An Unanswered Question About Iran's Nuclear Program
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Two more Senate Democrats came out in favor of the nuclear deal with Iran today.
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CHRIS COONS: I will support this agreement despite its flaws.
SIEGEL: That's Delaware senator Chris Coons. Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey also announced his support. They bring to 33 the number of senators in favor of the deal. That's closing in on the 34 that President Obama needs to sustain a veto over any congressional attempted to nullify the deal.
The debate is heating up as Congress prepares to come back next week. And today, we look at one of the battleground issues - whether Iran will have to come clean about work on nuclear weapons it is suspected of doing in the past. Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program is peaceful, but it has stonewalled inspectors for years, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Ever since the U.S. and its partners finalized the deal with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to downplay what diplomats call the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program.
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JOHN KERRY: We're not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we're concerned about is going forward.
KELEMEN: Even supporters of the deal, though, say Kerry was overselling that point about absolute knowledge. The U.S. believes that Iran experimented with nuclear weapons components in the past but does not know everything, according to a former Obama administration official, Robert Einhorn.
ROBERT EINHORN: What we know about past Iranian weaponization activities we know from our own intelligence. We will have to make weaponization in Iran a top priority for U.S. national intelligence means going forward.
KELEMEN: Einhorn, who's with the Brookings Institution says it was never in the cards to get Iran to fully come clean.
EINHORN: It would be good if the Iranians made a full confession about their past nuclear work. They're not going to do that because it would contradict their basic narrative that they've had only a peaceful program.
KELEMEN: Einhorn doesn't see this issue as a critical deficiency of the deal which he supports. But Harvard University's Olli Heinonen, a former top official at the International Atomic Energy Agency disagrees. He says having full knowledge about the past will be crucial in the future when Iran gets out from under the limits meant to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.
OLLI HEINONEN: You want to understand how far did they get. Then you know what else they need to do in order to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
KELEMEN: Speaking at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which has been critical of the Iran deal, Heinonen says knowing about the past will also help IAEA inspectors enforcing the deal know where they should concentrate their efforts now. He's also raising concerns about a recent AP report that spelled out the limits on international access to one controversial military site.
HEINONEN: I think we create a precedent, really, to - how to deal with the sample taking in Iran. And there will be other places where you will want to go - military sites. And if it's, every time, through some remote camera where you are not controlling what you see, I don't think this is the way to do it in a credible manner.
KELEMEN: IAEA general director Yukiya Amano says he's satisfied with the arrangements he's made with Iran. He's supposed to report on his findings by December, though Heinonen doesn't think that's possible.
HEINONEN: If you want, really, to do a proper job, I think that this time is a bit short.
KELEMEN: On that point, Einhorn of the Brookings Institution agrees.
EINHORN: I think it's inevitable that the December 15 report that Amano is supposed to produce will be inconclusive. I don't think there's enough time. But more important than there not being enough time is that I don't think the Iranians are going to be cooperative enough to allow the file to be closed.
KELEMEN: Einhorn says that may not be very satisfying to the critics, but he says there are ways to deter future weapons work by monitoring Iran closely and making clear there will be a response to any cheating. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.