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– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
IAEA Puts Off Showdown With Iran

Paul Kerr

With three key European countries intent on giving Iran a final chance to resolve international concerns about its nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors has again refused to meet U.S. demands that the matter be sent immediately to the UN Security Council.

Instead, the board adopted a resolution Sept. 18 calling on Iran to cooperate fully with the agency’s investigation of its nuclear programs and to suspend “all” activities related to its uranium-enrichment program. Tehran, however, has not yet complied with the latter request, setting the stage for a possible showdown at the board’s next meeting in November, after the U.S. presidential elections.

The latest in a series of similar measures, the resolution calls on IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to provide the board with three reports before its November meeting: a report on the “implementation” of the most recent resolution, an account of the IAEA’s investigation since its inception in September 2002, and a report on Tehran’s response to requests made in previous IAEA resolutions. It also states the board is to decide in November “whether or not further steps are appropriate.”

Furthermore, the resolution “strongly urges” Tehran to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation into its nuclear programs, including providing agency inspectors with documentation of its nuclear activities, as well as access to nuclear-related sites.

ElBaradei submitted a report to the board Sept. 1 describing the investigation to date as a mixed picture. Additionally, in Sept. 20 remarks to the IAEA general conference, ElBaradei stated that IAEA inspectors have “gained access to requested locations” in Iran.

But a Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 27 that Washington is concerned that Tehran may be complicating the agency’s investigation in other ways. For example, Iran is not allowing IAEA inspectors to take pictures in some facilities and is also insisting that all interviews be conducted in Farsi. Iran has previously delayed inspectors’ visits to the country and limited their access to certain facilities. (See ACT, May 2004.)

Frayed Suspension


In its most diplomatically charged provision, the resolution states that the board “considers it necessary…that Iran immediately suspend all enrichment-related activities.” It further specifies that the suspension should include the “manufacture or import of centrifuge components, the assembly and testing of centrifuges,” and the production of uranium hexafluoride.

Iran has a gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, which can produce low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors and highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use as the explosive material in nuclear weapons. Gas centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope, thus “enriching” the uranium.

Iran originally agreed to suspend its enrichment activities as part of an October 2003 agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The scope of this suspension, however, has been contentious for some time. Tehran had agreed in February to cease building centrifuges and manufacturing components, but did not entirely stop component production. Then, irritated by a June IAEA resolution, Iran fully resumed both activities.

According to a European diplomat interviewed Sept. 27, the October agreement included an understanding that Iran would permanently suspend enrichment and eventually dismantle its enrichment facilities. Iran, however, has repeatedly stated that its suspension is “temporary.”

An IAEA official told Arms Control Today Sept. 28 that, contrary to the agency’s previous understanding, Iran has now said its suspension agreement does not include uranium hexafluoride production. Iran has already produced uranium hexafluoride in its uranium-conversion facility, and Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh announced three days after the resolution’s adoption that Tehran had begun another test of the facility. That “test” is to use approximately 37 metric tons of uranium oxide, a quantity sufficient to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several crude nuclear weapons.

The State Department official said that Iran seems anxious to test the conversion facility for possible weaknesses. U.S. officials judge that Iran cannot manufacture some necessary equipment for the facility and that Tehran lacks sufficient quantities of fluorine to process the quantity of nuclear material Iran has described. The United States is waiting on IAEA inspectors to present more details about the conversion facility so Washington can verify these judgments, the official added.

Since the October agreement, Iran has maintained a freeze on its gas centrifuge facilities, which consist of a pilot facility and an uncompleted commercial facility, both located at Natanz. Although Tehran had previously introduced uranium hexafluoride into some centrifuges at the pilot facility, it has refrained from doing so since the October agreement. (See ACT, September 2003.)

The September resolution also repeats past calls for Iran to ratify its additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. As a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has a safeguards agreement, which empowers the IAEA to monitor its nuclear facilities to ensure that they are used solely for civilian purposes. Iran signed an additional protocol as part of its agreement with the three European countries and has agreed to act as if it is in force. The protocol augments the IAEA’s existing authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities.

Pointed Diplomacy

The resolution was the product of intense diplomacy, mainly between the United States and the three European countries that have been dealing with Iran. According to the State Department official, the final resolution was “the bare minimum we could have lived with.”

The Bush administration initially wanted the board to find Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement. Such a finding requires the board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council, which may then take action against Tehran, including imposing economic sanctions. The Bush administration believes that European diplomatic efforts have run their course but was unable to persuade the board to go along. The United States first tried to get such a finding in November 2003. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

The United States also failed to win support for a draft resolution that would have included an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to cooperate with the agency and suspend its enrichment activities. Including the deadline would have increased Iran’s “defiance” of the agency, the European diplomat argued, adding that the Europeans felt that Washington’s wish for a “trigger” requiring a Security Council referral was “going too far.” Rather, the Europeans wanted the resolution to convey to Iran that it had a “last chance” to comply with the IAEA’s wishes.

Persuading the board to refer Iran to the Security Council will be nearly impossible unless other countries believe Iran has been given a “reasonable chance” to meet its IAEA obligations, the European diplomat added.
The diplomat also argued that the November date mentioned in the resolution is “clear enough” and Iran “knows what it has to do.” Iran will need to act in a timely fashion in order to enable ElBaradei to write his reports, the diplomat said, adding that the date also serves as a signal to Tehran that the process cannot last indefinitely.

Showdown Ahead?

Although Iran has criticized the resolution and somewhat accelerated its enrichment activities, it has also suggested that it is prepared to negotiate a settlement.

A critical element of the dispute concerns Iran’s legal obligations as an NPT member. Because parties to the NPT may enrich uranium under IAEA safeguards, Tehran’s suspension agreement is not legally required by the agency but is part of the political agreement Tehran concluded in October 2003. Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani told reporters Sept. 19 that Tehran will discuss the suspension in negotiations, but it will not decide the question based on IAEA resolutions.

Hossein Moussavian, head of Iran’s delegation to the IAEA, told the Islamic Students News Agency Sept. 25 that Iran is willing to negotiate with its European interlocutors about its enrichment technologies. If the Europeans recognize Iran’s “right to benefit from the capabilities of the fuel cycle,” Iran will be “flexible” on measures to assure other countries that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, he said. As an example, Moussavian said that Iran will guarantee that it will not enrich uranium “above the level determined by the agency’s regulations.” He also hinted that Iran may “one day” give up its enrichment technologies.

Despite this display of flexibility, Rowhani also warned that Iran may stop adhering to its additional protocol if its nuclear activities are referred to the Security Council. Iran may also withdraw from the NPT if the council imposes economic sanctions, he added.

The State Department official dismissed Iran’s apparent flexibility as a tactic to dissuade the IAEA board from taking stricter action. U.S. officials are now attempting to line up the European countries to support a finding of noncompliance at the November board meeting in the event that Iran does not comply with the resolution.
For their part, the three European governments are willing to talk with Iran about providing possible benefits if the latter fully suspends its enrichment activities, according to the diplomat. Outlined in the original October agreement, these benefits include potential technology transfers, a possible “informal security dialogue,” and a guaranteed “external supply of nuclear fuel,” the diplomat added.