"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Iran Agrees to Temporarily Suspend Uranium-Enrichment Program

Paul Kerr

Following a series of talks with British, French, and German officials, Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Nov. 14 that it would suspend all of its uranium-enrichment activities for the duration of upcoming negotiations concerning Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency Board of Governors Nov. 25 that Iran had implemented the suspension.

The action led the IAEA board at a meeting in late November to decide not to refer Iran's past violations of its safeguards agreement with the agency to the UN Security Council, despite the United States' repeated insistence that Iran's nuclear efforts and the IAEA statute require it to do so. Instead, the board adopted a resolution Nov. 29 that emphasizes the suspension’s importance but does not specify any clear consequences if Iran resumes its enrichment activities. Safeguards agreements empower the agency to monitor civilian nuclear facilities to ensure they are not diverted to military purposes. U.S. officials charge that Iran is building a secret nuclear weapons program, while Iranian officials say their program is only for peaceful purposes.

Most recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated Nov. 17 that Iran is “actively working” on methods to deliver a nuclear warhead. Washington has long expressed concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programs, but Powell indicated that his statement was based on new intelligence. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker warned in October that Iran intends “to deploy nuclear weapons” on its missiles. (See ACT, November 2004.)

The board’s decision came as it assessed Tehran’s compliance with a September resolution requiring Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities as well as cooperate with the agency’s investigation of its nuclear program. Tehran’s compliance with past resolutions has been uneven, but a Nov. 15 report from ElBaradei, coupled with the recent agreement, persuaded the board to refrain from taking action against Iran. ElBaradei’s report describing Iran’s cooperation is generally positive, although it lists several unresolved issues concerning Iran’s nuclear programs.

The Europeans’ efforts to persuade Iran to halt its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program have been ongoing for more than a year. Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment activities in October 2003 but has continued work on some elements of the program. Uranium-enrichment facilities are used in civilian energy programs but also can produce the explosive material for nuclear weapons.

Iran is permitted to enrich uranium under IAEA safeguards, but the European governments have demanded the IAEA-monitored suspension in order to provide confidence that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons program.

The European officials met with Iran several times since September to devise a new agreement that incorporated the resolution’s demands. The Europeans warned Iran that, if it did not accept a new suspension agreement, they would support U.S. efforts to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

As long as Iran adheres to the suspension, the Europeans have agreed to negotiate “a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements,” which includes “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

The long-term agreement is also to include “firm guarantees on nuclear, technological, and economic cooperation,” as well as “firm commitments on security issues.” A European diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 19 that the Europeans hope that Iran will eventually agree to dismantle its nuclear facilities. However, “inducements” are necessary to persuade Iran to do so because dismantlement goes beyond Tehran’s IAEA requirements.

The Agreement


The new agreement entered into force Nov. 15. Using language similar to that contained in the September resolution, it specifies that Tehran is to suspend the manufacture and importation of gas centrifuges and related components, as well as the assembly, installation, testing, or operation of such centrifuges. Gas centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds to increase the concentration of the relevant isotope.

In a move that seemingly imperiled the agreement, Iran told the IAEA shortly before the board meeting that it wanted to “use up to 20 sets of [centrifuge] components for [research and development] purposes.” However, ElBaradei told the board Nov. 29 that Iran subsequently agreed to place the centrifuges under agency camera surveillance and refrain from “any testing” of the components. The rest of Iran’s centrifuge components are under IAEA seal.

In addition, Tehran is to refrain from “all tests or production at any uranium-conversion installation.” Iran has caused concern by converting lightly processed uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for gas centrifuges. This provision is stricter than the September resolution’s corresponding demand, which only called for Iran to suspend production of uranium hexafluoride.

The agreement also states that Tehran is not to separate plutonium or construct a plutonium-separation facility. Iran conducted plutonium-separation experiments in the past and has announced plans to construct a heavy-water nuclear reactor, which can produce plutonium—another possible explosive material for nuclear weapons.


A steering committee will meet in the first half of December to launch the negotiations. It will also set up three working groups to develop proposals for mutual cooperation on nuclear issues, non-nuclear technical cooperation, and “political and security issues.” The steering committee is to meet again within three months to review the groups’ progress.

According to the European diplomat, possible forms of cooperation in the first two areas include a replacement for Iran’s heavy-water reactor, a guarantee that Iran can obtain nuclear reactor fuel from other countries, investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector, and assistance in upgrading transportation links. Cooperation on “political and security issues” could include improving Iran’s export controls, as well as providing Iran with security assurances.

Additionally, negotiations with the European Union on a Trade and Cooperation Agreement will resume as soon as the suspension is verified.

The Nov. 15 agreement also addressees Iran’s long-standing demand that any agreement should be a voluntary, political settlement that preserves Tehran’s “right” to produce nuclear fuel. To that end, the text of the agreement recognizes Iran’s “rights under the NPT” and states that the freeze is voluntary, rather than “a legal obligation.”

Negotiating “objective guarantees” that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful will likely prove contentious. According to two European diplomatic sources, the European governments believe that only Iran’s total cessation of its nuclear fuel production programs will provide a satisfactory guarantee. Iranian officials, however, have repeatedly described the suspension as “temporary” and argued that they do not want to rely on other countries for nuclear fuel.

Indeed, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters Nov. 20 that permanent suspension is “not negotiable and certainly not on the Iranian agenda,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

However, Hossein Mousavian, the head of Iran’s delegation to the IAEA, told the Financial Times in October that Tehran is willing to negotiate a “mechanism” to demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, though he did not provide specifics.

He also acknowledged that a mere suspension will perpetuate concerns that Iran will use its enrichment capabilities to produce nuclear weapons.

Relationship With IAEA

The agreement affects Tehran’s status with the IAEA board in two ways. First, the European governments will not support referring Iran to the UN Security Council as long as the suspension holds, the diplomat said. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, however, warned that the Europeans reserve the right to support a referral, Agence France Presse reported Nov. 22.

Second, the agreement specifies that the three governments will support ElBaradei “reporting to the IAEA Board as he considers appropriate,” rather than in response to board requests for specific reports, as he has been doing.

According to the European diplomat, this provision partly addresses Iran’s wish that its nuclear program not be raised at every board meeting. The diplomat, however, said that the provision may make little practical difference because the Europeans expect ElBaradei to report regularly on the IAEA investigation’s progress.

Next Steps

For now, the United States will observe Iran’s compliance with the agreement. President George W. Bush told reporters Nov. 20 that “we appreciate the [Europeans’] efforts,” but a Department of State official told Arms Control Today that Washington is “deeply skeptical” as to whether Tehran will comply with the agreement.

A CIA report released Nov. 23 states that IAEA inspections and safeguards will most likely prevent Tehran from using inspected facilities for a weapons program, but adds that “Iran could use the same technology at other, covert locations for military applications.” It is a “safe bet” that Iran has such facilities, the State Department official added, citing Iran’s previous efforts to conceal many important nuclear sites.

The Nov. 29 resolution underlines that the suspension is essential to addressing Iran’s outstanding nuclear issues and requests ElBaradei to notify board members if Tehran either fails to implement the suspension or impedes IAEA monitoring.

The resolution also called for Iran to continue to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation. Additionally, it requests ElBaradei to update the board on the investigation “as appropriate,” rather than requesting a report for the next board meeting, as past resolutions have done.

The State Department official said that Washington wanted a resolution with a “hard trigger” spelling out clear consequences for Tehran if it violates its new agreement. The resolution does not contain such a provision, but implies that Iran could be referred to the UN Security Council if it breaks the suspension.

Another European diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 22 that a draft resolution was clear enough and that the other board members would not have agreed to all of the U.S. demands.