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"Statement of William H. Tobey before the House Armed Service Committee on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations"

Heavy water nuclear facility near Arak, Iran
Hamid Foroutan / AP

"Statement of William H. Tobey before the House Armed Service Committee on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations"


June 19, 2014

Author: William H. Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism


Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member Smith, it is a privilege to testify on a matter of surpassing importance.  Preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons is a vital U.S. national security interest.

I will offer a perspective on what the United States should be seeking in the negotiations with Iran and how an agreement, if reached, should be evaluated.

As President Obama has said, "We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. And so it's unacceptable.”

That threat is not hypothetical.  The partially declassified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions stated, “We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.”  More famously, the Estimate assessed with moderate confidence that, as of mid-2007, the program had not been restarted.  In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency also reported on information regarding a structured Iranian nuclear weapons program through 2003, but noted, “There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”   Just last month, the Agency reported that it has obtained more information that has further corroborated its November 2011 analysis.  So the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program is one that must be taken seriously.

In theory, there are three ways in which Tehran might gain access to nuclear weapons.  Iran could:

  • break out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, using declared facilities;
  • sneak out of the Treaty, using covert facilities; or
  • buy a weapon from another nation or rogue faction.

We have heard much in public discourse about efforts within the negotiations to prevent the first possibility—a breakout using declared facilities.  Last April, Secretary of State Kerry noted that Iran had reached a point perhaps only 2 months away from being able to produce sufficient fissile material to fabricate a nuclear weapon, and raised the possibility of pushing that timeline back to 6-12 months.  Even Tehran has joined this debate, with a recent publication claiming to be years, not months, from a nuclear weapons capability.

Hence, there has been much discussion of the number of centrifuges Iran should be permitted to operate and quantities and enrichment levels of nuclear material it should be allowed to retain.  Also discussed, have been measures to be taken at the Arak heavy water reactor, the design of which is similar to plutonium production reactors operating elsewhere.

All of these proposed steps are necessary to create a firebreak that would prevent Iran from rapidly breaking its central Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.  Yet while necessary, these measures are insufficient for a successful agreement with Iran.

Should we be satisfied with a deal that simply pushes Iran from 2 months to 6 months away from the nuclear threshold?  Or should we expect more, i.e. evidence of a fundamental decision not to pursue nuclear weapons?

Accepting a situation in which Iran insists on keeping a loaded weapon on the table, but simply moves its finger farther from the trigger would not appear to offer sound prospects for long-term success.  If Iran has not made a fundamental decision to foreswear nuclear weapons in return for better relations with other nations, Tehran will work to erode the firebreak by means both overt and covert, and we have seen such a situation before—in North Korea.

How can we judge whether or not Tehran has made such a fundamental decision?  And how might we ensure that it endures?  Satisfaction on three points would provide such insight and, just as important, offer a means to verify compliance or to detect cheating.  These three potential elements of an agreement focus on preventing covert activities.  They are:

  • resolving concerns regarding “possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program;”
  • comprehensive monitoring of nuclear-related procurement and manufacturing; and,
  • enhanced authorities for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported on what it calls “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.  The Agency’s November 2011 report details information on a dozen broad indications of nuclear weapons activity by Iran, including military direction of nuclear-related activities, detonator development, hydrodynamic experiments, work on warhead integration into a missile delivery vehicle, and fuzing, arming, and firing system efforts.  As noted earlier, the Agency reports indications that this work persisted after 2003, and that some may continue today.

The first and most important step to ensure that Iran’s nuclear weapons activities have truly ceased, and will not restart, is to get to the bottom of the “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program—who did what, when, and where?  Personnel files, invoices, manifests, inventories, disposition records, equipment, and buildings can corroborate the statement. The IAEA will construct a mosaic depicting the Iranian program.  Some tiles will be missing, and others might be fake, but the best way to understand the program, and to ensure that it has stopped, is to have as complete a picture as possible, and to identify and resolve inconsistencies.

The November 2013 interim agreement calls for a Joint Commission to “facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.” The White House fact sheet on the deal contends that this includes the “possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program,” but such an outcome is by no means assured.

Especially if the matter is left to the end of the negotiations, some will argue that we will learn nothing, or that Iran will never agree to such terms, and we should not sacrifice the future to learn about the past.

I would offer three responses.  First, this is about the future.  We cannot be certain that Iran’s nuclear weapons activities have and will remain stopped until we understand their full scope, methods, and achievements.  Second, unwillingness by Iran to explain its past activities offers insight into the likelihood of Tehran’s future compliance.  This is a test of Iranian intentions.  Third, to ignore this issue would gravely wound the IAEA in its dealings with both Iran and other nations.

The second step to guard against resurgence of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program would be to authorize the IAEA to monitor comprehensively all nuclear-related and dual use procurements by Iran, to ensure that they are used solely at declared facilities.  Credible information on undeclared nuclear procurements should be considered prima facie evidence that Iran is violating the agreement.  As a part of this process, the IAEA will also need to monitor related production within Iran.

The third step to guard against resurgence of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program would be to enhance the powers of the IAEA beyond the Additional Protocol.  Evidence of Nonproliferation Treaty cheating is often subtle, taking the form of inconsistencies and irregularities.  The IAEA must have ongoing authorities to pursue these anomalies, should they arise, including access to documents, people, and facilities.  For example, to protect against the possibility of covert enrichment facilities (something Iran has tried at least twice in the past), the Agency must have a comprehensive understanding of centrifuge manufacturing in Iran, including the sources of raw materials, the location of production equipment, and inventories of finished goods.

These terms—getting to the bottom of the “possible military dimensions,” comprehensive procurement monitoring, and enhanced authorities for the IAEA—cannot guarantee Iran’s compliance with a deal to block its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  They can, however, test Tehran’s willingness to abide by a deal, even as the negotiations proceed, and if a deal is concluded, act as a deterrent to those who might seek to cheat on it.

Would insisting on these terms be worth risking the possibility of no deal?

Mr. Chairman, given the stakes invoked by the Iranian nuclear issue, we cannot afford an agreement in which Tehran pretends to comply and we pretend to believe them.  We must expect more.

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For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Tobey, William H. "Statement of William H. Tobey before the House Armed Service Committee on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations." Testimony to United States House of Representatives, House Armed Services Committee. Washington, D.C., June 19, 2014.

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