As Hassan Rouhani prepares to become the next president of the Iranian Islamic Republic, it is worth recalling the leading role he played as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in late 2003, when the clandestine program run by the Revolutionary Guards to produce a nuclear weapon was halted.
The halt in the weaponization program — as distinct from the program for uranium enrichment, power production and civilian research — was acknowledged in November 2007 by American intelligence services in their National Intelligence Estimate, and confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November 2011 in a report from the director general, who wrote: ‘‘work on the AMAD Plan [i.e. the undeclared nuclear weaponization program] was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order’ instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials.’’
Based on conversations that I had at the time, as French ambassador to Tehran, with high Iranian officials close to the matter, I firmly believe that Rouhani was the main actor in the process. Of course, Iranians could not admit to a foreigner that such a program ever existed, and I cannot name the officials I spoke to. But two conversations in particular remain vivid in my mind.
The first one took place a little after Rouhani became Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in October 2003 and had reached an agreement about the suspension of Iranian sensitive enrichment activities with the German, British and French foreign ministers during their joint visit to Tehran.
A high-ranking official confided to me that after this meeting Rouhani issued a general circular asking all Iranian departments and agencies, civilian and military, to report in detail about their past and ongoing nuclear activities. The official explained to me that the main difficulty Rouhani and his team were encountering was learning exactly what was happening in a system as secretive as Iran’s.
A few weeks after, I heard from another official, a close friend of Rouhani: ‘‘The Rouhani team is having a hard time ... People resist their instructions ... But they will prevail.’’ He went on to complain how difficult it was to convince researchers to abruptly terminate projects they had been conducting for years.
I told him of a similar case in Europe when a country had to implement the freshly signed Chemical Weapons Convention. The researchers were given enough time and funds to archive all the data they had collected in order to protect their achievements for the future. A while later, my interlocutor happily reported: ‘‘I conveyed your message ... It worked!’’
My conviction that these officials were talking about the weaponization program was reinforced when the November 2011 I.A.E.A. report about the termination of that program noted that ‘‘staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.’’
Of course, closing down a program run by the powerful Revolutionary Guards required the concurrence of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There were two strong reasons for such a move:
First, by the end of 2003, Iran’s arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, had been eliminated by the United States, and it had been confirmed that the Iraqi clandestine nuclear program was stopped after Saddam’s defeat in 1991. It was the Iraqi program that had driven the Iranians to launch a similar endeavor in the 1980s, when they were fighting Iraq in the ‘‘War of Sacred Defense.’’ So the main motive behind Iran’s need for a bomb was gone.
Two, in October 2003, during the visit of the German, British and French foreign ministers, Rouhani had agreed not only to suspend Iranian enrichment activities but also to sign and put into immediate effect the I.A.E.A. Additional Protocol, which opened the whole of Iranian territory to intrusive inspections. The risk of having I.A.E.A. inspectors find nuclear military activities forbidden by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was now too high.
Rouhani cannot claim credit for halting the weaponization program because officially it never existed. But the actions I believe he took in 2003 raise hopes that as president of the Islamic Republic he will be able to find and implement a negotiated solution for the continuing nuclear crisis.