E3 Put JCPOA at Risk, Luckily Cooler Heads in Vienna Prevailed

An exercise of restraint at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Governors meeting may have preserved the space for diplomatic efforts to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, in part due to efforts by the United States and others to sway Britain, France, and Germany from pursuing a gratuitous resolution censuring Tehran. The resolution risked jeopardizing the IAEA’s access to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as the already uncertain path toward restoration of the accord.

Officials gathered for an International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors meeting in 2017. (Photo credit: Dean Calma/IAEA)The European members of the deal circulated a draft resolution ahead of the quarterly IAEA Board of Governors meeting March 1-5 that expressed deep concern with Tehran’s recent steps to limit its safeguards arrangements with the agency that are mandated by the nuclear deal.

The reduction in monitoring is the most recent—and serious— step Tehran has taken to reduce compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in response to the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the accord and pursue a maximum pressure campaign in violation of the agreement. Iran has made clear that its reduction in monitoring—like its other breaches—will be reversed if JCPOA-sanctions are lifted.

Concern over this significant reduction in IAEA access is not surprising, nor is it unwarranted, but a resolution urging Iran to restore these JCPOA-specific provisions is unnecessary at this time. In addition to jeopardizing IAEA efforts to mitigate the impact of the monitoring suspension, adoption of that resolution would have put at risk diplomatic endeavors to coordinate a return to compliance with the JCPOA by both the United States and Iran.

To prevent the suspension from becoming a full-blown crisis, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi traveled to Tehran Feb. 21, ahead of Iran’s announcement,to negotiate a temporary bilateral agreement whereby the agency can continue certain additional verification activities in Iran for three months. Iran will gather and store certain information during that time and hand it over to the agency if sanctions relief is granted. While imperfect, the special arrangement averted a disaster and is manageable in the short term. The agreement also kept open a door for Iran, the E3, China, Russia, and the United States to coordinate a swift return to diplomacy and the JCPOA.

Although resolutions adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors pose no legal obligation, they do carry a certain political significance to which Tehran would have undoubtedly responded. Following news of the prospective resolution, Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharibabadi warned the Board that its adoption would be “destructive” and would constitute “an end to the Joint Understanding of 21 February 2021 between the Agency and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which may lead to further complications in relation with the JCPOA.”

Without that joint understanding between Tehran and the agency in place, there would be a dangerous gap in monitoring activities at some of Iran’s most sensitive nuclear sites. It would have been irresponsible of the IAEA Board to jeopardize this critical arrangement and the space it created for diplomacy to restore JCPOA-required monitoring, particularly when Grossi cautioned against action that would put at risk the agency’s efforts. Grossi urged the Board in a March 1 news conference “to have constructive discussions and to preserve the work of the agency.”

The adoption of an intentionally inflammatory resolution that further condemned Iran for taking steps in violation of the JCPOA could also have been counterproductive to the mutual goal of restoring the nuclear deal. After the Europeans decided to scrap the resolution, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman remarked “today’s development can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran & the IAEA, and pave the way for full implementation of commitments by all parties to the [JCPOA].”

The draft resolution further called on Iran to cooperate fully with the agency’s investigation into certain outstanding issues related to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement without delay. Those outstanding issues and the IAEA’s assessment that Iran’s explanations about the presence of uranium at undeclared sites were “not technically credible” were detailed in a Feb. 23 report stemming from an ongoing multi-year agency investigation into Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities and are separate from the nuclear deal.

Had the resolution focused solely on encouraging Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation it would have likely received more support given the importance of preserving the safeguards regime, Iran’s history of stalling on the IAEA’s investigation, and a related Board resolution in June 2020. And if the IAEA and Iran do not make progress on this issue, action by the Board at the next meeting in June should be seriously discussed and considered, irrespective of the state of the JCPOA.

The Biden administration appears to recognize that the safeguards investigation and Iran’s decision to suspend the JCPOA’s monitoring provisions should be dealt with separately. In his delivery of the U.S. statement before the Board of Governors March 4, Louis L. Bono remarked that “while these safeguards issues are a separate topic [from the JCPOA], resolving them will also be essential for establishing confidence in Iran’s nuclear-related assurances.”The U.S. statement appeared to imply that, while it is important that the IAEA remain seized on the matter until it is resolved, the agency’s investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities should not delay restoration of the JCPOA.

Restoring Iran’s implementation of the verification and monitoring measures mandated by the JCPOA and ensuring the accuracy and completeness of its comprehensive safeguards agreement are of utmost importance. For their part, the E3’s decision to scrap the Board of Governors resolution preserves a future for the JCPOA, but time is of the essence to restore the accord. With the short window of time offered by the temporary bilateral monitoring agreement, it is imperative that Iran, the E3, China, Russia, and the United States work quickly together to restore the JCPOA and ensure a swift Iranian return compliance with the deal’s verification and monitoring provisions.