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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
IAEA Cites Iran on Safeguards Failures

Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors adopted a resolution Sept. 24 finding Iran in “non-compliance” with its agency safeguards agreement. The resolution sets the stage for the board to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council but does not specify when or under what circumstances such a referral would take place.

Iran is being given another opportunity to address the “concerns of the IAEA” regarding Tehran’s nuclear programs, said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The 35-member board adopted the resolution by a vote of 22-1, with 12 abstentions. Venezuela cast the sole negative vote. Russia and China, two of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, were among those who abstained. The mere fact that the board voted on the resolution underscored the issue’s contentiousness. Such resolutions are usually adopted by consensus, with voting a course of last resort.

Under the IAEA statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is found in noncompliance with its agency safeguards agreement. Such agreements allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military purposes.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei first reported more than two years ago that Iran had conducted clandestine nuclear activities in violation of its safeguards agreement. He reported Sept. 2 that a number of outstanding questions concerning Iran’s nuclear programs, particularly its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, still leave the IAEA unable to conclude that “there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran” (see page 30).

During the course of the IAEA’s recent diplomacy with Iran, the United States has consistently attempted to persuade the board to refer the matter to the Security Council. Until recently, however, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom had withheld their support while engaged in negotiations with Tehran. Iran suspended the operation of its enrichment-related facilities, which it would otherwise have been permitted to operate under IAEA safeguards. The Europeans had hoped that a series of incentives would ultimately persuade Iran to cease its enrichment program.

When Iran resumed operations in August at its uranium-conversion facility, however, the talks broke down and the Europeans joined the U.S. push for a Security Council referral. (See ACT, September 2005.) Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into feedstock for gas centrifuges, which can then produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors or fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The Vote

Still, the Sept. 24 vote came after several days of intensive diplomacy. The three European countries, backed by the United States, initially tried to persuade the board to adopt a resolution that would have referred Tehran to the council immediately, but the measure proved too controversial.

Straw said that the initial draft resolution was modified to accommodate the “concerns of our international partners” who wanted more time for other diplomatic efforts to succeed.

Russia and China opposed a referral, arguing that the issue can be resolved within the IAEA. Russia’s Foreign Ministry urged Iran Sept. 25 to “actively cooperate with the IAEA” to resolve the agency’s concerns “as soon as possible.”

Except for Venezuela, all board members belonging to the Nonaligned Movement, which represents the interests of developing countries, either supported the resolution or abstained from voting—a fact a Department of State official termed “significant.” These countries have generally been more sympathetic to Iran at past board meetings.

ElBaradei told reporters Sept. 24 that he was “encouraged” that the resolution provides an opportunity for continued diplomacy, adding that “the ball now is with Iran to continue to co-operate with the agency as early as possible.”

The Resolution

The resolution states that Iran’s safeguards violations “constitute non-compliance in the context” of the IAEA statute, adding that Iran’s past activities, as well as the lack of “confidence that Iran’s nuclear [program] is exclusively for peaceful purposes have given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council.”

Reiterating an Aug. 11 demand, the resolution urges Iran to suspend operation of its conversion facility. It also repeats several past board requests for Iran to take other steps to demonstrate its peaceful intentions. Like the suspension, these steps are not required by Iran’s safeguards agreement.

For example, the resolution calls on Iran to ratify its additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. In December 2003, Iran signed the protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to uncover secret nuclear activities, and has continued to act as if it is in force. To date, the Iranian Majlis (parliament) has not ratified it.

The resolution also reiterates past calls for Iran to “reconsider” its construction of a 40-megawatt heavy-water nuclear reactor. Although Iran claims the reactor is for peaceful purposes, the United States believes Tehran intends to separate plutonium—another fissile material—from the irradiated reactor fuel. (See ACT, April 2005.) According to a recent unclassified U.S. presentation, the completed reactor would be capable of producing enough plutonium for one to three nuclear weapons per year.

Iran has no known facilities for separating plutonium. But it has conducted some separation experiments, which the IAEA is still investigating. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)

The resolution also calls on Iran to “implement transparency measures,” such as providing inspectors with procurement documents and access to non-nuclear facilities.

ElBaradei told the board Sept. 19 that Iran is “a special verification case” and such measures are a “prerequisite for the agency to be able to reconstruct the history and nature of all aspects of Iran’s past nuclear activities.”

Iran’s Reaction

Iranian officials indicated that the government would not comply with the resolution’s demands, although their reactions were somewhat mixed and Tehran’s policy appears to be in flux.

A Sept. 26 Foreign Ministry statement indicated that Iran will end its adherence to its additional protocol, as well as cancel the rest of its “voluntary and temporary concessions,” such as the suspension of its enrichment-related facilities, “[u]nless the resolution is corrected and if there is insistence on its implementation.”

Additionally, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi suggested the next day that Iran may withdraw from the NPT if its case is referred to the Security Council.

However, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, struck a more cautionary note later that day, telling reporters that Iran would adhere to the NPT. As for its additional protocol, he said “nothing is determined yet,” adding that Tehran’s “reaction will depend on what the Europeans will do next.”

Larijani also stated that Tehran is open to negotiations with the Europeans but added that Iran will not shut down its conversion facility.

Some Iranian officials have recently suggested that Tehran might limit its economic interactions with countries that had supported the resolution, particularly the Europeans. But Larijani said that, although Tehran is considering the matter, “we will not do something out of haste.”

Uncharted Territory

The next steps in the Iranian nuclear saga are not entirely clear.

According to Straw, the three European governments are willing to resume negotiations with Iran “within the framework” of the two sides’ November 2004 agreement, under which talks would proceed in the context of an Iranian suspension of fuel cycle activities.

ElBaradei also has been tasked with reporting to the board about Iran’s compliance with the resolution. But in a departure from past practice, the board did not set a due date for the report. A State Department official told Arms Control Today Sept. 26 that the Europeans tried to specify that the report should be delivered to the board no later than its November meeting, but dropped the idea for fear that it would be a “deal breaker” for board members who thought a deadline too provocative.

However, according to the official, the United States, the Europeans, and other “like-minded countries” still have a range of options to trigger a report if Iran does not fully comply with the resolution. For example, they will “probably” call for a special board meeting in October if Iran takes an especially provocative action, such as restarting its centrifuge facility, the official said.

Significantly, the resolution’s requirement that the IAEA board “address the timing and content of the report” to the Security Council could complicate the referral process. The State Department official described the issue as an “open legal question,” adding that there is no clear mechanism for the board to make such a decision.

If the Security Council takes up the issue, it has a wide range of options it can take against Iran, including imposing economic sanctions. But EU and U.S. statements to the IAEA board suggest that, for now, the referral is being viewed as a tool to pressure Iran to return to its previous diplomatic track.

According to the State Department official, Washington envisions an “incremental approach” for Security Council action. A possible first step could be a statement from the council president calling on Iran to undertake the steps called for by the IAEA board, the official said, adding that “such a request…would add a significant degree of pressure on Iran to comply.”