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Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
IAEA Condemns Iran—Again
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Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors has again adopted a resolution criticizing Iran for failing to cooperate fully with the agency’s investigation into its suspected nuclear weapons program, raising the stakes in Tehran’s dealings with the United Nations’ nuclear arm and, indirectly, the United States. The resolution calls on Iran to intensify its cooperation with the agency but defers possible action against Tehran until the next board meeting in June.

Although the resolution, adopted March 13, acknowledges that Iran has recently been “actively cooperating” with the IAEA, it also notes that “Iran’s cooperation so far has fallen short of what is required [and] calls on Iran to continue and intensify its cooperation.” A February report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei detailed Tehran’s failure to disclose several nuclear activities, despite past promises to comply with IAEA resolutions requiring such disclosure. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The board reserved its harshest language for Iran’s failure to previously disclose a research and development program for an advanced type of gas centrifuge, known as the “P-2.” The IAEA learned about that program this winter, even though Iran had claimed in October to have given a complete accounting of its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Gas centrifuges are used to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in nuclear reactors, but they may also produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use as the explosive material in a nuclear weapon. Iran had previously disclosed a large enrichment program which uses a simpler type of centrifuge, the “P-1.”

ElBaradei told the board March 8 that this failing was inconsistent with Iran’s October pledge to provide the IAEA with all information about its nuclear programs, terming it “a setback to Iran’s stated policy of transparency.” As part of that agreement, Iran also agreed to sign an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement and suspend its uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, November 2003.) Iran signed the protocol in December 2003 and has pledged to act as if the agreement were in force until it is ratified.

IAEA safeguards agreements are to ensure that states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) do not divert civilian nuclear activities to military purposes. Iran maintains that its program is solely for peaceful purposes. Additional protocols expand the IAEA’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs and increase the number of nuclear-related activities that member states must declare to the agency. The March resolution “urges” Tehran’s “prompt ratification” of the protocol.

Iran’s director-general for international political affairs, Amir Zamaninia, told the board March 13 that Iran omitted its advanced centrifuge program from its October report to the IAEA because the relevant “technical” personnel thought its pledge only required Tehran to report information about less-advanced centrifuges they had tested using nuclear material. Iran intended to report its more advanced program in accordance with its obligations under the additional protocol, he said.

The resolution also “calls on Iran to be pro-active in taking all necessary steps...to resolve all outstanding issues” outlined in ElBaradei’s February report. In addition to the advanced centrifuge program, these include Tehran’s experiments with polonium, a radioactive isotope that can be used to trigger a chain reaction in a nuclear weapon; the “nature and scope” of its laser-based uranium-enrichment program; and “LEU and HEU contamination” at two facilities associated with Iran’s centrifuge program.

Iran’s hesitant cooperation with the IAEA has caused concern since ElBaradei first visited Iran’s main uranium-enrichment facility in February 2003. For months, Iran lagged in providing information about its nuclear activities to the agency and in granting inspectors full access to facilities.

The resolution also “calls on” Tehran to maintain and expand its October commitment to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. According to ElBaradei’s February report, Iran had suspended most of its enrichment-related activities but continued to assemble centrifuges and manufacture related components. Iran agreed in February to stop both of these activities.

Controversy

The days leading up to the resolution’s adoption were contentious, the final version being the product of a compromise between the United States and other board members. For example, a U.S. Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 18 that Washington wanted the resolution to condemn Iran’s actions in stronger terms and include the fact, discussed in ElBaradei’s February report, that “military industrial organizations” own “most” of the workshops associated with Iran’s centrifuge programs. Washington, however, is “satisfied” with the resolution, the official said.

In contrast to its lobbying efforts prior to the last IAEA resolution concerning Iran, the United States did not push for the board to find Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement. Such a finding would have required the board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council. The State Department official said, however, that the board should do so “at the appropriate time.” The official did not specify what actions Washington hoped the Security Council might take, but argued that they could include issuing a Security Council President’s statement or imposing economic sanctions.

The last resolution, adopted in November, employed language intended to avoid the requirement to send the matter to the Security Council, while conveying that Iran’s secret nuclear activities had violated its safeguards agreement. (See ACT, December 2003.)

The board referred North Korea to the Security Council last year in response to its refusal to cooperate with the agency, but the council has yet to take any action.

For its part, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported March 17 that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told reporters that Iran is “dissatisfied” with the resolution but will continue to cooperate with the IAEA. Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA had suggested March 10 that Iran might review its cooperation with the agency if Tehran did not approve of the resolution, according to IRNA.

The ambassador caused additional friction March 12 when he announced Iran was postponing an upcoming IAEA inspection. Although the ambassador explained that the delay was necessary because of the approaching Iranian New Year, Khatami indicated March 17 that its decision was a reaction against the resolution. ElBaradei announced March 15 that Tehran would allow the inspectors to visit March 27.

The State Department official said that even this two-week delay was “regrettable” because Tehran could use the time to cover up evidence of nuclear activities. The official added that Washington believes Tehran is continuing to conceal part of a secret nuclear weapons program and observed that Tehran only changed its stance on the recent inspections “after some other countries intervened.” The United States has repeatedly changed Iran with having a nuclear weapons program.

Iran also raised eyebrows when Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi stated that Iran will “definitely resume [uranium] enrichment when our relations with the agency become normal,” IRNA reported March 10. Iran has repeatedly emphasized the temporary nature of its suspension agreement, but Kharrazi’s statement was one of the strongest to date on the matter. Iran is legally allowed to enrich uranium under the NPT, but the United States wants a permanent halt to these activities because of concerns that Iran will be able to use its facilities to produce fissile material covertly.

Next Steps

The resolution requests ElBaradei to issue a report on Iran’s activities “before the end of May” and states that it will consider the agency’s “progress in verifying Iran’s declarations,” as well as a response to Iran’s “omissions.” The IAEA is also continuing to investigate Iran’s foreign suppliers, which includes a network headed by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The State Department official said that the United States will continue to allow the IAEA to take the lead on resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 18 interview on PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer, ElBaradei said that he had suggested to U.S. officials during a March visit to the White House that they begin a direct “dialogue” with Tehran. The State Department official said Washington rejects this approach because the appropriate steps for Tehran to take are outlined in the IAEA resolutions and bilateral dialogue would undermine the IAEA process.