June 03, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Iran in Knots Over Inspections, Interrogations, and Western Spies

The weeks leading up to the June 30 deadline for Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 have been—and will continue to be—a flurry of leaks, accusations, and counter-accusations as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani try to sell the potential deal to skeptics within their own leadership. Case in point: whether Iran will allow inspections on military sites and interviews with scientists and military leaders.

Supreme Leader Khamenei and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have beenadamant that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cannot interview Iranian nuclear scientists or visit military sites as part of the final agreement. The P5+1 (or at least the French) have been clear that there can be no deal without military facility inspections, however. It is uncertain if the West will be as firm on interviews. I have argued before that military inspections at least are a redline from which Khamenei will back away, as he has before on other issues. He still wants this deal.

How will Khamenei thread this needle? By parsing words, while extracting the best terms possible.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi appeared before the Iranian parliament in a closed door session on May 23 to answer questions about the negotiations. One of his chief critics in the parliament Hamid Rasaei, leaked Zarif’s comments on his personal website. Zarif allegedly claimed that the Supreme Leader had already agreed to managed access to certain military facilities, though the inspectors would be blindfolded until they reached the agreed upon portion of the facility.

The leaks created a dustup in the press, with Aragchi doing damage control on Iranian television. Subsequent statements from Aragchi and Zarif attempted to finesse the issue. Zarif said interviews with Iranian nuclear scientists were “peripheral” and explained that “even under President Ahmadinejad, our nuclear scientists were interviewed by IAEA agents several times.” Araghchi said on May 26 Iran would only allow managed access (not inspections per se) to its non-nuclear sites and that Iran would never allow any leaking of the country’s sensitive and military intelligence. Aragchi then stated on May 29 that while inspections and interviews will never be “on the agenda,” alternative solutions are now being discussed that would alleviate the concerns of the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear activities

Those alternative solutions are where the inspection issue was likely heading all along: very controlled visits to certain parts of military or other non-nuclear sites will be allowed under the deal, and only after agreement by all parties. Broader IAEA inspections of military sites will not. Scientist interviews, if allowed at all, will also be under heavy supervision of Iranian authorities.

Iran can get this kind of deal on inspections from the P5+1. For better or worse, that has been probably been understood by the Supreme Leader and the negotiators for some time, which would give credence to the leaks from parliament last week. So why the public heartburn?

In a word, spies. Iran has always believed the IAEA inspector corps is riddled with agents from CIA, Mossad, British intelligence and other services. The Supreme Leader’s Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Velayati explicitly stated in a recent interview that “without a doubt some of the inspectors in the [IAEA] are spies…for what reason should we open the doors of military sites to them?” The idea that enemy intelligence would have explicit access to military bases is beyond the pale. Following the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the thought of having the country’s leading researchers sit in a room with suspected Mossad agents likely makes the Supreme Leader apoplectic. These ideas had to be dispelled publically.

The past few weeks have shed light on Iranian grandstanding on redlines and how the leadership is coming to terms with the concessions needed to make –and sell – this deal. Too bad these compromises also mean we will stay in the dark about what Iran has done, is doing, and may do in the future with its suspected nuclear weapons research.