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Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Global Nuclear Agency Rebukes Iran

Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors adopted a resolution June 18 condemning Iran for failing to cooperate fully with the agency’s investigation of its nuclear programs. Iran retaliated by announcing that it would not fulfill one of its previous commitments to suspend work on its uranium-enrichment program.

The IAEA resolution, which followed a critical June 1 report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei (see page 26), “deplores” Iran’s failure to provide the agency with “full, timely and proactive” cooperation. Specifically, the resolution pointed to Iran’s decision to delay an IAEA inspection scheduled for March until the following month—a delay that meant environmental samples from Iran’s nuclear facilities could not be analyzed in time for the board meeting.

The resolution also urged Iran to take additional steps to “intensify its cooperation” with the IAEA, especially in resolving questions concerning its advanced gas-centrifuge program and the presence of enriched uranium at several locations associated with its nuclear programs. Gas centrifuges are used to produce low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors, but they may also produce highly enriched uranium for use as the explosive material in a nuclear weapon.

Further, the resolution once more called on Iran to implement fully its pledge to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, which Tehran promised to do last October as part of an agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The IAEA board’s last two resolutions urged Iran to abide by the agreement. (See ACT, November 2003.)

According to ElBaradei’s report, Iran had not stopped all manufacturing of centrifuge components and was planning to produce feedstock for centrifuges in its uranium-conversion facility. The June resolution specifically called on Iran to cease both activities and allow the agency to “verify fully” that Iran has done so.

Two-Year Investigation

Iran responded by sending a letter to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany June 24 stating that it would resume assembling centrifuges and manufacturing related components on June 29, a European diplomat said.

In an investigation that began nearly two years ago, IAEA investigators have found that Iran has carried out a number of covert nuclear activities, some of which violated its IAEA safeguards agreement. Safeguards agreements empower the IAEA to monitor nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty members’ nuclear facilities to ensure that they are used solely for civilian purposes.

In its October agreement, Iran promised to cooperate fully with the IAEA’s investigation. Tehran then provided the IAEA with what it said was a complete account of its nuclear activities. The next month, the board adopted a resolution welcoming this decision, but the agency has since learned that Iran was not fully forthcoming about all of its nuclear activities. These revelations led the board to adopt another resolution in March calling on Iran to accelerate its cooperation with the IAEA.

The June resolution addresses additional issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programs, calling on Iran “to reconsider” its construction of a heavy-water nuclear reactor as well as “production testing” at its uranium-conversion facility. The heavy water plant is controversial because U.S. officials fear the reactor might be part of a nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, May 2004.)

The IAEA resolution also calls on Iran to ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement “without delay.” Tehran signed an additional protocol in December 2003 and has agreed to act as if it were in force, but the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) has not yet ratified it. Tehran submitted an expanded declaration of its nuclear activities May 21, as the protocol requires. The IAEA must still verify the declaration. Additional protocols augment the IAEA’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom took the lead in drafting the resolution while working closely with the United States. A Department of State official and a European diplomat both told Arms Control Today that the drafting process was less contentious than in November or March when the United States had pushed for stronger language condemning Iran’s actions. This time, Washington worked more cooperatively with the Europeans, having “learned a lesson,” the State Department official said.

Still, the resolution was “not perfect,” the U.S. official added. Washington had wanted the resolution to include a deadline for full Iranian cooperation, as well as a “trigger mechanism” for the board to take action if Iran does not fulfill its commitments. The Europeans, however, rejected that approach.

The United States has repeatedly said that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, a charge Iran denies. U.S. ambassador to the IAEA Kenneth Brill asserted June 18 that Iran has a “concealed set of activities related to a military program.” ElBaradei, however, stated June 1 that “the jury is still out” on whether Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, Reuters reported.

Iran’s Reaction

According to the European diplomat, the June 24 letter linked Tehran’s reaction to the current resolution’s provisions concerning Iran’s uranium-conversion facility and heavy-water reactor.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Asefi provided an additional explanation to reporters June 27. According to Agence France Presse, Asefi stated that Iran’s decision was a response to the European governments’ failure to follow through on a February agreement to “close our case at the IAEA” in June. Iranian officials had repeatedly expressed hope that the IAEA’s investigation would be concluded after the June meeting.

Two European diplomats, however, contradicted Iran’s claim, saying that such an agreement does not exist and would be impossible because any member of the IAEA board may raise any issue anytime they wish.

Iran’s compliance with the suspension agreement has been problematic from the start. Iran continued to manufacture centrifuge parts and assemble entire centrifuges even after suspending work at its enrichment facilities. Tehran had reluctantly agreed only in February to stop these activities as well, but it has not entirely done so.

A European diplomat told Arms Control Today June 25 that in October Iran had agreed to an unwritten “understanding” to eventually dismantle its nuclear fuel facilities in return for a guaranteed external supply of nuclear fuel. Tehran, however, has repeatedly emphasized the “voluntary” nature of the suspension agreement and said that it has the right to enrich uranium.

The European Union and the United States “urge[d] Iran to rethink its decision” in a June 26 joint statement, and Iran appeared to be leaving itself some diplomatic flexibility. Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani told reporters June 27 that Iran would continue cooperating with the IAEA and would like to “hold comprehensive negotiations…with representatives” from London, Paris, and Berlin. Rowhani told the Majlis the same day that “any future decision in this regard [to uranium enrichment] would depend on the prevailing conditions,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Iranian officials also indicated resistance to other elements of the resolution. For instance, Majlis Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel stated that the Majlis will not ratify an additional protocol if it is not in Iran’s “national interests,” IRNA reported June 15. Additionally, Asefi told reporters June 20 that Iran will not stop its heavy-water reactor or uranium-conversion projects.

Next Steps

The board is scheduled to meet in September, but it is unclear what it will do if Iran continues its lack of cooperation. The current IAEA resolution neither specifies a deadline for Tehran to cooperate, nor mandates any explicit consequences if it does not.

At the June 14 board meeting, ElBaradei urged Iran’s “prompt cooperation,” arguing that “[i]t is essential for the integrity and credibility of the inspection process that we are able to bring these issues to a close within the next few months.”

The State Department official said Washington is still debating whether to urge the IAEA board to find Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement at its upcoming meeting. Such a finding requires the board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council. The United States failed to persuade the board to adopt such a stance in its November resolution and has not attempted to do so since.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters June 27 that the board should “seriously consider” referring the matter to the Security Council but did not mention a deadline. The State Department official said some U.S. officials want to wait until the board’s November meeting to urge a Security Council referral.

Although the council could take action against Iran, including imposing economic sanctions, it is far from clear that it will do so. The board referred North Korea to the Security Council in February 2003, but no action has been taken.

Even so, the State Department official argued that a referral could be valuable because it would “raise the profile” of Iran’s intransigence and provide “another lever” to induce Iran to cooperate.