IAEA Raises Safeguards Questions
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi raised concerns in March about Tehran’s failure to cooperate with an agency investigation into possible storage and use of undeclared nuclear materials at three locations in Iran.
In a March 3 report to the agency’s Board of Governors, Grossi outlined the agency’s efforts since January 2019 to request information from Iran about activities at the sites and documented Tehran’s refusal to cooperate with the agency’s investigation. Iran also refused the IAEA’s request in January 2020 to visit two of the locations and take environmental samples.
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.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi said March 11 that the agency’s allegations are based on false reports from countries hostile to Iran. “Any absurd claim made by any regime or individual should not be the basis of the agency’s questions,” he said.
Mousavi may have been referring to the documents that Israel stole from Iran in 2018 and provided to the IAEA. The March 3 IAEA report did not specifically reference materials provided by any state, but noted that “all safeguards-relevant information available to the Agency related to Iran is subject to an extensive and rigorous corroboration process.”
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 recent or ongoing illicit nuclear activities. While the storage of information and materials from Iran’s abandoned nuclear weapons program would not constitute an immediate risk, it could be a violation of Iran’s safeguards agreement and additional protocol, so Iran’s decision not to comply with the IAEA’s investigation is very troubling.
Every non-nuclear weapon state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is required to implement a safeguards agreement with the IAEA to provide assurance that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. As part of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran is also voluntarily adhering to an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which, amongst other things, provides the IAEA with more information about a country’s nuclear activities, expands the agency’s access to sites, and increases the option to use environmental sampling to test for the presence of nuclear materials.
In addition to dismissing the agency’s request as baseless, Tehran said in a Jan. 28 letter to the IAEA 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 a 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.
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.
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott told the agency’s Board March 11 that the IAEA’s report raises “very serious concerns regarding Iran’s compliance with its safeguards obligations” and said that the Board may need to escalate the issue if it is not resolved.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant
IAEA Notes Increase in Uranium Stockpile
Iran’s low enriched uranium stockpile is about 1,021 kilograms, a March 3 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms. The IAEA report also notes that Iran is now accumulating enriched uranium from all 1,044 first-generation IR-1 centrifuge machines at the Fordow facility and from a limited number of advanced model machines at the Natanz facility in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Under the JCPOA, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is capped at 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent (about 202 kilograms uranium by weight) and is limited to output from 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz.
Though Iran announced Jan. 5 it would no longer be bound by the deal’s operational restrictions (its fifth violation of the JCPOA), IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi commented March 9 that “to date, the Agency has not observed any changes to Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.”
Speaking at the IAEA’s Board of Governors meeting held March 9-13 in Vienna, Grossi remarked that Iran continues to comply with the Agency’s implementation of monitoring and verification activities under the JCPOA.
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.
In addition to upholding its commitments with the IAEA on JCPOA-related monitoring measures, Iran has not taken steps to pursue the construction of the Arak heavy water reactor under its original design and it continues to observe the deal’s prohibition on plutonium reprocessing.
For a deeper analysis of the report, see: The IAEA’s March Reports on Iran’s Nuclear Activities Raise Questions.
JCPOA Participants Meet in Vienna
At a Feb. 26 meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission, the body established to oversee implementation of that agreement, representatives from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran, and the European Union reaffirmed their commitment to preserving the 2015 nuclear deal.
This was the first meeting of that body since the European members of the JCPOA, the UK, France, and Germany, triggered the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism Jan. 14 in an effort to address Iranian noncompliance and salvage the deal. The mechanism provides for an initial fifteen-day period of discussions within the Joint Commission to resolve the dispute, but this period can be extended by consensus, in theory indefinitely.
The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, who chairs the Joint Commission, announced Jan. 24 that “there is agreement that more time is needed due to the complexity of the issues involved.” “The timeline is therefore extended,” he said.
In his statement following the Feb. 26 meeting, Borrell noted that a series of “expert-level discussions” had taken place in recent weeks regarding both Tehran’s violations of the JCPOA and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions following U.S. withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.
According to Borrell, “serious concerns were expressed regarding the implementation of Iran’s nuclear commitments under the agreement.” However, he noted, “participants also acknowledged that the reimposition of US sanctions did not allow Iran to reap the full benefits arising from sanctions-lifting.”
Though he did not explicitly announce a further extension of the dispute resolution mechanism’s Joint Commission period, Borrell did note that expert-level discussions would continue moving forward.
More detail on the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism process can be found in the last P4+1 edition’s EXPLAINER: The Dispute Resolution Mechanism.
Extending Arms Embargo on Iran Risks Nuclear Deal
Members of Congress concerned about a UN arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October 2020 urged the Trump administration to extend the restriction, without acknowledging the risks that such an approach could have for the 2015 nuclear deal.
A letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo from House Democrats urged “increased diplomatic action” by the United States to renew the embargo and called it “essential to protecting our national security and the American people.” A Senate resolution introduced by Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Jackie Rosen (D-Nev.) emphasizes the importance of the embargo and calls upon the UN to adopt a resolution extending it.
