The Devil We Don’t Know in Iran

In a recent WPR Briefing on the Iranian nuclear program, the Arms Control Association’s Peter Crail explained why the most credible risk of Iranian weaponization came from the areas of “Known Unknowns” that lie outside of IAEA inspection oversight.

Today at Arms Control Wonk, Andreas Persbo fills in the outlines with a detailed description of the most worrying suspects in the “Known Unknowns” lineup: Iran’s domestic uranium mining sector, and as Crail discussed, an alternate, clandestine conversion and enrichment facility. The former is for now entirely outside the IAEA’s oversight activities and, in combination with the latter, could feed raw ore into the enrichment pipeline without being detected by downstream safeguards. (Added treat: Read through to the ACW post’s first commenter to learnwhy old clock factories are the preferred choice for clandestineenrichment facilities.)

Like Crail, Persbo concludes that the IAEA inspection regime known as the Additional Protocol, which allows for more transparency, is the necessary (if not sufficient) first step towards filling in the gaps of our knowledge, by verifying that the upstream and downstream uranium flows match up. Iran signed on to the Additional Protocol in December 2003, but stopped complying in the aftermath of UNSC sanctions.

Getting Iran to reimplement the Additional Protocol, and not the suspension of its uranium enrichment, should become thefocus of American policy moving forward. Uranium enrichment is a faitaccompli, even if Iran momentarily pulls the plug on the centrifuges. In fact, there is a real danger that in fixating on the spinning centrifuges that the IAEA is already monitoring, we provide Iran with a decoy concession that would wildly miss the mark on where the real threat now lies.

The makings of a potential deal would offer an initial relaxing of UNSC and unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, in return for full compliance with the Additional Protocol. Further, staged normalization could be conditioned on gradually expanded IAEA access and future inspections coming up clean. It’s the devil we don’t know that could kill us here, and drawing the red line at the devil we already know only increases the chances that he will.