By Samuel M. Hickey
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has finalized two reports summarizing Iran’s nuclear program and their compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as of June 5, 2020 for the Board of Governors (BOG) meeting the week of June 15-19. The JCPOA had been effective in blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, but in response to the United States’ withdrawal in May 2018, Iran is now transparently breaching the accord.
The first IAEA report assesses and summarizes the technical development of Iran’s nuclear program and any new activities not allowed under the JCPOA. Below are the key technical takeaways:
- Iran continues to enrich and accumulate uranium. Iran’s current accumulated stockpile of uranium is still low-enriched uranium (LEU), meaning it is not weapons-grade. However, Iran’s stockpile of “usable LEU” (enriched above 2%) is now five times greater than what was allowed under the JCPOA and this amount of usable LEU breaches the key threshold for the theoretical development of a nuclear weapon. Further, Iran’s “breakout time” — the amount of time it would take to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — has decreased from the 12 months achieved by the JCPOA, down to less than four months.
- Iran continues to provisionally implement the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement. Accession to the Additional Protocol was a key measure in the JCPOA because it allows the IAEA’s nuclear inspectors access to Iran’s nuclear sites indefinitely. Under the JCPOA, Iran is supposed to ratify the Additional Protocol in 2023, but if the JCPOA collapses, there is concern that the IAEA would lose access to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. The IAEA also reports that its on-site and real-time verification of Iran’s nuclear program was not impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Iran is deploying some more advanced centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. However, the IAEA assesses these centrifuges are being used strictly for research and development purposes. Overall, Iran’s enrichment capabilities remained largely unchanged.
- As of June 5, Iran has not pursued the construction of the Arak heavy water research reactor as originally designed. The United States revoked a sanctions waiver on May 27, 2020 allowing China to modify the Arak reactor under the supervision of the United Kingdom. Iran could still revert back to the original design. If that happens, the Arak reactor could produce sufficient fuel for one or two nuclear weapons per year.
The second IAEA report assesses and summarizes Iran’s compliance with its NPT safeguards agreement. This report is, to date, the IAEA’s harshest rebuke of Iran’s inadequate responses to its safeguards questions.
While the report assesses that Iran is still provisionally implementing the IAEA’s safeguards agreement, Iran’s overall cooperation is not to the satisfaction of the agency. They want more clarity into potentially undeclared activities revealed in the 100,000-plus archived documents that Israel’s Mossad agents smuggled out of Tehran in 2018. The new information relates to Iran’s past clandestine efforts to develop a nuclear weapon capability that the U.S. intelligence community assessed was “halted” in 2003.
Concerns over this information led to specific “questions and requests” into possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at three locations to which the IAEA has not been granted access. Below are the three main concerns:
- The undeclared presence of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc, which may have been fashioned for a weapons component. This is the most concerning question, because it relates to IAEA evidence that Iran might have been doing research to facilitate the nuclear weapon detonation process. Iran has not declared the existence, origin, or location of this disc. The IAEA cites Lavisan-Shian as the likely origin location, which was extensively sanitized and levelled in 2003 and 2004. There is also no indication that Iran is continuing this type of weapons research and the IAEA sees no reason to visit the site.
- The possible processing and conversion of uranium ore at an undisclosed location. The IAEA is requesting access to this unidentified site to take environmental samples, but Iran is resisting. This process could be for civilian or military purposes, but Iran’s reticence over a site visit points to the latter. The site apparently underwent significant razing and demolition in 2004.
- The possible storage of nuclear material at an undisclosed location where conventional explosives testing occurred in 2003. The IAEA observed activities consistent with efforts to sanitize parts of this location from July 2019 onwards, and the IAEA has been requesting to visit.
On June 9, 2020, Iran responded to the IAEA’s two reports with a letter to the IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. They also included two publications that detail Iran’s extensive cooperation with the IAEA and respond to the compliance concerns with its safeguards agreement. The first publication statistically highlights the IAEA’s access to its nuclear program year-by-year. In doing so, Iran very specifically ties the provisional implantation of the Additional Protocol to the JCPOA and implies that without the JCPOA, there would not be this level of access or cooperation with the IAEA. Further, Iran highlights the United States’ obstruction of JCPOA implementation and Iran’s legal right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the letter and reports did not clarify whether the IAEA can visit the sites in question.
What happens next?
The IAEA is turning up the heat on Iran for their delaying tactics, but with no results as of June 5. The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran “appeared ready in the last couple of weeks to accept inspectors and samples at the two sites they want to visit regarding past nuclear work. But in the end, it didn’t happen. One source points to internal politics in Iran.” U.S. sanctions have prevented Iran from receiving the benefits promised to them under the JCPOA, complicating Iran’s domestic political situation, and undermining Iranian leaders who do want to work with the IAEA. In sum, the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign may actually be preventing the IAEA from resolving these critical issues.
China, Russia and the European countries all support the IAEA’s efforts to investigate any new leads about possible undeclared nuclear material and activity. The United States, in its haste to leave the nuclear deal, lost critical leverage to pressure the Iranian government to answer/comply with the IAEA’s “questions and requests.” The Trump Administration’s diplomatic tactics are also pushing U.S. allies to side with China and Russia over what to do about Iranian provocations and delays.
The next IAEA reports are expected in September and will be the last issuance of technical information on Iran’s nuclear progress before the U.S. presidential election. September is also the month that the United States would most likely move on its threat to collapse the Iran nuclear deal by “snapping back” international sanctions on Iran before a United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Iran is to be lifted in October. Russia and China don’t want to extend the arms embargo, and it appears Europe may be siding with them. It is still unclear if the Trump Administration would be successful in its attempt to invoke a trigger mechanism at the UN and collapse the nuclear deal.