By Jacob Nagel and Andrea Stricker
May 27, 2020
The global body overseeing the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is soon to release an updated report on Iran’s compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. It won’t be a good one.
At its quarterly meeting in June, the IAEA will tell its Board of Governors whether the Islamic Republic has allowed full and unrestricted access to key nuclear sites and answered outstanding questions pertaining to the agency’s investigation into suspected nuclear activities in Iran. Iran has, since April, refused to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog’s inquiry, preferring to stall for time and enter lengthy and futile discussions. Iran has rejected cooperation in recent weeks, even after multiple high-level IAEA visits.
The IAEA now has little choice but to issue a report regarding Iran’s lack of cooperation and its refusal to allow the IAEA to gain requested access. The IAEA’s director general, Rafael Grossi, should request guidance from the Board of Governors as to next steps. To ratchet up the pressure on Tehran and better address the nuclear threat it poses, the agency should issue a detailed account of what it knows about the regime’s past and possibly ongoing nuclear weapons efforts. The IAEA recently gained new information about this, thanks to a daring 2018 Israeli raid on a nuclear warehouse just outside of Tehran. The exfiltration of the warehouse documents revived the topic of Iran’s past and possibly ongoing military nuclear activities.
The IAEA has made substantial progress at combing through those documents. Israel seized a half-ton of them at the warehouse—amounting to some 55,000 paper documents and 55,000 files on CDs. The files detailed a robust and well-planned Iranian nuclear weapons program that continued up until at least 2003. After that, the documents show, the regime orchestrated an effort to continue and hide both military and dual-use activities to maintain them for future use.
Israel has shared some of the difficult-to-interpret, highly technical, Farsi language archive materials with select non-governmental organizations, media outlets and academia. As a result of painstaking study and corroboration, most principally by an interdisciplinary team at the Institute for Science and International Security, the international community obtained new insight into the extent to which Iran’s nuclear weapons program had progressed by 2003. A mystery is whether those activities ever ceased.
Until recently, the IAEA’s investigation into the archive materials languished. The watchdog did not issue a broader, written report on issues relating to Iran’s NPT compliance until March. It only did so after a change in leadership and persistent pressure from key member states, such as the United States.
Following a separate tip from Israel, the agency learned about a site known as Turquz-Abad—another warehouse with containers allegedly holding nuclear material and equipment for conducting tests relevant to nuclear weapons. Yet it did not act in time. Under the eyes of commercial satellites, Iran spirited away the contents and, in a massive sanitization campaign, tried to wipe the site clean.
Months later, the IAEA visited the site. The agency was still able to detect undeclared, refined uranium particles—an apparent violation of Iran’s comprehensive safeguards commitments. Whether related to past or present activities, Iran is legally bound to explain itself.
The IAEA had, for years, sought answers from Iran about its military nuclear activities, known as the “possible military dimensions” (PMD), but to no avail. Prior to the implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), world powers asked the agency to issue a final report on this issue, which had been a subject of the agency’s investigations since 2002. Predictably, the Iranian regime stonewalled, issuing half-truths and lies. In December 2015, the IAEA released a final report listing at least 12 major areas with unanswered questions about the nature of Iran’s activities. Yet in the politically driven effort to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran, the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors voted to close the PMD file. Parties to the JCPOA relinquished all attempts to learn more.
Now, as Iran reduces its compliance with the nuclear deal, grows its stockpile of enriched uranium (accumulating more than enough for a nuclear bomb) and builds and fields advanced centrifuge capabilities, new urgency is needed. To signal a clear reversal of the decisions of 2015, the IAEA should publicize what the nuclear archive shows about Iran’s past and possibly ongoing nuclear weapons program. It should also assess whether Tehran today maintains a latent nuclear weapons program, including relevant materials, equipment and activities.
The IAEA’s report need not detail sensitive information or nuclear engineering know-how. But a broad accounting of the archive would fulfill the IAEA’s mandate, as articulated in its governing statute, to “report any non-compliance” and “transmit [a] report to the Board of Governors.”
This would not be new for the IAEA. It previously raised in a November 2011 report much, but by no means all, of what it understood at the time about “past and present issues of concern” in Iran’s nuclear program. The report’s level of specificity about Tehran’s nuclear weapons-related activities took the agency’s investigation to the next level, conveying confidence in evidence provided by member states. Underscoring their later reversal, the 2011 report was backed the JCPOA member states. Adding the archive information to the IAEA’s reporting would fill in some of the blanks and strengthen efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In 2011, Tehran dismissed evidence of its nuclear mendacity. But having its transgressions detailed in a key report by the international nuclear body succeeded in substantially raising pressure on the regime, ultimately paving the way for key United Nations, United States and European sanctions that led Iran to negotiate by 2013.
This should serve as a lesson for the IAEA. The watchdog should continue to demand immediate and unrestricted access to sites, people and information it deems relevant from the nuclear archive and other sources, re-asserting its authority over the Iran investigation. If the Islamic Republic refuses to cooperate, the Board of Governors should vote to send the matter to the United Nations Security Council for countermeasures, including the re-imposition of sanctions lifted by the flawed 2015 nuclear deal.
A renewed coalition of pressure on Tehran is needed to address the regime’s nuclear program from its roots. World powers should make clear to Iran that it can no longer conceal its nuclear past and potentially its present—or swift international penalties will follow.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies