WASHINGTON -- For years, Tehran has dismissed U.N. concerns that the Iranian military secretly studied how to place a nuclear warhead atop a ballistic missile. It has rejected incriminating documents as forgeries, barred U.N. inspectors from quizzing top scientists and demolished suspected research sites.
Now that record is about to come center stage as negotiations are set to resume Oct. 15 on resolving the international standoff over Irans nuclear program. As the negotiations unfold, the United States is sure to demand that Tehran disclose the entire history of its program as part of any agreement to the nuclear crisis, which newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insists hes ready to resolve within months.
That could be one of the thorniest parts of the talks, say current and former U.S. officials, diplomats and other experts. Thats because Iran is likely to spurn any accord that results in a public and humiliating confirmation that it was doing what its senior leaders have repeatedly denied: developing nuclear weapons.
If its not done properly, these deals will not fly, cautioned Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency who oversaw the agencys investigation of Irans nuclear program until 2010.
To help smooth the way, experts said, the United States and its negotiating partners should made it clear that Iran wont be punished for admitting that some of its past activities were inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program.
But at the same time, the Obama administration and its European allies wont agree to Irans demand for a total lifting of sanctions that have crippled its economy until it satisfies all of the IAEAs questions about its past activities and the agency certifies that Tehran is enriching uranium for peaceful uses only.
A country that genuinely wants a peaceful program does not have difficulty proving that it is, in fact, peaceful, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday during a visit to Tokyo. Nothing that we do is going to be based on trust; its going to be based on a series of steps (by Iran) that guarantee to all of us that we have certainty about what is happening.
Iran secretly founded its nuclear program on uranium enrichment technology and knowhow purchased in the 1980s and 1990s from an international smuggling ring led by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistans nuclear arsenal. Tehran concealed its effort until it was exposed by an opposition group in 2002, and Iran has defied a series of U.N. orders to suspend enrichment.
Enrichment produces low-enriched uranium for power reactors and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons fuel, depending on the duration of the process, which involves high-speed spinning machines known as centrifuges.
The IAEA outlined its concerns about possible military dimensions of Irans program in a Nov. 8, 2011, report that was based on documents and other materials in the agencys possession. They indicate that the Iranian military conducted extensive research into a missile-borne nuclear warhead until the end of 2003.
Some activities may still be ongoing, the IAEA warned.
Those findings are consistent with U.S. intelligence analyses that conclude that Iran is putting in place the capabilities to quickly build a bomb once a decision is made to do so.