The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s safeguards confirmed that inspectors have already accessed one undeclared site in Iran and will visit a second location in September. This is an unsurprising, but positive, confirmation that Iran and the IAEA are following through on the terms of an Aug. 26 agreement to finally allow agency inspectors access to follow up on evidence of possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities.
While it is unfortunate that the dispute over access between the IAEA and Iran took nine months to resolve and that the IAEA’s Board of Governors had to pass a resolution in June urging Iran to cooperate with the agency, this is an important and necessary breakthrough. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA’s investigation is critical for preserving the integrity of the safeguards regime. Iran’s compliance with the investigation also helps prevent escalation over the access dispute from jeopardizing the future of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The Sept. 4 report noted that, following the Aug. 26 agreement between the IAEA and Tehran, “Iran provided inspectors access to the location to take environmental samples” and that the agency’s visit to a second site is scheduled for an unspecified date in September.
According to a February IAEA report, the agency first requested access to these sites in January 2020 under the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement to take environmental samples, which the report said would assist inspectors in assuring the absence of undeclared nuclear material. Iran is implementing the more intrusive additional protocol to its safeguards agreement as part of the JCPOA.
As part of the investigation, the Sept. 4 IAEA report also noted that the agency will “conduct an additional nuclear material inventory verification at a declared facility” at a date already agreed upon as part of its investigation into possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities at a third site specified by the IAEA in earlier reports. The IAEA did not request access to this location, which may have housed a uranium metal disc, as there “would be no verification value” in conducting an inspection at the location, according to a June IAEA report.
Iran’s rationale for the delay in facilitating the IAEA’s requests for information and access rested in part on the argument that it was not obligated to do so, given that the IAEA closed its investigation into the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program in 2015. While that investigation is closed, the agency is still obligated to determine if Iran’s nuclear declaration is complete and correct and to evaluate evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities—both current and past. Iran is also obligated under its required safeguards agreement and the more intrusive additional protocol to provide the agency with timely access and responses to requests for information.
While the delay resolving the dispute over access did not pose a near-term proliferation risk, as the IAEA made clear its investigation is focused on pre-2003 activities and materials and the findings are unlikely to significantly alter assessments of Iran’s past nuclear weapons program, the nine-month interval between the IAEA’s initial request and Iran’s granting of access raises concerns about future cooperation when timeliness may have an impact. Stonewalling on access requests also feeds into speculation that Iran is currently engaged in illicit activities. In the future, it would be in Iran’s interest to facilitate more timely access.
It is unclear if the environmental sampling and accountancy steps detailed in the Sept. 4 report will lead to further requests for information and site visits. In the Aug. 26 joint statement issued by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and Ali Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the two parties noted that “in this present context, based on an analysis of available information to the IAEA, the IAEA does not have further questions to Iran and further requests for access to locations other than those declared by Iran under its [safeguards agreement] and [additional protocol].” This language was likely included to address Iranian concerns about the scope of the investigation. However, the IAEA has rightly made clear that it will follow up to address any concerns that arise down the road.
Additionally, the IAEA’s Sept. 4 report on verification and monitoring with respect to the JCPOA states that the IAEA still has outstanding questions about its investigation into uranium particles detected by inspectors in 2019 at an undeclared site in Iran (not one of the three locations discussed above). Similar to the activities outlined in the safeguards report, these particles dated back to the pre-2003 period.
In reference to the uranium particle investigation, the IAEA took samples from declared facilities and noted in the Sept. 4 report that some of the findings “are not inconsistent with additional information provided by Iran.” However, said the report also noted that “the Agency has recently informed Iran that there are a number of other findings for which further clarifications and information need to be provided and questions need to be answered.” (For more detail on the Sept. 4 report on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA see our Sept. 10 blog Iran’s Nuclear Program Remains on Steady Trajectory).
Tehran and the IAEA agreed Aug. 26 to “further reinforce their cooperation” and “enhance mutual trust.” Hopefully, the exchanges between the IAEA and Iran over this issue and resolution of the access dispute leads to more timely cooperation down the road.