The IAEA Did Its Part on Iran. Now the World Must Act. | Opinion

The global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has released new reporting on Iran's implementation of its agreements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As expected, the report is not positive for Iran. It paints a disturbing picture of Tehran stonewalling the agency on an investigation into alleged undeclared nuclear materials and activities directly related to the development of nuclear weapons. At its next meeting, which begins on June 15, the IAEA's board of governors should pass a resolution finding the Islamic Republic in breach of its non-proliferation obligations. If the resolution does not persuade Tehran to cooperate, then the board should refer it to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

Iran, as an NPT member-state, has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and voluntarily applies an add-on agreement, the Additional Protocol. These legally binding accords, which are separate from the 2015 nuclear deal, require Tehran to provide complete declarations about its use and production of nuclear material and to permit immediate and unrestricted inspections by the IAEA at any site the agency deems necessary to visit.

A key conclusion from the IAEA's report, issued on June 5 by its director-general, Rafael M. Grossi, is that since the end of January 2020, Tehran has refused the IAEA access to two nuclear sites of concern and declined to answer questions about a third. The IAEA report includes the admonishment, "For over four months, Iran has denied access to the Agency...and, for almost a year, has not engaged in substantive discussions to clarify Agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities in Iran."

The IAEA provided new details about the three nuclear sites it has on its radar. On June 10, the Institute for Science and International Security released a report that attempts to identify the three sites and to characterize the activities that occurred there.

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The first site is Lavisan-Shian. It was located at the former headquarters of Iran's pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, the Physics Research Center. The IAEA's questions about what happened at Lavisan arose after the agency learned more from an archive of Iran's nuclear files that were exfiltrated by Israel in 2018.

The IAEA found that between 2002 and 2003, the Lavisan site may have contained "natural uranium in the form of a metal disc, with indications of it undergoing drilling and hydriding." Such a process could be related to developing a neutron initiator used in detonating nuclear weapons. Since Iran bulldozed and sanitized the site from 2003 to 2004, the IAEA wants to know the current location of any nuclear material that was used there.

The second site likely concerns a past, secret pilot plant for producing uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, a precursor fuel used in uranium enrichment. The IAEA's report contains references to "processing and conversion of uranium ore, including fluorination in 2003," a process used to make UF6. The IAEA first asked Iran about the existence of a pilot UF6 plant in 2003. By 2004, the IAEA says Iran had razed most of the buildings at the site, but the IAEA would still like to inspect.

Particles related to uranium hexafluoride production from the potential pilot UF6 plant appear to have shown up at another site under IAEA investigation, a warehouse in the Turquz-Abad neighborhood of Tehran. The IAEA found refined uranium at that site during a visit in January 2019, even though Iran removed the contents and attempted to scrub it clean.

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The third site of interest is likely located near the town of Abadeh. The IAEA says the site may have involved "use and storage of nuclear material, where outdoor, conventional explosive testing may have taken place in 2003," in relation to nuclear weapons development. Iran also leveled that site over the summer of 2019.

Adding to Iran's troubles is an account of the agency's interactions with regime officials, as detailed in the IAEA's report. During the spring, and amid a threatening pandemic, the IAEA's head of safeguards carried out a diplomatic blitz following the IAEA's January 2020 requests for access and Iran's initial denials. The IAEA engaged in multiple, high-level meetings aimed at overcoming the impasse.

Iranian regime representative to IAEA
Iranian regime representative to IAEA ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images

In response, however, Tehran called for "further clarification" and complained of "legal ambiguities" about its obligations to cooperate, according to the IAEA's report. The IAEA forcefully countered that its requests "were strictly in accordance with [Iran's] Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol, and, therefore, there were no legal ambiguities regarding the Agency's rights and obligations."

Certain states, such as Russia, are supporting Iran's evasions, arguing that the IAEA's investigation relates merely to historical issues. Yet the new information obtained by the IAEA warrants questions, in accordance with the IAEA's mandate, as to whether activities with military nuclear applications have continued today and all nuclear materials in Iran remain in peaceful uses. Perhaps most suspiciously, Iran continues to destroy sites of concern and move or hide equipment and materials. There is no statute of limitations in Iran's safeguards agreements on investigating allegations or suspicions of undeclared nuclear material.

The IAEA can go only so far in investigating and reporting on its findings. It has done its job to report Iran's non-compliance, and it is now up to the board of governors to act. The board can support the agency by passing a resolution by two-thirds of its 35 member-states finding Tehran in breach of the NPT and calling for immediate and full cooperation. It should also call for a special, Iran-focused board meeting and create a sub-group to further define and assess Iran's non-compliance.

If the board does not act now, and Tehran continues to obstruct, the IAEA risks losing integrity, relevance and authority as the world's protector of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The E3, or the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which have so far been quiet on the matter, should stand firmly behind the IAEA. The E3 remain harshly critical of the United States for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and blame Washington for Iran's subsequent breaches of the accord. Yet Iran's NPT and safeguards violations represent breaches of entirely separate agreements that long predate the JCPOA, so the E3 cannot point a finger at Washington.

If Iran persists in trying to maintain what is likely a latent nuclear weapons program, the board should refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council to re-impose sanctions lifted by the JCPOA and to impose additional penalties, as warranted, aimed at achieving Iran's full NPT compliance.

It is past time for the world to unite around the threat of Iran's nuclear program. This should start with the IAEA's board of governors recognizing that Tehran's nuclear program is not peaceful. The world should demand full answers.

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.

The IAEA Did Its Part on Iran. Now the World Must Act. | Opinion | Opinion