By Kelsey Davenport
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strongly condemned Iran’s decision to reject experienced agency inspectors and continued failure to fulfill its safeguards obligations. Despite these concerns, the agency’s Board of Governors took no action against Iran during its quarterly meeting in November.
States are permitted to reject IAEA inspectors, but IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the board that Iran’s actions are “unprecedented and contrary to the cooperation that is required” to effectively implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement.
In a Nov. 22 press conference following his statement to the board, Grossi said that the inspectors that Iran de-designated in September include some of the agency’s most experienced experts on uranium enrichment. He said that excluding these inspectors is a “very serious blow” to the agency’s efforts to implement safeguards in Iran. The IAEA and Iran are discussing reinstating the inspectors, Grossi said.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami, defended Iran’s decision to reject the inspectors. He said in October that the inspectors in question had “politically oriented agendas.”
Grossi also reported that implementation of an agreement reached on March 4 between the agency and Iran on addressing outstanding safeguards issues and voluntarily enhancing monitoring has “come to a standstill.” He said that there has been no progress on additional transparency since May and no further cooperation on the agency’s investigation into previously undeclared nuclear activities. (See ACT, June 2023.)
According to an IAEA report on Nov. 17, Eslami told Grossi during a September meeting not to expect progress on the March 4 agreement until sanctions are lifted. The report did not specify which sanctions, but Eslami likely was referring to U.S. and European sanctions that should have been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Although Iran is not legally obligated to provide further monitoring, it is required to meet its safeguards obligations, which include addressing IAEA questions about uranium detected at two locations not declared to the agency. (See ACT, July/August 2021.) The undeclared uranium activities took place prior to 2003, according to samples taken by the agency, but the IAEA is still obligated to determine if the material involved is accounted for.
The IAEA also is looking into a discrepancy in uranium accountancy at Iran’s conversion facility. Iran’s initial responses regarding the discrepancy did not address the agency’s questions, but the IAEA noted in a Nov. 17 report that it is reviewing additional information provided by Iran on Nov. 8.
Grossi reminded Iran that all safeguards issues “need to be resolved” for the agency “to be in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear [program] is exclusively peaceful.”
Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the board on Nov. 22 that Iran’s “inadequate cooperation with the agency overall is unacceptable.” She said that Iran “should take actions that build international confidence, rather than undermine the [a]gency’s essential assurances.”
Holgate said that “Iran argues it is treated unfairly…[but the] reality remains that Iran continues to single itself out through its actions.”
In a Nov. 13 report, the IAEA provided updates on Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities. It said that Iran continued to produce uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 at a reduced rate. The stockpile of uranium enriched to that level grew by nearly seven kilograms, to 128 kilograms. That quantity is about enough material for three nuclear weapons if it were enriched to weapons grade, or 90 percent-enriched U-235.
The IAEA report noted that the number of centrifuges Iran used to enrich uranium remained unchanged. Since the last quarterly report was finalized in August, Iran did install one additional cascade of IR-4 centrifuges at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility, but did not begin operating it.
There were no changes to the number of centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, despite Iran’s commitment in November 2022 to increase the number of cascades from eight to 16.
Holgate said Iran’s nuclear expansion has “no credible peaceful purpose” and called on Tehran to halt production of 60 percent-enriched U-235.
The United States also warned Iran against transferring ballistic missiles to Russia. Tehran has support the Russian invasion of Ukraine by transferring drones to Moscow in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restricted Iran’s ability to import and export certain missiles, drones, and related technologies. Those UN restrictions expired in October.
The Biden administration expressed concern in a Nov. 21 statement that Iran is considering providing Russia with short-range ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have warned Iran that it could face a snapback of UN Security Council sanctions, including the missile restrictions that expired in October, if it provides Russia with ballistic missiles. Iran has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if UN sanctions are reimposed.
A provision in Resolution 2231 allows for the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran. The reimposition cannot be vetoed.