Amid the fanfare about the interim agreement reached in Geneva in November 2013 over Iran's nuclear programme – the first time in 34 years that the Tehran regime and the United States reached a formal understanding – one critical aspect stood out: the true intentions of Iran's leaders remain as disquietingly unclear now as they were when the existence of the nuclear programme was first revealed in 2002.
For Dr. Olli Heinonen, a Finnish national who spent almost three decades with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including a long stint as Deputy Director General, and who is now a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Security, any optimism about the deal is tempered by the understanding that weaponisation of the nuclear programme remains a realistic prospect. An additional worry, Heinonen told me during a wide-ranging interview, is that the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has emerged as the key interlocutor of the so-called P5+1 (the five members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany), is not someone who can be regarded as the final authority when it comes to Iran's internal conflicts over the nuclear issue. 'Do we know the person, and are we talking with him?' Heinonen asked rhetorically when I put it to him that Western negotiating efforts might not be directed towards the right elements of the Iranian leadership. 'Most likely not. So there will be very few people who know all the aspects of this programme, and how far it's gone, and what is the true purpose.'
Why scepticism persists
The nagging sense that the unknown aspects of the nuclear programme will eventually wreck any deal has overshadowed the international debate over the Joint Action Plan (as the agreement reached in Geneva is called). That plan should not be understood as a final agreement; it is an interim step, whereby Iran will receive sanctions relief over a six month period in exchange for freezing certain critical aspects of its nuclear programme, along the road to a fully negotiated outcome. This includes strict curbs upon the enrichment of uranium, discontinuing the development of installations like the enrichment facility at Natanz, the heavy water reactor at Arak, and the enrichment facility at Fordow (a location that was exposed by Western intelligence services in 2009, much to the chagrin of the Iranian leadership), as well as strengthened monitoring and verification under the auspices of the IAEA.
As the initial details of the Joint Action Plan surfaced, critics quickly scorned its apparent jettisoning of negotiating principles previously regarded as sacrosanct – most notably the insistence, enshrined in successive UN Security Council resolutions, that Iran end all of its enrichment activities. In a briefing paper published in December 2013, Heinonen – who, through his former role as a senior IAEA official, is one of the few individuals based in the West with a long track record of dealing with Iran's leaders – recalled that when President Rouhani had served as a nuclear negotiator 10 years earlier, he boasted of how he had used talks with Western powers to 'buy time to advance Iran's programme.' With doubts surrounding how the Joint Action Plan will be implemented, because of clashing interpretations between the Americans and the Iranians over its substance, Heinonen observed that 'History appears to be repeating itself. Rather than implementing the deal in good faith, Iran is playing games with it, manipulating the Joint Plan of Action to alter to Tehran's advantage both the circumstances on the ground and the terms of the deal itself.'
Ultimately, neither party was prepared to risk the ignominy of having the agreement unravel, and agreed on 20 January 2014 as the date to begin the implementation of the Joint Action Plan. But wrangling over implementation provided the Iranian regime with a strategic boost. Speaking at the height of the implementation dispute, Heinonen pointed out that a 'start date of late January will apparently leave Iran's uranium and plutonium production programmes significantly closer to breakout capacity than if the Joint Plan of Action had been implemented on 24 November .' Moreover, questions remain as to whether the agreement will survive the six month period from 20 January 2014. 'We don't trust them,' Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi candidly said of the P5+1 in an interview with state media, adding that Iran was ready to end compliance with the deal in the event that its partners did not live up to their commitments.
To read the rest of Ben Cohen's interview with Olli Heinonen, please visit Fathom Quarterly.