The IAEA’s March Reports on Iran’s Nuclear Activities Raise Questions

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) distributed two reports on Iran’s nuclear program March 3 that raise new questions about the country’s nuclear activities and its international legal obligations.

The IAEA’s most recent regular quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal (issued March 3 and made public March 11) notes a concerning increase in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium and its number of operating centrifuge machines.

However, Tehran’s continued compliance with the monitoring measures put in place by the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), suggests that these moves are designed to pressure the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief and are not indicative of a dash to a nuclear weapon. In keeping with Iran’s past actions to exceed the JCPOA limits in retaliation for U.S. withdrawal and the reimposition of sanctions, Iran’s latest moves to increase its uranium enrichment capacity could be quickly reversed if there is an agreement to resolve the current impasse and Iran chooses to return to compliance with the JCPOA.

The second report addressed Iran’s implementation of its safeguards agreement, which is legally required by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) for non-nuclear weapon states. In the report, the IAEA Director-General detailed the Agency’s attempts over the past year to elicit information from Iran about possible undeclared nuclear activities and storage of materials at three sites and Iran’s refusal to cooperate with agency requests. While the activities in question are likely tied to Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear weapons research activities and do not constitute an immediate risk, Tehran’s failure to comply with its safeguards obligations is very troublesome.

Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA and its refusal to cooperate with the IAEA’s requests are concerning but can be resolved. Diplomacy remains the best option for restoring full compliance with the nuclear deal and addressing the agency’s concerns about Iran’s implementation of its safeguards obligations. It is critical that the international community support these processes and refrain from actions that prematurely escalate tensions with Iran.

A more detailed analysis of the IAEA’s two new reports on Iran follows.

Report on Iran’s Safeguards Agreement

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi issued his report on Iran’s implementation of its NPT safeguards agreement ahead of the March 9-13 meeting of the agency’s Board of Governors. All non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT are required to implement a safeguards agreement to provide assurance that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful.

After an extensive evaluation process, the IAEA identified “a number of questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at three locations in Iran that had not been declared,” according to the report. The report also noted activities at one of the sites “consistent with efforts to sanitize part of the location” from July 2019 onwards.

In his March 9 remarks to the agency’s Board, Grossi said that Iran “has not provided access to these locations and has not engaged in substantive discussions to clarify the Agency’s questions” and he called on Tehran to “cooperate immediately and fully” with IAEA efforts.

Based on the limited information released by the Agency, it appears that the sites in question may have been used to store nuclear materials and/or information related to Iran’s past nuclear weapons program, which largely ended in 2003 according to IAEA and U.S. assessments. The report does not appear to allege that the sites are connected to ongoing or recent illicit nuclear activities.

However, Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation is still troubling and must be addressed. Tehran is obligated to cooperate with agency requests for information and access under its safeguards agreement and its additional protocol, which is a voluntary arrangement with the agency that Iran is implementing as part of the JCPOA. The additional protocol, amongst other things, gives the IAEA the authority to request access to sites outside of a country’s declared nuclear program to conduct environmental sampling.

In a Jan. 28 letter responding to the IAEA’s requests, Tehran said that it “does not consider itself obliged to respond to such allegations” because of its implementation of paragraph 14 of the 2015 nuclear deal. Paragraph 14 outlines the process for the IAEA and Iran to address what was known as the agency’s investigation into the “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of the country’s nuclear program. The JCPOA required Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation—known as the roadmap—before sanctions relief would be granted.

The IAEA published an extensive report detailing Iran’s activities relevant to nuclear weapons work in December 2015. That report concluded that Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program before 2003 and that some activities continued through 2009, but that there was no evidence of nuclear weapons-related activities since that point or “credible indication of the diversion of nuclear material” in connection with the military dimensions of the nuclear program.

While the December 2015 report did close the PMD investigation, the IAEA is still charged with determining if there are undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran, and Tehran is obligated to cooperate, irrespective of the PMD investigation being completed.

While the investigation may give the agency more details about Iran’s past nuclear weapons work, additional information about Iran’s past nuclear weapons activities is unlikely to change the underlying conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. The NIE stated that Iran ended its organized nuclear weapons development effort in 2003, but judged that Tehran possessed a nuclear weapons capability, meaning that Tehran had developed the technologies and materials necessary to build a nuclear warhead if the political decision were made to do so.

The 2015 nuclear deal was designed based on that worst-case scenario and focused on significantly limiting Iran’s capacity to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb and putting the fuel cycle activities under stringent monitoring. Restoring full implementation of the JCPOA and looking to build on the deal in the future remains the best way to ensure that Tehran does not revive its nuclear weapons program.

It behooves Iran to work with the IAEA to resolve this issue and demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful. Refusing to cooperate increases speculation that Iran is conducting illicit nuclear activities and risks undermining the international safeguards regime. Iran righty allowed inspectors to take samples from a site in 2019—likely the Turquzabad warehouse—and should do so again.

While Iran’s attempts to stonewall IAEA requests for information access should be condemned, it is also important that the Trump administration refrains from politicizing this issue and gives the IAEA the time it needs to address these questions. In a March 11 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott said that “any further delay, denial, or deception by Iran that inhibits” the IAEA’s work “would require that the Board appropriate escalate this issue.”

Escalation could include referring Iran to the UN Security Council for breaching its safeguards obligations, but there are steps short of that action available to the Board, such as passing a resolution detailing steps Iran must take to fulfill the agency’s request. The IAEA Board took similar steps in response to Iran’s illicit nuclear activities in the past. While Security Council referral may be necessary down the road, such a move could prompt Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA, which would severely worsen the situation and provoke a major nuclear crisis in the Middle East.

