U.S. Officials Dispute Netanyahu's Secret Iranian Nuclear Site Claim
In his address to the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed what he described as a secret nuclear warehouse “storing massive amounts of equipment and material from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program,” a claim that U.S. intelligence officials have told reporters is misleading.
Netanyahu’s Sept. 27 allegations came as U.S. President Donald Trump threatened countries that do not support U.S. sanctions on Iran with “severe consequences,” and as the remaining P4+1 parties to the July 2015 nuclear deal, (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) announced new steps to work around the coercive measures and preserve legitimate trade with Tehran. (See below for details).
Netanyahu also called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano to “do the right thing” and inspect the warehouse “immediately” before Iran finished clearing it out. He charged that Iran removed 15 kilograms of radioactive material from the warehouse in August, but did not specify if the material was uranium, plutonium, or another radioactive source.
One intelligence official quoted in Reuters Sept. 27 said that the facility has been known to the U.S. intelligence community for some time and it is full of documents, not nuclear equipment. The official said that “so far as anyone knows, there is nothing in it that would allow Iran to break out” of the nuclear deal any faster.
Iranian officials immediately denounced Netanyahu's accusation as a farce. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Sept. 30 that the allegation is "nonsense" and Netanyahu is "just trying to find a smokescreen."
Amano also pushed back against the demand for an immediate site visit in an Oct. 2 statement, saying that the agency does not take any information at “face value.” While Amano did not mention Netanyahu directly, he said that all material, including that received from third parties, is subject to a rigorous and independent assessment. Amano said the IAEA’s nuclear verification work “must always be impartial, factual, and professional” and that the agency’s independence is “of paramount importance.”
It remains unclear whether or not the facility is of interest to the IAEA, but Netanyahu’s comments could complicate the agency’s work. IAEA inspectors should visit the facility if their independent assessment determines that an inspection is warranted. However, if inspectors visit the site now it may appear as if the IAEA is acting at Israel’s behest, which would jeopardize the agency’s credibility and independence, both of which are critical to the organization’s safeguards mission.
It is also important to keep in mind that the multilayered monitoring and verification regime put in place by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was designed based on the worst-case scenario, namely that Iran already possesses a nuclear weapons capability.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant
EU Adopts Special Purpose Vehicle as U.S. Oil Sanctions Loom
At a ministerial-level meeting of the Joint Commission, the body set up by the JCPOA to oversee its implementation, the European Union announced the creation of a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran.
The Sept. 24 statement by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini did not provide much detail on how the mechanism will function, but it is generally understood that the SPV will act like a barter system. Under the SPV, entities can trade credits to balance imports from and exports to Iran, insulating the transactions from financial sanctions.
While this vehicle may preserve some trade, particularly for small and medium-sized entities, and could be beneficial for humanitarian efforts, its overall utility will be limited. Not only will it likely fail to attract larger, multinational corporations, most of which have already pulled out of the Iranian market, but the U.S. Treasury Department has made clear that possession of Iranian oil and petroleum products is sanctionable, even if acquired via a barter system.
Despite the threat of U.S. sanctions, a number of states are still likely to purchase oil after the U.S. sanctions enter back into full effect Nov. 5, some by reducing imports and seeking waivers to continue purchases. Iran may also offer oil at a discount to continue to attract buyers.
With the oil market tightening and some U.S. policymakers talking about penalizing Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the apparent killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it may be more difficult for the Trump administration to pursue its plan to cut Iranian oil exports to zero and make the certification necessary to require further reductions.
The EU is also pursuing additional ideas to maintain legitimate trade ties with Iran. In an October report for the European Leadership Network, Axel Hellman and Bijan Khajehpour detail several roles that European small and medium-sized entities could take on to improve EU-Iran energy cooperation, including promoting joint ventures with Iranian private sector companies.
In a paper published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Bankless task: can Europe stay connected to Iran?,” Ellie Geranmayeh and Esfandyar Batmanghelidj detail some options that Europe could pursue to sustain trade with Iran.
Support for JCPOA Expressed During UN Security Council Meeting
Iran figured prominently in a UN Security Council meeting chaired by U.S. President Donald Trump Sept. 26. While Iran and the JCPOA were originally deemed the focus of the meeting by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the scope was later broadened to weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation writ large. All 15 members of the Security Council, however, addressed the JCPOA in their statements.
Trump repeated U.S. opposition to the JCPOA during the meeting, describing the nuclear deal as a “horrible, one-sided deal that allowed Iran to continue its path toward a bomb.” Trump also said states that fail to comply with U.S. sanctions on Iran will face “severe consequences.”
Trump’s statement, however, failed to acknowledge that the United States voted in favor of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal and put in place UN sanctions on Iran’s missile and conventional arms sales. The resolution also calls upon all states to support the full implementation of the agreement. By threatening coercive action against states that continue to support the deal through legitimate trade with Iran, Trump is blatantly disregarding the Security Council.
After Trump spoke, representatives of all 14 of the other Security Council members endorsed the implementation of the JCPOA, and several denounced the U.S. decision to withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions as an illegal action. Several also emphasized the importance of council unity to address threats posed by weapons of mass destruction proliferation, in sharp contrast to the U.S. unilateral violation of the JCPOA and disregard for Security Council Resolution 2231.
Kuwait—the only Middle Eastern state currently on the Security Council—reiterated support for Resolution 2231 and noted that the IAEA continues to confirm Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, while also expressing concern about Iranian activities in Yemen.
