The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Dec. 11:
As part of the international agreement to prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the Iranian government was supposed to resolve a dozen questions about its past nuclear research. Come clean, the rest of the world essentially said, and we’ll have enough confidence to lift economic sanctions.
Iran hasn’t come clean. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a key report on what it has learned.
Iranian scientists secretly worked on weapons design, testing and components needed for a bomb until 2009, the report says. The scientists developed high-precision detonators and built a facility to study how a nuclear explosion could be triggered. All this while Iranian leaders denied that they sought to build the bomb.
The confidence level in this assessment, though, is not terribly high. That’s because Iran didn’t fully cooperate, as it was expected to do. It did not answer all the questions.
The report abounds with fudge phrases — such as “based on all the information available” — to indicate that all the information wasn’t available. Iran didn’t answer three of 12 questions posed by the IAEA. It provided only partial answers to several others. In some cases, the IAEA didn’t believe Iran’s claims.
“Overall, Iran provided little real cooperation,” the Institute for Science and International Security concludes. “Denials and lack of truthfulness should not be confused with cooperation. … The truth of Iran’s work on nuclear weapons is probably far more extensive than outlined by the IAEA.”
All this was no surprise. Days before the report’s release, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano tamped down expectations. “The report will not be black and white,” he said.
But the world has reason to expect full and complete answers. “They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done,” Secretary of State John Kerry said back in April.
After the deal was signed, however, Kerry backpedaled, arguing that the U.S. already knows enough about Iran’s past work and never expected a full confession.
The U.S. has signaled that Iran’s partial, grudging cooperation will be enough to keep the deal on track.
A second Iranian ballistic missile test a few days ago, another apparent violation of United Nations sanctions, won’t be enough to knock it off course either.
The IAEA board of governors is expected to vote later this month to accept the report. Other nations and business leaders are gearing up to do business in Iran. The U.S. is expected to start lifting sanctions on Iran as early as January. That would be a mistake.
The U.S. and its negotiating partners on the nuclear agreement will get one chance to establish that the terms and conditions are solid, concrete, that Iran will be expected to strictly comply. Otherwise, this will start with the tacit understanding that routine noncompliance will be tolerated. Iran will get the signal that it can stonewall inspectors who seek to enforce the deal over the next decade.
The lifting of economic sanctions should be paused until Iran completely answers those questions about its practice nuclear work.
This information is vital. Without it, the West can’t accurately gauge Iran’s breakout capability — that is, how fast Iran could build a bomb if it decided to scrap the deal.
The U.S. and other negotiators should use their leverage — the U.S. and international sanctions — to force Tehran to fill in the remaining blanks on its weapons program. Once sanctions come off, they won’t be easily reimposed.
The urgency here isn’t to lift sanctions as quickly as possible to strengthen Iran’s wobbly economy. The urgency is to demand that Iran deliver on its promises to come clean.
Black and white. Not gray.
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