Iran’s Implementation of the Nuclear Deal

The March 3 report by the IAEA on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal notes that Iran has significantly increased its stockpile of low enriched uranium to about 1,021 kilograms—up from the 373 kilograms recorded by the agency in November.

Iran is nearing the roughly estimated 1,050 kilograms of less than five percent enriched material that, when enriched up to weapons-grade (greater than 90 percent uranium-235), is enough for one bomb. However, the IAEA did note that Iran continues to comply with the JCPOA’s strict monitoring and verification provisions designed specifically to detect higher levels of enrichment or a diversion of materials for weapons purposes.

While the growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium is concerning and does decrease Iran’s breakout (the time it would take to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb) to significantly less than the 12 months established by the JCPOA, continued cooperation with on-site IAEA monitoring suggests that Tehran does not intend to dash for a bomb and that its growing stockpile is aimed at pressuring the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief.

The IAEA also reports that Iran accelerated its production of enriched uranium since November by using additional centrifuges at Fordow. The IAEA noted that 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges in six centrifuge cascades were being used to enrich UF6 (uranium hexafluoride gas), an increase from the two cascades that the agency confirmed were being used for enrichment in November.

Under the JCPOA, Iran was barred from enriching uranium at Fordow for 15 years but was permitted to keep 1,044 IR-1 machines at the site for medical isotope research and production activities.

While the growing size of the enriched uranium stockpile is certainly troubling, Iran has not taken other steps to breach the 2015 nuclear deal, despite announcing Jan. 5 that it would no longer be bound by any operational limits put in place by the deal.

On March 9, during the IAEA’s quarterly Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, Director-General Rafael Grossi noted that “the agency has not observed any changes to Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA in connection with this [Jan. 5] announcement, or in the level of cooperation by Iran in relation to agency verification and monitoring activities under the JCPOA.”

Iran’s systematic violations are concerning and have contributed to an erosion of the deal, but Tehran’s nuclear program is still subject to intrusive monitoring and its violations of the JCPOA are quickly reversible. There is still time for the remaining parties to the deal to work with Iran to meet the country’s demands on sanctions relief and bring Tehran back into compliance with the accord.

Key Details from the IAEA Report On Iran’s Nuclear Activities

Together with data made available in the March 2020 report, since the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has:

  • Breached the limit on enriching uranium to no more than 3.67 percent for 15 years. In July 2019, the IAEA reported that Iran had surpassed the 3.67 percent limit and had begun enriching uranium to 4.5 percent uranium-235. The Agency’s March report verifies that Iran has accumulated 537.8 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent uranium-235. Iran is also producing uranium enriched to less than 3.67 percent uranium-235. The agency noted that Iran produced 268 kilograms enriched to about two percent using its advanced centrifuges.
  • Breached the stockpile limit of 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235 (about 202.8 kilograms of uranium by weight) for 15 years. According to the IAEA, Iran has amassed 996.5 kilograms of uranium in hexafluoride gas (UF6), an increase of 648 kilograms since the November IAEA report. Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile now equates to 1,020.9 kilograms of uranium by weight, comprised of:
    • 268.5 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 2 percent uranium-235, in the form of UF6
    • 537.8 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent uranium-235, in the form of UF6
    • 214.6 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 3.67 percent uranium-235, mostly in the form of UF6
  • Breached restrictions on the number of advanced centrifuges installed and the 10-year prohibition on accumulating enriched uranium from advanced machines. Under the deal, for 10 years, Iran is permitted only to perform research and development on a limited number of IR-1, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 centrifuges so long as such activities do not result in an accumulation of enriched uranium. At the Natanz facility, in addition to 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges that Tehran is permitted to use for enrichment under the JCPOA, Iran is now accumulating enriched uranium from cascades of 20 IR-m, 20 IR-4, 10 IR-5, 10 IR-6, 20 IR-2m, 20 IR-4, 10 IR-5, 10 IR-6, 20 IR-6s, 164 IR-4, 164 IR-2m, and 72 IR-6 centrifuges.
  • Breached the 130 metric ton limit on heavy water storage. Iran’s heavy water stockpile has increased by 1.5 metric tons since the IAEA first reported the breach in November 2019. According to the March report, Iran has stockpiled 132.7 metric tons of heavy water. The IAEA also noted that some heavy water was shipped out of Iran and some was used for research activities, all under agency monitoring.
  • Breached the deal’s prohibition on uranium enrichment at the Fordow facility for 15 years. The March report verifies that Iran is now accumulating enriched uranium from 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges configured into six cascades at the Fordow facility, an increase from the 328 IR-1 machines that the agency noted Iran was using to enrich at that site in November

The IAEA report also lists areas where Iran continues to comply with the JCPOA provisions:

  • Monitoring Activities: According to the IAEA, Iran continues to comply fully with its JCPOA-related safeguards and monitoring commitments. The agency continues to monitor Iran’s enrichment in real time and the IAEA continues to implement on-site containment and surveillance measures. Inspectors have also had regular access to declared nuclear sites.
  • Conversion of the Arak Reactor: Iran has not taken steps to pursue the construction of the Arak heavy water reactor under its original design. In accordance with the deal, Iran committed to work with other JCPOA members to convert the Arak reactor into a light water reactor, running on low-enriched uranium. Under the original design, the Arak reactor would have produced an estimated 10-13 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for about two nuclear weapons. The modified reactor will produce less than one bomb's worth per year, and Iran will ship that material out.
  • Prohibition on Reprocessing Activities: The March IAEA report verifies that Iran has not taken steps related to spent fuel reprocessing at the relevant facilities declared to the IAEA.
  • Installation of IR-1 Centrifuges at Natanz: According to the March report, Iran continues to enrich uranium using no more than 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz facility. While Iran has breached other provisions concerning centrifuges and enriched uranium production (see above), it has not installed and begun enriching uranium using any additional IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz facility.