The arms embargo was originally put in place by UN Security Council resolutions designed to pressure Tehran into negotiations over its nuclear program. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice emphasized in 2010, when the arms embargo was expanded as part of Resolution 1929, that the sanctions would be suspended if a nuclear deal was reached.
The United States successfully argued during negotiations on the 2015 nuclear deal that the arms embargo should last an additional five years after the JCPOA was adopted, despite Iran’s position (backed by Russia and China) that the embargo should be lifted immediately.
Calls for extending the arms embargo on Iran may seem like a useful and politically expedient response to Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East region. But in reality, such exhortations could undermine the 2015 nuclear deal by appearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for President Donald Trump to snapback UN sanctions on Iran lifted by the JCPOA in order to extend the embargo.
Although the United States is no longer party to the JCPOA, members of the Trump administration appear to believe that the United States can still trigger the snapback mechanism to reimpose UN sanctions that is laid out in Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA. (see below for details.) Such a measure could not be vetoed in the Security Council.
Iranian officials have stated that Tehran will withdraw from the JCPOA in response to any attempt to reimpose UN sanctions.
Expiration of the arms embargo could have troublesome consequences, but the United States has other tools to address Iran’s conventional arms trade that do not risk collapsing the 2015 nuclear deal.
For additional information on this issue see the Arms Control Association’s March 5 issue brief, Risks and Realities of Extending the UN Arms Embargo on Iran.
U.S. Officials Discuss UN Snapback
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo confirmed the existence of a State Department legal memo outlining an option for reimposing UN sanctions on Iran, a move that would jeopardize the 2015 nuclear deal, and he endorsed the memo’s findings in a Feb. 23 interview with the Free Beacon.
The memo, internally circulated within the State Department, argues that the United States has the authority to unilaterally reimpose UN sanctions on Iran, under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA—despite U.S. withdrawal from the deal in 2018.
While the JCPOA is a political agreement, Resolution 2231 is legally binding and its text was never amended to reflect U.S. withdrawal. According to Resolution 2231, the named members of the 2015 agreement, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran, and the United States, share the ability to refer any issues of noncompliance to the Security Council and to call for a vote to “continue the sanctions lifting.” Any state with UN Security Council veto power, including the United States, can veto the vote and force a snapback of all multilateral UN sanctions on Iran, terminating any remaining benefits Iran derives from the agreement in exchange for limits to its nuclear program. Doing so would effectively collapse the deal.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers will decide in the coming months on whether to pursue this course, Pompeo said. Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also advocated in a March 4 interview with the Free Beacon for sanctions snapback.
If the United States did attempt to pursue snapback at the Security Council, it is highly likely that the other parties to the deal will challenge the Trump administration’s interpretation of Resolution 2231 and try to block U.S. attempts to reimpose sanctions.
Not all members of the Trump administration seem to endorse the legal memo’s position. Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, seemed to dismiss the notion that Washington could invoke a sanctions snapback when he met with French, German, and British counterparts in Paris March 5. “We’re out of the deal,” Hook told reporters, adding that “the countries that are in the deal will make decisions that are in their sovereign capacity.”
For the time being, the United States appears to remain committed to implementing sanctions waivers that allow certain ongoing nonproliferation cooperation projects to continue in Iran. The four remaining sanctions waivers, applied to Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Tehran research reactor, and the export of spent fuel, are renewed every 60 days and have offered “access and information that’s been to our benefit,” Pompeo said in the Feb. 23 interview.
The sanctions waivers were last renewed Jan. 31 and will be up for renewal again at the end of March.
Humanitarian Trade Channel Opens
The United States and Switzerland reached agreement on an economic channel designed to facilitate necessary humanitarian trade with Iran. The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement (SHTA) became fully operational Feb. 27, according to a U.S. Treasury announcement.
In January, a trial of the SHTA allowed the Swiss company Novartis to export 2.3 million euros worth of critical medical supplies to Iran.
While U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the SHTA “will help ensure that humanitarian goods continue to reach the Iranian people without diversion by the regime,” the channel will also allow countries to export needed medical supplies to Iran without incurring penalties from U.S. sanctions.
Humanitarian trade is exempt from U.S. primary and secondary sanctions, but the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions campaign has dissuaded some foreign banks from trading with Iran altogether — even for humanitarian purposes. Under the SHTA, Swiss-based companies may export humanitarian goods to Iran via a guaranteed Swiss bank payment channel overseen by U.S. and Swiss officials.
The finalization of the SHTA comes amid Iran’s struggle to contain the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which has reportedly infected over 16,000 Iranians and killed nearly 1,000. Iran’s medical system has struggled to keep up with the overwhelming number of citizens in need of medical attention, in part due to the toll U.S. sanctions have taken on the Iranian economy writ large.
While it is unclear whether any additional transactions have been made through the SHTA, the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs, Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch, said March 7 there are upward of 50 countries interested in shipping vital medical supplies to Iran via the channel to help aid the country’s response to COVID-19. “If we can provide some support there and ensure exports take place then we are making a good contribution,” she said.
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