Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month sparred over the agency’s inspections in Iran, with the IAEA saying Iran was uncooperative and Tehran responding by questioning the IAEA’s credibility and independence.
In a Sept. 13 public statement at the beginning of the week-long, closed-door meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, Director-General Yukiya Amano said Iran “has not provided the necessary cooperation” to ensure that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful. He called on Tehran to abide by resolutions adopted by the board and the UN Security Council and to provide greater transparency. In reaction, Iran charged the agency with acting outside its mandate and bowing to political pressure. According to a Sept. 15 statement to the board published by Iran’s state-run Press TV, Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh accused the agency of “entering into the political games of certain countries,” saying that it “definitely deviated from its Statute.”
The dispute was primarily based on a Sept. 6 report by Amano on the agency’s safeguards in Iran; the report highlighted a number of areas where Tehran has not provided the access or information requested by the IAEA. In particular, the document cites Tehran’s decision in June to remove two individuals familiar with Iran’s sensitive nuclear facilities from the list of inspectors that can take part in the agency’s monitoring efforts in the country. The IAEA said in the report that this de-designation, as it is known, “detracts from the Agency’s capability to implement effective and efficient safeguards in Iran.”
The report also says that Iran told the IAEA that the de-designation was in response to “false and wrong statements” in a May 31 report by Amano on Iran’s nuclear program. That report said the inspectors were informed, presumably by Iranian technicians, during a January visit that Iran had been carrying out research on pyroprocessing to produce uranium metal at a research laboratory but that, by the time inspectors returned in April, the related equipment had been removed. (See ACT, June 2010.) Iran denies that it carried out pyroprocessing work or that it relocated any equipment from the facility. Nuclear weapons experts have said that such pyroprocessing experiments could be useful in producing nuclear material for weapons. (See ACT, March 2010.)
The agency has stood by its findings and inspectors. In his Sept. 13 remarks to the board, Amano expressed his “full confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the inspectors concerned.” He added that they are “very knowledgeable” about Iran and the nuclear fuel cycle.
Western countries criticized Iran for banning the inspectors and accused Tehran of trying to undercut the IAEA investigation. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said in a joint statement to the 35-member board Sept. 15 that Iran is “trying to intimidate the agency” and undermine its ability to carry out its investigation. The three countries said Iran was targeting agency officials that have experience with Iran’s nuclear program, calling the move “troubling and reprehensible.”
IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreements require the agency to secure consent from a state for the inspectors taking part in monitoring activities. The agreements stipulate that the IAEA must propose alternatives for any inspectors a state does not accept.
The United States argues that Iran’s rejection of the inspectors falls in line with language in the agreements on cases in which a state undermines the agency’s work. According to Iran’s safeguards agreement with the agency, “If, as a result of the repeated refusal of the Government of Iran to accept the designation of Agency inspectors, inspections to be conducted under this Agreement would be impeded, such refusal shall be considered by the Board…with a view to its taking appropriate action.”
In a Sept. 15 statement obtained by Arms Control Today, Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said that Iran’s action warranted such board consideration because it was “unprecedented” for a state to ban inspectors “because they report accurately.”
IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreements, including Iran’s, provide for an arbitration mechanism to resolve a safeguards dispute between the agency and a state. In a Sept. 27 e-mail, a former IAEA safeguards official said an arbitration tribunal would be unlikely to conclude that Iran’s de-designation of the inspectors was prohibited by its safeguards agreement. “All the Director-General can do is to highlight in his reports the bad faith and obstruction tactics of Iran,” the former official said, adding that “[t]hat’s what he did.”
Iran defended its removal of the two inspectors from the designated list, maintaining that it was the right of any IAEA member to reject specific individuals. In his Sept. 15 statement to the board, Soltanieh said Iran has accepted 150 designated inspectors and “usually around 10 are inspecting Iran,” suggesting that the agency has many other individuals from which to choose.
Members of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a bloc representing 118 developing countries including Iran, backed Tehran’s claims during the meeting. In a Sept. 15 statement to the board published by Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency, the group “note[d] with concern” that the IAEA rejected Iran’s justification for barring the two inspectors, adding that safeguards agreements with the IAEA do not require states to justify such decisions to the agency.
Beyond the inspector designation issue, Iran also attacked the agency for citing elements of UN Security Council Resolution 1929—the latest sanctions resolution on Iran, adopted in June—in its Sept. 6 report. In his statement to the board, Soltanieh said Amano “unprecedentedly copied parts of the illegal [resolution]” in the report. Because the Security Council’s demands go beyond Iran’s IAEA safeguards obligations, they are illegitimate, Soltanieh said.
All Security Council resolutions on Iran have asked the IAEA chief to report to the council and the IAEA board on Iran’s compliance with council demands. Those demands include suspending all enrichment-related work, answering agency questions about possible nuclear weapons-related activities, and providing early design information on nuclear facilities Iran intends to construct.
Renewed Calls for Talks
The dispute at the IAEA comes at a time when six world powers and Iran have all expressed interest in new negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.
Immediately following a Sept. 22 ministerial meeting, the “P5+1,” which comprises the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany, issued a joint statement calling on Iran to re-enter talks on its nuclear program.
“Our objective continues to be a comprehensive long-term negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear activities, while “respecting Iran’s legitimate right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” the statement said.
The call for renewed talks follows a letter that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton delivered to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in August on behalf of the P5+1, inviting Iran to negotiations.
The six countries also said they were prepared to hold talks with Iran on a nuclear fuel swap arrangement that would provide fuel for a medical isotope-producing reactor in Tehran in return for a portion of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU). (See ACT, November 2009.) According to the transcript of a Sept. 22 background briefing, a senior U.S. official who took part in the ministerial meeting said the six countries “discussed the continued value of a phased approach to resolving the nuclear issue,” including through a “revised and updated” fuel swap arrangement. The United States originally proposed the arrangement last year.
Negotiations that France, Russia, and the United States (known as the Vienna Group) held with Iran last fall broke down after Tehran backed away from an initial agreement to ship 1,200 kilograms of its 4 percent-enriched LEU—about 75 percent of its known stockpile at the time—out of the country. Nuclear power reactors generally use LEU enriched to such enrichment levels.
In May, Brazil and Turkey sought to revive the fuel swap by securing agreement from Tehran to hold the LEU in Turkey until it received fuel for the medical reactor. By that time, however, Iran had begun producing 20 percent-enriched uranium, the level required for the Tehran reactor, and accumulated a larger amount of 4 percent-enriched LEU. The senior U.S. official said that both issues would have to be addressed in any fuel deal.
According to the Sept. 6 IAEA report, Iran has produced a total of about 2,800 kilograms of 4 percent-enriched LEU at its commercial-scale plant at Natanz.
The United States has stressed that the fuel swap does not address broader problems with Iran’s nuclear program and that the focus must be placed on comprehensive negotiations with the P5+1.
Iran has said that it would like to restart dialogue. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters in New York Sept. 21 that “there is a good chance that talks will resume in the near future.” He repeated prior claims that Iran would halt the higher-level enrichment if the fuel swap were agreed.
Iranian calls for dialogue have focused on the LEU fuel deal rather than more comprehensive talks. In a Sept. 21 statement to the annual IAEA General Conference, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran head Ali Akbar Salehi called on the Vienna Group to resume fuel swap talks “without further delay.”