Western officials warned against drawing any conclusions from the departure of Iran’s chief negotiator from the Vienna nuclear talks. Last week Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, declared that Iran never will allow inspections of nuclear facilities or give details about its past nuclear program. In the West as well as the Persian-language media, Khameini’s statements are considered an expression of ideology.
There may be less than meets the eye to Iran’s reluctance to divulge information about its past effort to build nuclear weapons. The West wants a full accounting of what Iran did in the past, but it is almost certain that Iran never has done such an accounting, because a large part of the $100 billion it has spent on nuclear R&D was embezzled.
According to the Carnegie Endowment and the Federation of American Scientists, “Iran’s quest for the development of nuclear program has been marked by enormous financial costs and risks. It is estimated that the program’s cost is well over $100 billion, with the construction of the Bushehr reactor costing over $11 billion, making it one of the most expensive reactors in the world.” The word “opaque” doesn’t begin to describe the slapdash character of Iranian controls. According to the Carnegie/FAS report, “Iran’s Bushehr plant is a hybrid German-Russian reactor that resembles a virtual petri dish of amalgamated equipment and antiquated technology.” A great deal of the equipment had to be sourced covertly at high cost, and a good deal of outright theft may have been hidden in supposed payoffs to intermediaries.
Within Iran, the disappearance of billions earmarked for the nuclear program could be swept under the national security rug. If Western inspectors ask for an accounting of how money was spent, irregularities would come to light. The biggest single public expenditure in one of the world’s most corrupt countries may be a secret that the Iranian state feels compelled to keep–even at the risk of scuttling an agreement with the West that is overwhelmingly to Iran’s advantage.