On June 19, the key policymaking organ of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution calling on the Islamic Republic of Iran to cooperate with the watchdog's ongoing probe into its nuclear activities. The decision, reached by a majority of the IAEA's Board of Governors, complements a grim picture recently painted by the IAEA regarding Iranian non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
According to the IAEA, the regime has committed infractions that include refusing IAEA inspector access to two nuclear sites and declining to answer questions about a third, all relevant to the presence of undeclared nuclear material and nuclear weapon development activities. In this context, an Iranian parliamentary committee has just ratified a bill that would require the regime to stop implementing the Additional Protocol, a vital verification agreement with the IAEA.
The IAEA Board decision stopped short of referring Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to consider Tehran's clear breaches of the NPT. The resolution is thus only the start to a potentially long, drawn-out process that is prone to obstruction by Iran and its allies. The Board should overcome its collective hesitancy and act with determination over the coming months to safeguard the NPT and preserve the IAEA's integrity and authority. Barring Iran's immediate cooperation, an IAEA member state should call for a special Board meeting, where member states should vote to refer the case to the UNSC to consider the re-imposition of international sanctions against Iran.
The Islamic Republic is no stranger to the UNSC meting out penalties for its non-proliferation transgressions. Between 2006 and 2010, the UNSC, as the international law enforcement body, imposed several rounds of sanctions designed to pressure Tehran into curbing its nuclear activities. Combined with supplementary oil and financial sanctions enacted by the United States, European Union and several other partners, the UNSC sanctions led Iran's economy to take a drastic turn for the worse by 2012. The regime soon negotiated with world powers for sanctions relief as part of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
One of the biggest weaknesses of the JCPOA is evident from the fact that, today, nations are still discussing matters relating to Iran's past and possibly ongoing nuclear weapons activities. The accord never required the regime to fully account for what it had done on nuclear weapons, or to verifiably abandon any concealed, ongoing projects.
Unfortunately for the integrity of the NPT, the recent IAEA resolution is likely too brief and feeble a document to shake Iran into compliance. Compared to past Iranian non-proliferation resolutions—and the Board has reached 12 since the discovery of Iran's once-covert nuclear weapons program in 2002—watered-down wording only "calls on" Iran to cooperate with the IAEA's investigation and provide prompt access. Missing is stronger language laying out details of Iran's violations and a description of the potential military nature of activities. The only place these are mentioned is in the IAEA reporting that first prompted the Board's attention.
Soft wording helped guarantee the resolution's passage by 25 of the Board's 35 member states, with seven abstentions and two no-votes by Russia and China. Iran, Russia and China expressed anger and frustration at the vote, arguing that the issues under scrutiny relate to Iran's nuclear history. In reality, however, the trio probably celebrated the Board's timidity behind the scenes. For the first time in eight years that the Board mentioned Iran by name and accused it of non-compliance, it attached no warning of future punishment. After all, it would mark the official death of the five-year-old JCPOA if Iran once again faced sanctions lifted under the deal.
The resolution was spearheaded by the U.K., France and Germany (the "E3"), done with quiet diplomatic acknowledgement that America's 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA could make it a problematic sponsor of such a resolution. Many suspect that Washington intends to help build the case for ending the JCPOA and re-instituting United Nations sanctions via the IAEA. Per the JCPOA, the U.S. retains the right to unilaterally end the deal at the UNSC regardless of any Board action.
The IAEA's Board of Governors managed to do half its job, but much remains to defend the NPT. Assuming Iran will not change its behavior and allow IAEA inspectors to enter all requested sites immediately and unrestricted, the Board should take several steps over the next two months.
Within a month, the IAEA's director general should bring Iran's ongoing refusal to cooperate to the attention of the Board. Next, member states should request a special Iran-focused Board meeting and consider creating a subgroup to define and assess Iran's non-compliance. By the end of August, if Iran has not cooperated, the Board should officially declare Iran in non-compliance with its legal obligations and vote to send the case to the UNSC.
The E3 should stand firmly behind the IAEA, instead of carrying on with a dual effort to shield the JCPOA while half-heartedly calling for Iran's cooperation. A first step is accepting that the JCPOA has not been the answer to solving the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program. Moreover, Iran's NPT and safeguards violations represent breaches of entirely separate agreements that long predate the JCPOA. The Europeans should support firm action to uphold those agreements.
The UNSC can also do its part by recognizing that now is not the time to reward Iran with the lifting of a United Nations embargo on the regime's ability to import and export conventional military equipment and arms. The UNSC should extend this embargo, misguidedly made part of the 2015 United Nations resolution that implemented the JCPOA, before its expiration this October.
The only way to convince Iran to abandon its treacherous nuclear path is to move swiftly from talk to action. Only the re-imposition of strong sanctions, together with a credible military threat, has the potential to stop Iran's stonewalling of the IAEA and lead it to negotiate a more lasting solution. The sooner the world acknowledges this, the better.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acting national security advisor and head of the National Security Council. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at FDD. Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a non-partisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security issues.
The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.