WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry signaled for the first time on Tuesday that the United States was prepared to ease economic sanctions on Iran without fully resolving evidence suggesting that Iran’s scientists have been involved in secret work on nuclear weapons.
In his first State Department news conference since breaking his leg last month in a bicycling accident, Mr. Kerry suggested major sanctions might be lifted long before international inspectors get definitive answers to their longstanding questions about Iranian experiments and nuclear design work that appeared aimed at developing a bomb. The sanctions block oil sales and financial transfers.
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“We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” said Mr. Kerry, who appeared by video from Boston. Instead, he said: “It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way. That clearly is one of the requirements in our judgment for what has to be achieved in order to have a legitimate agreement.”
The question of how far to press Iran to formally acknowledge in extensive detail what its nuclear scientists have been working on for more than a decade has been a highly contentious issue in the negotiations. Robert J. Einhorn, who was part of the American delegation to the Iran talks until 2013, wrote recently for the Brookings Institution that the question was “perhaps the most difficult unresolved issue” standing in the way of a nuclear agreement with Iran.
With the June 30 deadline for reaching an agreement approaching, Mr. Kerry said that the issue of Iran’s past suspected nuclear activities needed to be “addressed.” But he made it clear that sanctions could be lifted before definitely resolving concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran’s past nuclear research.
Mr. Kerry insisted that the deadline for an agreement was still real and said that he planned to attend the talks, which are to be held in Vienna this month.
The arguments over whether Iran would be compelled to describe the activities of teams of scientists who worked for several organizations run by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, long ago identified as the leader of the military effort, have usually broken down along two lines.
Those favoring full disclosure of what diplomats have delicately called the “possible military dimensions” of Iranian nuclear research say that the West will never know exactly how long it would take Iran to manufacture a weapon — if it ever developed or obtained bomb-grade uranium or plutonium — unless there is a full picture of its success in suspected experiments to design the detonation systems for a weapon and learn how to shrink it to fit atop a missile.
For a decade, since obtaining data from an Iranian scientist on a laptop that was spirited out of the country, the C.I.A. and Israel have devoted enormous energy to understanding the scope and success of the program.
Failing to require disclosure, they argue, would also undercut the atomic agency — a quiet signal to other countries that they, too, could be given a pass.
Those who oppose requiring Iran to describe the past fully say that Iran will never tolerate the embarrassment of disclosing what its scientists were doing and will never violate its vow that its scientists, some of whom have been killed in car bombings attributed to Israel, will not be challenged by foreigners about their past work.
The important thing, they say, is not to insist that Iran acknowledge its suspected pre-2003 program to develop nuclear weapons, but to establish the principle that the atomic agency can interview Iranian nuclear scientists and visit key military research sites so the United States and its negotiating partners can be sure that such weapons work is not continuing.
Mr. Kerry seemed to lean in that direction on Tuesday when he said assurances about the future were more important than excavating the past.
“Access is very, very critical,” Mr. Kerry said. “It’s always been critical from Day 1.”
In suggesting that it was not imperative to resolve questions of Iran’s past research before lifting sanctions, Mr. Kerry asserted that American intelligence had a clear picture of what past work Iranian scientists had done, even if the atomic agency did not.
“We have no doubt,” Mr. Kerry said. “We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.”
Some experts outside the government challenged that assertion.
“It looks like a weakening of the United States’ prior position, or at least laying the initial basis for a weakening later,” said David Albright, the president of the Institution for Science and International Security.
“If the U.S. government knows so much about Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Albright added, it “should publish openly a detailed history of Iran’s nuclear program, including names, dates, activities and places.”
Mr. Einhorn said that Mr. Kerry’s comments appeared to be an explicit acknowledgment of an unstated assumption behind the Obama administration’s negotiating stance.
“The administration has long believed that what is most important is having confidence that Iran is not continuing nuclear weapons-related activities at present and will not pursue those activities in the future,” he said in an interview.
This article was written by Michael R. Gordon & David E. Sanger for The New York Times on June 16, 2015. David E. Sanger is chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. Mr. Sanger has reported from New York, Tokyo and Washington, covering a wide variety of issues surrounding foreign policy, globalization, nuclear proliferation and Asian affairs.