In August 2002, the Iranian Opposition, known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), disclosed secret Iranian nuclear facilities at the Natanz enrichment plant, the Arak Heavy Water production facility, the Isfahan uranium conversion plant, as well as other previously unknown Iranian facilities. Rather than negotiate access to these newly revealed plants by international atomic watchdogs, the United States proposed that Iran hold talks with the EU-3 powers (Britain, France, and Germany). The United States was busy with Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs of Saddam Hussein. So, it left the Europeans to do the heavy lifting on Iran.
The first deal with the EU-3 was struck on October 21, 2003, in Tehran. Iran agreed “to suspend all uranium enrichment activities.” But the two sides disagreed after their accord was reached over the question of how each defined “suspension.” For Europe, suspension meant Iran freezing all enrichment activities. This was something that the Iranian leadership would not agree to. A second agreement was struck in Paris on November 15, 2004.
The Iranians wanted to leave the definition of “suspension” vague so that what they were committing to suspending would be unclear. That would allow Iran to build more centrifuges, for example. The Iranians reversed themselves within months, declaring that they would manufacture centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
Uranium came in two forms or isotopes: U-235 and U-238. Only the lighter isotope, U-235, could undergo nuclear fission that would release the energy for reactor fuel or an atomic bomb.
The father of the Iranian diplomatic approach was Hassan Rouhani, who served as Iran’s national security adviser and later as its head nuclear negotiator with the EU-3. It is essential to read what he said back in 2003 because of his subsequent advancement within the Iranian system. Today, he is the president of Iran. Decisions are ultimately made by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Rouhani is a major player. In a significant address, Rouhani made clear how he viewed the purpose of negotiations: “When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.” The negotiating process, in short, allowed Iran to steadily advance with its nuclear program.
The political philosophy of the Iranian officials certainly was one major factor making a reliable negotiation difficult to imagine. But there was a second problem with the Iranian approach that has not changed. Tehran did not open up its facilities to unimpeded inspections. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sought access to the Lavizan Technological Research Center, where the Western powers believed Iran had conducted nuclear weaponization work.
The Iranians, however, demolished six buildings at Lavizan and then removed several meters of the topsoil there so that no one could take soil samples that would be incriminating. This type of behavior repeated itself at what was known as the Kalaya Electric Facility, where Iranian experts re-tiled the walls before inspectors arrived so that their swipes would not reveal that radioactive materials had been previously present. In other words, Iran was predisposed to cheat.
The Islamic term used by the Iranians for what they were doing was Taqiya, taken from the Arabic root word Waqa. As a theological idea, the Shiite Muslims used it to make reference to their need to hide or conceal their true faith from the Sunni majority in the Middle East. They engaged in deception for self-preservation. Ayatollah Khomeini wrote that the purpose of Taqiya was the preservation of Islam and the Shi’ite school. But it became a diplomatic instrument that the Iranians employed in their arms control talks with the West.
Advocates of a new diplomatic path today need to demonstrate that somehow Iran has really changed. Currently, there is little or no evidence that this is the case. Iran was not about to alter its behavior. In the meantime, it continues to be a dangerous power with both an advanced nuclear program and expansionist policies across the Middle East. It would be nice if this was not the case, but it is difficult to make a convincing case otherwise.