In addition to the government’s website (, this impression of historical continuity was conveyed by the official presentation of Iran’s nuclear policy and activities to the IAEA (Communication dated 12 September 2005 from the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/657, IAEA).

[46]      According to declarations by Ali Aqamohammadi, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, reported by Radio Free Europe. See B. Samii, ‘Iran: Nuclear Decision Making Undergoes Changes’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 9 August 2005.

[47], accessed 9 April 2015.

[48]      E. Mohseni, N. Gallagher, and C. Ramsay (2014), Iranian attitudes on nuclear negotiations—A public opinion study. Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland.

[49]      M. Dehghani et al. (2010), ‘Sacred values and conflict over Iran’s nuclear origramme’, Judgment and Decision Making, 5(7), pp. 540–46.

[50]      See A. Karami, ‘“We’re worried” conference against nuclear deal stirs backlash’, Al Monitor, 5 May 2014.

[51]      See A. Karami, ‘Iranian professor sentenced to prison for criticizing nuclear origramme’, Al Monitor, 19 June 2014.

[52]      See for an official transcript from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (in Farsi).

[53]      See A. Karami, ‘Iranian professor sentenced to prison for criticizing nuclear program’, Al Monitor, 19 June 2014.

[54]      Seeنامه-سرگشاده-زیباکلام-به-حسن-روحانی (in Farsi).

[55]      A. Karami, ‘Who’s Afraid of a Handshake?’, Al Monitor, 23 September 2014.

[56]      See A. Karami, ‘Iranian analyst questions policy toward Israel’, Al Monitor, 9 April 2015.

[57]      Iran has the second largest reserves of both oil and gas in the world.

[58]      W.J. Broad and D. E. Sanger, ‘Relying on Computer, US Seeks to Prove Iran’s Nuclear Aims’, The New York Times, 13 November 2005.

[59]      Non-US diplomats and American journalists constantly questioned the authenticity and reliability of the documents. See D. Jehl and W.J. Broad, ‘Doubts Persist on Iran Nuclear Arm Goals’, New York Times, 20 November 2004; Linzer, D., ‘US Deploys Slide Show to Press Case Against Iran’, Washington Post, 14 September 2005.

[60]      W.J. Broad and D. E. Sanger, op. cit.

[61]      Mohamed El Baradei, statement to the Board of Governors of the IAEA, Vienna, 7 September 2009.

[62]      See G. Porter (2010), ‘The Iran Nuclear “Alleged Studies” Documents: The Evidence of Fraud’, Middle East Policy, vol. XVII, no. 4.

[63]      S. Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, 9 November 2011.

[64]      Diplomatic documents published by Wikileaks quoted the new IAEA Director General Amano declaring himself ‘clearly in the US court on every key strategic decision’ in 2009.

[65]      G. Samore (2004), Meeting Iran’s Nuclear Challenge. Paper no. 21, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, Stockholm.