Kuwait’s representative, and several other leaders including Trump, raised concern about Iran’s violations of Security Council resolutions, including the prohibitions on missile transfers in Resolution 2231 that the UN Secretary-General is investigating. The United States also noted Iran’s continued ballistic missile development. Although not prohibited, Iran is “called upon” in 2231 to refrain from developing missiles designed to be nuclear capable. Iran, however, has continued to advance its program, most recently announcing that it extended the range of its “land-to-sea” ballistic missile to 700 kilometers.
Near universal support for the JCPOA continued at the UN General Assembly First Committee, which began Oct. 8. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel were among the only states to voice opposition to the agreement in opening statements thus far.
“The majority of Member States continue to support the preservation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu stated in her opening address to the forum Oct. 8.
World Court Rules on U.S. Sanctions
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled unanimously Oct. 3 that the United States “must remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments” to the export of food, agricultural products, medicine, aircraft parts, and other humanitarian goods. The 15-member panel concluded that Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran was unfounded given Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but the court did not order the United States to remove all sanctions or compensate Iran for damages.
Iran took the United States to the ICJ on the argument that the reimposing of sanctions violated a 1955 Treaty on Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights. The United States disputed the ICJ’s jurisdiction, but the court heard the case in August.
The United States responded to the ruling by announcing it was withdrawing from the 1955 treaty, a process which will take one year. Pompeo said the decision to withdraw was “39 years overdue.” He also dismissed the ICJ’s ruling requiring U.S. action on humanitarian channels and said U.S. exemptions already existed for those areas.
Iran’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying the ruling “confirms the illegitimacy” of the U.S sanctions.
Senators Introduce Bill to Prevent an Unconstitutional War with Iran
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), along with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2018, (S. 3517) Sept. 26 to prevent the United States from spending funds that could lead to a war with Iran without congressional authorization.
“The administration’s approach to Iran is ripped straight out of the same playbook that launched us into the failed invasion of Iraq, and Congress needs to assert its constitutional authority and halt the march to war,” said Udall in a press release.
The bill does allow for military action against Iran without approval from Congress should Iran pose an “imminent threat” to the United States.
Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) later signed on to the bill as co-sponsors.
Following Up on the Archival Material
Netanyahu also claimed in his UN General Assembly speech Sept. 27 that the IAEA “has still not taken any action” following up on the archival material Israel removed from Iran in February and partialy disclosed in April.
His statement seems at odds with comments made during the IAEA’s Board of Governors meeting Sept. 11-14, Nicole Shampaine, an official at the U.S. mission in Vienna, told the board that the United States supports the agency’s “careful assessment of the newly acquired archive materials.” She said any “concern” related to undeclared nuclear activities or material must be pursued and the United States has “full confidence” in the IAEA and its inspectors “to do so appropriately.”
The United States, which has access to the material, has not made any claims that the documents indicate a violation of the JCPOA. The information shared publicly corresponds with past activities and confirms what the IAEA and the U.S. national intelligence community already concluded: that Iran had an organized illicit nuclear weapons program that it abandoned in 2003, although some activities continued. The IAEA reported in 2015 that it had no evidence of nuclear activities with military dimensions after 2009. The United States has not disputed that finding and has stated that Iranian noncompliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has been resolved, despite not having all the details about past weaponization activities.
For more information on past IAEA investigations of Iran’s nuclear activities, see the Arms Control Association’s fact sheet on the subject.
IAEA Updates Iran’s Nuclear Power Profile and Holds Workshop
The IAEA updated its profile of Iran’s nuclear power program, noting that the two additional reactor units at the Bushehr site are expected to be commercially operable in 2024 and 2026 respectively. Construction on both units began in 2017. The profile also noted additional regulations put in place by Iran in 2017 covering the permitting process for design, manufacture, and transport of nuclear fuel, permits for Bushehr 2 and Bushehr 3, and additional general nuclear safety regulations.
The IAEA held an international workshop on radioactive waste management in Iran Oct. 8-10. Ten countries sent representatives to attend the workshop. Annex III of the JCPOA encourages civil nuclear cooperation with parties to the deal and the IAEA on a range of issues, including trainings and waste management projects.
Coalition Releases Statement on Trump Administration’s Iran Strategy
The National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon released a bipartisan statement Sept. 23 that assessed U.S. policy toward Iran. While the statement criticized the Trump administration’s approach and decision to pull out of the JCPOA, it did endorse some of the objectives, including the cessation of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, curbing ballistic missile proliferation, and reducing provocations toward U.S. partners.
The signatories, however, called for a multilateral approach that combines pressure and diplomacy and encouraged a return to the nuclear deal. The statement concluded that leaving the JCPOA reduces U.S. leverage and imposing sanctions pressure without viable diplomatic engagement is more likely to lead to conflict. The statement noted since the United States is not engaging in diplomacy to achieve its goals, the strategy “has left Iran the option of either capitulation or war.”
Signatories to the bipartisan statement include Madeline Albright, Secretary of State for President Bill Clinton; James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence; Paul O’Neill, Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush; former Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Carl Levin, (D-Mich.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.); and 14 retired flag officers.
Senate Confirms New Ambassador to the IAEA
The Senate confirmed Jackie Wolcott as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Sept. 24 by a vote of 75-19. Wolcott has prior experience on nuclear issues, having served as the State Department Special Envoy on nonproliferation from 2008 to 2009 and U.S. Representative to the Conference on Disarmament from 2003 to 2006. From 2004 to 2005 she also served as the alternate representative at the IAEA. Walcott was nominated to the post in January and her confirmation hearing was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 9.
The next IAEA report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA will likely be released at the Nov. 22-23 Board of Governors meeting.
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