Iran signed an additional protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement on Dec. 18, less than a month after the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution condemning Tehran for pursuing clandestine nuclear activities. States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) already have IAEA safeguards agreements to ensure that they do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes, but additional protocols grant the IAEA authority to conduct more rigorous, short-notice inspections at undeclared nuclear facilities to ferret out secret nuclear activities.
The IAEA board acted after Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei presented a report detailing numerous instances in which Iran concealed nuclear activities that it was obligated to report to the agency under its safeguards agreement. (See ACT, December 2003.)
In a press statement Dec. 18, the IAEA hailed Iran’s action as a “confidence-building measure.” The move did not come as a surprise. It was first promised as part of an October agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, the Iranian government has said it would “act in accordance with the protocol’s provisions” even before it formally signed the agreement. Still, the Iranian parliament must ratify the protocol before it formally enters into force. (See ACT, November 2003.)
ElBaradei pointed out that the agency’s ongoing investigation into Iran’s nuclear program—including inspections—will require continued Iranian cooperation. In addition, the IAEA is trying to determine which foreign suppliers may have assisted Iran’s nuclear programs. (See ACT, December 2003.) ElBaradei is due to provide a progress report on the investigation to the Board of Governors in February.
The United States continues to express skepticism about Iran’s cooperation. Department of State spokesman Adam Ereli stated Dec. 18 that Tehran’s signature is a “useful step” but added that Tehran needs to demonstrate that it will live up to its commitments. One U.S. demand that is likely to prove controversial is the Bush administration’s insistence that Iran “abandon” its nuclear-fuel-cycle activities, including uranium enrichment and spent nuclear-fuel reprocessing.
ElBaradei’s November report described an active uranium-enrichment program as well as decade-old instances where Iran conducted prohibited, clandestine reprocessing experiments. Iran agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program as part of the October agreement with the European governments but has not pledged to refrain from enrichment activities permanently.
Although neither spent fuel reprocessing nor uranium enrichment are prohibited under the NPT, they must be conducted under IAEA supervision. They are especially worrisome because they can produce the fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—needed for nuclear weapons.
A November CIA report to Congress contended that “there is a serious risk that Iran could use its enrichment technology in covert activities,” even with intrusive IAEA inspections. ElBaradei acknowledged Dec. 4 that the agency will probably not be able to find small-scale “research and laboratory activities” in countries pursuing clandestine nuclear programs but added that it could detect “industrial scale” weapons programs, according to Reuters.