The Best Test of Iran’s Intentions Isn’t in Geneva

Talks between Iran and the IAEA moved forward on Monday in Tehran, and may provide the ultimate test of Iran's willingness to compromise

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Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

E.U. foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Nov. 7, 2013 before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva

Observers are struggling to lay blame for the failure of Iran and world powers to reach agreement at nuclear talks in Geneva over the weekend. Some say it was France’s fault; others say it was Iran’s; many are eager to blame the Israelis, who weren’t even there.

That zero-sum atmosphere is a symptom of the larger challenge facing the effort to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. and Iran must overcome not just the technical differences separating them in the talks; they also face pressure from domestic political forces and regional allies not to make concessions to their longtime enemy, raising the cost of agreeing to each other’s demands. That is why the ultimate test of the real question at the heart of the talks — is Iran ready to assure the world its nuclear program is peaceful — may lie elsewhere.

On Monday, talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) moved forward in Tehran as the two sides reached a partial agreement to comply with long-standing IAEA demands for access to Iran’s nuclear program. Details of the deal remain incomplete, and at least one contentious issue is still unresolved.

Over the course of the past decade the IAEA has issued several dozen reports calling into question whether Iran’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes, as Iran claims, or for military ones, as the U.S., Israel and much of the international community have alleged.

The IAEA has been explicit about the steps Iran needs to take to reassure the world that its nuclear program is peaceful, but Iran has resisted. Under the partial agreement, announced on Monday by IAEA head Yukiya Amano at a news conference in Tehran, Iran commits to:

  1. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Gchine mine in Bandar Abbas
  2. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Heavy Water Production Plant
  3. Providing information on all new research reactors
  4. Providing information with regard to the identification of 16 sites designated for the construction of nuclear power plants
  5. Clarification of the announcement made by Iran regarding additional enrichment facilities
  6. Further clarification of the announcement made by Iran with respect to laser-enrichment technology

The deal doesn’t mention access to a base where military testing is suspected to have taken place. And it is not clear how completely Iran intends to comply with all the additional protocols and safeguard agreements.

But the confusion about who is to blame in Geneva — and the fact that one side will always be able to blame the other — shows why Iran’s compliance, or noncompliance, with the spirit of the IAEA agreement should be the standard against which the Islamic Republic’s intentions ultimately should be measured.