VIENNA — The International Atomic Energy Agency issued an alarming report on June 5, voicing “serious concern” over Iran’s refusal to allow the agency’s inspectors to investigate two sites where the country is suspected of having conducted undeclared nuclear activities in the past.
The report is unrelated to the agency’s quarterly updates on Iran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal with the world’s major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (which left the deal in 2018). Instead, the new report provides information on Iran’ s noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.
The confidential report, which was sent to IAEA member states on June 5 and seen by PassBlue, details suspected nuclear material and activities at three sites in Iran, where the material is thought to have been situated. The report is the second of its kind; the first was published in March 2020.
At one site, the UN agency says in its report that between 2002 and 2003 there was a “possible presence . . . of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc.” The agency now wants to know where this material is located. It also says “this location underwent extensive sanitization,” making it pointless for the agency to access the site.
The IAEA also wants more information from Iran on a second site, where there could have been “possible use or storage of nuclear material.” The site “may have been used for the processing and conversion of uranium ore . . . in 2003,” the report details.
Furthermore, the agency wants answers from Iran on a third site, where nuclear material was possibly used and stored and “conventional explosive testing may have taken place in 2003.” According to the report, parts of that site appeared to have been sanitized in 2019.
In the report, the agency is asking for access to two of the three sites noted above, and it expresses “serious concern” that “for more than four months, Iran has denied access to the agency . . . to two locations, and, for almost a year, has not engaged in substantive discussions to clarify agency questions. . . . ”
The questions could not be resolved satisfactorily, it appears, despite extensive talks between senior officials of the UN agency and Iranians in Tehran in April and May. The report concludes with a plea by the IAEA director-general, Rafael Grossi, to Iran to cooperate “immediately and fully” with the agency, including by providing “prompt access to the locations specified. . . . ”
“The undeclared nuclear material means that the underlying rationale for the JCPOA — and for twenty years of US concerns about Iran’s nuclear program — all remain valid,” Richard Nephew, an adjunct professor and a senior research scholar at Columbia University, told PassBlue.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — JCPOA — is the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal, which was endorsed in a United Nations Security Council resolution in 2015, aiming to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“I do not think that this report changes my own conviction that Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons is real and sustained, and that the only way to credibly prevent it is through restrictions, transparency and the creation of a diplomatic process and security environment around Iran in which it is disincentivized to pursue such weapons,” Nephew, who worked on the Iran file at the US State Department until 2015, added.
In fact, there is no proof that nuclear activities are taking place at any of the three sites specified in the agency’s new report, as the activities are thought to have occurred in early 2000. Nevertheless, the behavior at these sites still matters to the agency as they could have been part of a nuclear weapons program that Iran failed to declare in the past. The IAEA also wants to know where some of this nuclear material is located now.
In a 2015 report, the agency made a final assessment on past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program, noting that “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003.” At the time, the IAEA board of governors voted to close the file to pave the way for carrying out the 2015 nuclear deal.
But last year, Israel provided more information to the agency, including what it called an “archive” of past nuclear activities in Iran, thus reviving the topic. The archive has given the agency more data and led its inspectors to discover undeclared nuclear material at a site outside Tehran last year.
Some experts, such as Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, say that the matter of past nuclear activity by Iran is now urgent, and that the IAEA board of governors — which is to meet in Vienna on June 15 — should pass a resolution calling for Iran’s immediate cooperation. Stricker and others say the issue should also be referred to the UN Security Council.
Other experts, such as Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova from the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, warn, however, that the new information on undeclared nuclear material should not be “used as a call for drastic action.”
“The current reporting doesn’t mean that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear weapons program at the moment,” she told PassBlue.
“However, to provide assurances that this is indeed the case, the IAEA needs Iran’s cooperation in terms of responding to the agency’s questions and providing access for inspections,” she added. “Iran has not yet provided such cooperation, and this is cause for concern.”
On June 5, the agency also issued its regular quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. The report, which has not been made public, was also seen by PassBlue. It shows that Iran remains in breach of restrictions imposed under the agreement.
Most important, the report states that Iran has continued to increase its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium by half, from 1020.9 kilograms in February 2020 to 1571.6 kilograms in May 2020. The Iran deal set a limit of 202.8 kilograms.
This means that Iran has more nuclear material to build a bomb, yet it still needs to enrich it further. Currently, the material has been enriched up to 4.5 percent. To build a nuclear bomb, enrichment levels of 80 to 90 percent are needed.
While Iran began breaching the JCPOA after the Trump administration withdrew from it in May 2018, Tehran still continues to cooperate with the IAEA under the terms of the agreement, allowing inspectors to access the sites specified in the deal. Iran also continues to issue long-term visas to agency inspectors and has continued to allow it to use and install monitors and electronic seals that help inspectors verify nuclear activity remotely.
Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the agency maintained its verification and monitoring work in Iran by chartering planes to take inspectors to Iran.
Given Iran’s continued engagement with the agency, the remaining parties to the JCPOA — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — still want to keep the deal alive and avoid reinstating UN sanctions against Iran.
This effort, however, may become more difficult as tensions between Iran and the US keep rising.
On May 27, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially announced that the US would end sanctions waivers that allow Russian, Chinese and European firms to operate at a number of Iranian nuclear facilities used for civilian purposes. The US move will likely raise tensions not only with Iran but also with other signatories to the accord.
In addition, the US plans to extend a UN embargo that restricts conventional arms sales to and from Iran. The embargo expires in October 2020 and is part of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, endorsing the nuclear deal. The US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, said the US recently submitted a draft resolution to extend the embargo to some of the parties to the Iran deal — Britain, France, Germany and Russia. One of those countries confirmed to PassBlue that “some information” has been received from Washington.
After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened a “crushing response” to extending the arms embargo, there is now widespread concern that this will prompt Iran to fully withdraw from the nuclear deal. Tehran wants to sell and buy arms on the international market and considers the removal of the embargo as essential. Russia and China are not ready to agree to the extension either, as announced in various tweets by their ambassadors at the UN and elsewhere.
The US is also threatening to trigger the so-called snapback provision in the Iran deal, which would enable any parties to it to reimpose all UN sanctions. This warning by the US, which by most accounts is not considered a “participant” to the deal any longer, would end the JCPOA once and for all.
“I do think that the US will trigger [the] snapback and that will shred the ability of the UN Security Council to manage problems of international peace and security, including on Iran, and the JCPOA along with,” Nephew said.
“Neither, in my view, is a good outcome for world peace.”