JULY 1, 2015
Iran Nuclear Talks Could Stall Over Access to Scientists and Sites
By DAVID E. SANGER and MICHAEL R. GORDON
VIENNA -- For more than a decade, the C.I.A. has closely followed the workings of one Iranian officer and his sprawling nuclear empire: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the relentless driving force behind what Western intelligence agencies say was Iran's Manhattan Project, its effort to design a compact nuclear weapon that could fit atop a missile.
Now, in the final push for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, accounting for the accomplishments of Mr. Fakhrizadeh and his team of university scientists, missile engineers and military officers is emerging as one of the last and most formidable obstacles -- perhaps on a par with the question of whether inspectors will be able, on short notice, to step into any place they suspect might conceal bomb-related work.
The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, is flying into Tehran on Thursday to meet with President Hassan Rouhani  and Iran's top national security officials in the latest effort to agree on a plan for interviewing scientists, examining their documents and visiting a long list of places where the agency believes they conducted nuclear-related experiments.
It is the third such effort by the agency since 2007 to come up with a plan to inspect what agency officials delicately call the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program. Over the next few days, the fate of the biggest diplomatic gamble of the Obama presidency may hinge on the freedom of Mr. Amano's small, overburdened teams of inspectors to investigate evidence about past activity and pursue any suspicions -- including those about activities on military bases -- as questions come up.
As with everything in these negotiations, working out a formula for those inspections is hardly as simple as television excerpts about searching "anyplace, anywhere" might suggest.
In 2003, two National Intelligence Estimates have since concluded, Mr. Fakhrizadeh was told to take his foot off the pedal of his many projects, though there is some evidence that his work has sputtered ahead. No international inspector has met him or stepped into his laboratories. But an accurate assessment of the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program is impossible without the participation of him and his colleagues.
Yet Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said repeatedly, as recently as last week, that allowing foreigners to question his nation's scientists and visit military sites is off limits -- and his aides say that even in the United States, one of the five original nuclear weapons states, international inspectors are barred from many locations.
The signatories to a bipartisan letter to President Obama, including five of his former top advisers on Iran, wrote that the agreement must allow for "timely and effective access to any sites in Iran," including military sites and "other sensitive facilities." Interviews with Mr. Fakhrizadeh's scientists and access to their documents, they wrote, must "be accomplished before any significant sanctions relief."Administration officials say they agree, but the arguments continue.
For the Iranians, the allegations of past weapons work are "perhaps the most difficult unresolved issue," Robert Einhorn, a former top State Department official, wrote last month. For years, Iran has dismissed as "fabrications" the evidence that it worked on weapons designs and technologies. Much of the original evidence came from a laptop, smuggled out of the country by an Iranian scientist, that contained documents describing experiments for nuclear triggers and a "re-entry vehicle"  designed to protect a nuclear warhead.
Secretary of State John Kerry suggested recently that he wanted to focus on the future, claiming with a bit more certainty than some of his aides thought wise that the United States already had "absolute knowledge" of Iran's weapons program. To some, that seemed to suggest that insisting on unfettered access to Iran's scientists and their papers and laboratories could be a deal killer. The State Department denied that was his intent, saying that Mr. Kerry had frequently told the Iranians that issues of past and present work must be "addressed" to the satisfaction of the I.A.E.A.
"We don't need a confession," one of Mr. Kerry's colleagues, who, like other officials interviewed, requested anonymity to discuss negotiations, said recently. "But we also can't set precedent that you can ignore nuclear inspectors for years and get away from it."
The argument for a full accounting from Iran is twofold. Without one, it is hard to assess how long it might take Iran to fabricate a weapon if it ever got hold of bomb-grade uranium or plutonium. And anything short of comprehensive answers to the inspectors would send a signal to other nations that the I.A.E.A.'s demands can be negotiated away.
Getting around the supreme leader's apparent ban on inspections of military facilities will be tricky. One of the Iranian negotiators here, Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi, told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Tuesday, "We will not allow anybody to enter the military complexes," because the document governing intrusive inspections by the I.A.E.A., called the Additional Protocol, "isn't about letting inspectors visit and have a free hand in wherever they want to go, whatever they want to do, and talking about whoever they want to talk to."
A senior American official agreed in a briefing this week, saying, "The United States of America wouldn't allow anybody to get into every military site." Yet if "the I.A.E.A. believes that it needs access and has a reason for that access," the official added, "then we have a process to ensure that that access is given."
Two Republican opponents of an accord, Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have criticized that approach, saying in a statement Tuesday, "There is no place in this negotiation for moral equivalence," and adding: "Iran is not like any other nation, least of all the United States. Iran has a proven record of cheating on its nuclear program." It was a sign of the congressional battle to come if a deal is struck.
Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran.