Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement Sept. 12 that will allow agency inspectors to access remote monitoring equipment at certain nuclear facilities in Iran to service the units and install new data storage. The agreement likely staved off an IAEA Board of Governors resolution censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned Sept. 8 that “unconstructive” action from the board could “disrupt” negotiations in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Talks have remained stalled since Raisi was elected in June at Iran’s behest, but his administration has pledged to return to talks in the coming weeks. (see below for details).
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were poised to pursue such a resolution during the board’s quarterly meeting in Vienna, Sept. 13-17, despite the risks to the JCPOA, after IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi raised concerns about Iran’s repeated failures to respond to agency requests to service the equipment and clarify the status of the agency’s current monitoring arrangement in a Sept. 7 report.
Grossi warned in the Sept. 7 report that Iran’s failure to fully cooperate with IAEA requests “is seriously compromising” the agency’s ability to maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities. He said that continuity of knowledge is necessary if the agency is to resume the monitoring and verification activities required by the 2015 nuclear deal. The agency’s confidence that it can maintain that knowledge continuity “has now significantly further declined” and will continue to do so “unless the situation is immediately rectified by Iran,” the report said.
The Sept. 12 agreement appears to have allayed Grossi’s immediate concerns. He said in a Sept. 12 news conference that the agreement reached earlier that day was “indispensable” for the IAEA’s ability to provide the “necessary guarantee… that everything is in order,” but he stressed that the arrangement is intended to “allow time for diplomacy” and is not a “permanent solution.”
The Sept. 7 report clearly articulated the implications of Iran’s failure to cooperate with IAEA requests. The report noted that the remote monitoring equipment must be serviced and data storage replaced every three months—a timeline that expired in late August.
The IAEA has been unable to regularly access the equipment or the data collected since Iran suspended implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which gives inspectors access to more sites and information, and certain JCPOA-specific monitoring requirements in February. An arrangement negotiated between Iran and the IAEA at the time allows certain remote monitoring equipment to continue collecting data, but the IAEA will not have access to the information unless the 2015 nuclear deal is restored. That special arrangement expired in June, however, and Grossi noted in the Sept. 7 report that Iran had not responded to repeated agency requests to clarify the status of the agreement.
Despite Grossi’s assessment that the Sept. 12 agreement will help the agency maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program, there may still be gaps that are difficult to reconstruct if and when the nuclear deal is restored. The Sept. 7 report noted that Iran removed four cameras from a centrifuge component manufacturing facility in June. Iran alleged that the cameras were damaged when the facility was attacked by a drone June 23, but it did not initially allow inspectors to replace the cameras. When the IAEA was able to examine the removed monitoring equipment on Sept. 4, inspectors noted that the data storage unit was not among the debris of one of the destroyed cameras. While the Sept. 12 arrangement will allow the IAEA to install new cameras at the site, inspectors will not know if the data from the removed cameras is recoverable until the 2015 nuclear deal is restored and the agency is able to access the stored surveillance information.
Louis Bono, U.S. charge d’affaires to the UN missions in Vienna, said in a Sept. 14 statement to the IAEA’s board that the United States welcomes the Sept. 12 joint statement and that it is “very important that Iran uphold the understandings reflected” in that agreement. He said that the United States remains committed to restoring the 2015 nuclear deal but returning to compliance with accord “will be far more difficult if the IAEA is unable to recover and reestablish” its knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program. The “onus must be on Tehran to do its part,” Bono said.—JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Vienna Talks to Resume in “Next Few Weeks”
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announced Sept. 21 that talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal will resume within the “next few weeks,” but he caveated that Iran’s foreign ministry is still working to clarify certain demands that it will bring to the table.
The sixth round of negotiations between the United States, Iran and the parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) mediated by the European Union wrapped up June 20. The United States and other five states have all urged the Raisi government to resume negotiations as soon as possible and pick up where talks left off in June, but the ball remains in Iran’s court to revive the talks.
If successful, the Vienna talks will finalize a mutual return to compliance by Iran and the United States to the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden administration’s negotiating team participated in the first six rounds of negotiations in Vienna but Iranian officials refused to meet with them directly, slowing progress.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Sept. 17 that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has no plans to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, during the UN General Assembly the week of Sept. 20, but “that doesn’t mean that we don’t see value in having discussions with the Iranians.”
Although there was some speculation that Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian would meet with his foreign minister counterparts from the P4+1 countries in a formal meeting of the Joint Commission, the body that oversees the nuclear deal, during the UN General Assembly in New York, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell announced Sept. 21 that not such meeting would take place. “Some years it happens, some years it doesn’t. It’s not on the agenda,” Borrell, who coordinates the Vienna talks, said, adding that, “the most important thing is not this ministerial meeting, but the will of all parties to resume negotiations in Vienna.”
“After the elections the new [Iranian] presidency asked for the delay in order to fully take stock of the negotiations and understand better everything about this very sensitive file,” Borrell noted, concluding that “the summer has already passed by and we can expect that talks can be resuming soon in Vienna.”
Amir-Abdollahian will, however, meet separately with the foreign ministers from the P4+1 countries and Borrell during his trip to New York. All are likely to urge Iran to resume negotiations to restore the deal as soon as possible.
Senior U.S. diplomats have made clear their commitment to restoring the deal but have cautioned that the time left to do so is not indefinite. Iran continues to accelerate its nuclear activities in violation of the JCPOA (see below), thereby significantly shrinking the one-year “breakout window,” or the time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, created by restrictions in the accord.
Certain steps that Iran has taken in recent months to accelerate its nuclear activities, including through the production of 20 percent uranium metal and the operation of advanced centrifuges, have resulted in an acquisition of knowledge that could be applicable to nuclear weapons development and cannot be unlearned. This knowledge makes it more difficult to restore the 12-month breakout established by the deal.
When asked about a deadline for negotiations in Vienna to resume, Blinken said Sept. 9, “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the (JCPOA) does not reproduce the benefits that the agreement achieved,” referring to the original one-year breakout window.
For its part, Iran’s foreign ministry has undergone significant changes since the parties last met in Vienna. Following his Aug. 5 inauguration, President Ebrahim Raisi appointed Amir-Abdollahian as foreign minister and JCPOA critic Ali Bagheri Kani as his deputy. The foreign ministry specified, however, that Kani’s predecessor Abbas Aragchi, who led Iran’s negotiating team under President Rouhani, will stay on as an adviser to the negotiations. Rhetoric from Raisi and his appointed team also suggests the new government will take a harder line in talks to restore the JCPOA and may reject progress made during the first six round of negotiations.
In an Aug. 31 interview, Amir-Abdollahian said that a two- or three-month process will be necessary for the Raisi government to resume negotiations. To that, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said Sept. 9, “two or three months is a time frame that is much too long for us.”
Khatibzadeh’s Sept. 21 announcement suggests Tehran may have walked back the 2-3 month timeline, potentially in response to push back by the other members of the deal.
The United States and other parties to the JCPOA have also urged Iran to return to negotiations on the basis of progress reached during the first six rounds of talks. Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov said Sept. 20 that talks should pick up where they were left off in June, noting that the majority of issues have already been resolved.
Iran, however, appears likely to bring new demands to the talks. A committee set up after Raisi’s election to review the first six rounds raised concerns about the progress made during those negotiations. Amir-Abdollahian also reportedly said in a Sept. 22 meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas that the Vienna negotiations are not to strike a new deal, but rather ensure a full and guaranteed return by the United States to the JCPOA. He called for the parties to return to Vienna with flexibility and understanding.
IAEA Report Highlights Nuclear Acceleration and Noncooperation
A new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran continues to accelerate its nuclear activities in violation of the 2015 deal. Of note, its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 and 60 percent uranium-235 grew over the last reporting period, and, for the first time, Iran produced 200 grams of uranium metal enriched up to 20 percent.
At the IAEA’s Board of Governors meeting Sept. 15, the European members of the deal, Britain, France, and Germany, expressed their deep concern with Iran’s continued violations of the nuclear deal. Remarking on the production of uranium metal, the E3 said that “Iran has no plausible civilian reason for such activity, which provides weapons-applicable knowledge gain.” Iran argues that the uranium metal is necessary to fuel its research reactor, although the IAEA noted that the material produced thus far is unsuitable for that purpose.
The E3 also highlighted Iran’s production of 60 percent uranium-235, stating that “the production of [high-enriched uranium] is unprecedented by a non-nuclear weapons state,” and that Iran’s actions represent “a critical step for nuclear weapons production.” Weapons-grade enrichment is generally considered 90 percent enriched uranium-235.
The E3 further noted Iran’s persistent development of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges and its continued enrichment activities at the underground Fordow facility, which are captured in the report and constitute significant ongoing violations of the nuclear deal.
The IAEA’s Sept. 7 quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities, like its May 31 report, contains significantly less detail than prior reports due to Tehran’s suspension of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and other monitoring measures required by the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in February 2021.
The IAEA expressed particular concern in the report that the agency has been unable to ascertain since June if Iran is still abiding by the special arrangement intended to mitigate the effects of its decision to suspend the more intrusive monitoring measures mandated by the JCPOA. Under that special arrangement, reached between Iran and the IAEA before Iran’s suspension of those monitoring measures, Tehran agreed to allow certain surveillance to continue. However, in accordance with the arrangement, the agency would not gain access to any data from the machines until Iran received sanctions relief in accordance with the restoration of the JCPOA.
That arrangement was extended May 24 for one month, and, at the time, agency inspectors were allowed to service the machines and swap in new data storage. However, since the monthlong extension expired June 24, Iran has failed to officially convey to the agency if the special arrangement is still ongoing and neglected to respond to requests from the IAEA to allow inspectors to service the equipment.
The IAEA report also raised concerns about the status of data recovered from four cameras that Iran removed from a centrifuge component manufacturing workshop in late June, following a reported attack at that facility. When the agency was granted access to inspect the four surveillance cameras originally installed at the facility in September, inspectors observed that one of the cameras had been destroyed and the data storage was not among the debris. According to the report, the IAEA is seeking further detail from Iran about that fourth camera. The agency has also not yet determined whether the data from the other three cameras is recoverable.
During a Sept. 12 meeting between IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi and Mohammad Eslami, the new head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Eslami agreed to allow Grossi to travel to Tehran, service the equipment, replace the monitoring cameras’ memory cards, and install new cameras at the centrifuge manufacturing facility, but did not disclose exactly when that access would be granted. The arrangement appears to have addressed Grossi’s immediate concerns expressed in the Sept. 7 report about preserving the IAEA’s continuity of knowledge (see above for details).
For more details and analysis on the IAEA’s report on Iran’s nuclear activities, see: IAEA Report on Iran Raises Serious Concerns About Monitoring.
Iran Continues to Stall IAEA Investigation
Iran continues to flout its nuclear obligations by neglecting to engage or meaningfully cooperate with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into its past nuclear activities, according to information from a Sept. 7 report agency report on Iran’s safeguards activities. Since launching the investigation, which centers on four locations in Iran, the agency has identified the presence of undeclared nuclear material at all four sites. The material in question dates back to the pre-2003 period, when Iran had a nuclear weapons program, and is not tied to any current activities. Evidence suggests, however, that Iran is in violation of its legally required safeguards agreement by failing to declare the materials.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors Sept. 13 that these findings are a “clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present at these locations.” He said that “Iran has still not provided the necessary explanations for the presence of the nuclear material particles at any of the locations,” and “nor has Iran answered the agency’s questions with regard to another undeclared location,” and expressed his deep concern with Iran’s lack of cooperation.
The IAEA’s multi-year investigation into Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities has moved slowly due to Iran’s failure to provide full and timely cooperation with agency requests for information. In the Sept. 12 report, Grossi noted that “even after some two years the safeguards issues outlined above in relation to the four locations in Iran not declared to the agency remains unresolved.” The IAEA concluded an investigation into the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities in 2015 as part of the nuclear deal—which Iran has argued exempts it from the current investigation—but the agency is still obligated to follow up on evidence that points to undeclared nuclear materials and activities that Iran should have disclosed under its safeguards agreement. And Iran is obligated to cooperate.
In a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Sept. 15, Louis Bono, U.S. charge d’affairs to the international organizations in Vienna, said Iran “must fully cooperate with the IAEA without further delay.” He said the United States “will stand ready, with other Board members, to take appropriate action if the Director-General reports that Iran’s cooperation remains insufficient.” He said the board has a responsibility to take such action and to ensure and maintain the efficacy and integrity of the international safeguards system.”
The status of the IAEA’s investigation into each of the four locations, according to the Sept. 7 report, is as follows:
Information made available to the IAEA in September 2018 suggests this location could have been involved in the storage of nuclear materials and equipment – details that Iran is required to disclose to the IAEA per its safeguards agreement. The agency conducted environmental sampling at the site in February 2019, yielding evidence of “natural uranium particles of anthropogenic origin [human made], the composition of which indicated that they might have been produced through uranium conversion activities.” Those samples revealed the presence of isotopically altered particles of low-enriched uranium. The IAEA shared those findings with Iran and requested clarification, but, according to the Sept. 7 report, “the agency assessed the explanations provided by Iran for the presence of these particles to be not technically credible.”
The report details that the results of the environmental samples indicate containers stored at this location may have contained nuclear material and/or equipment, and that while some of the containers were dismantled, others were removed intact in 2018 and transported to an unknown location. Iran has not provided any additional information to the IAEA about this location since October 2020.
The IAEA found indications of the possible presence between 2002 and 2003 of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc that underwent drilling and processing. When the agency requested clarification from Iran on the origin of the disc in July and August 2019, Iran failed to respond. The IAEA conducted verification activities in September 2020 at a declared facility where uranium metal production had once occurred in an effort to verify whether the uranium disc was present at this facility, but that investigation was inconclusive.
According to the Sept. 7 report, Iran has still not responded to the agency’s questions about the origins of the disc or where it is currently located.
According to a May 31 report by the IAEA, this location “may have been used for the processing and conversion of uranium ore, including fluorination, in 2003,” and the agency has observed significant changes to the location since 2004, including building demolition. The IAEA sought clarification from Iran in August 2019 and requested access to conduct environmental sampling at this location in January 2020, but Iran failed to cooperate. Tehran later granted the agency access in August 2020 under a joint agreement reached between Iran and the IAEA, and environmental sampling “indicated the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles that required explanation with Iran.”
The agency shared those findings with Iran in January 2021. The Sept. 7 report stipulates that there are indications that containers removed from Location 3 were subsequently also present at Location 1. However, according to the Sept. 7 report, the results of the environmental samples taken from Location 3 in August 2020 “would not explain all of the particles identified by the analytical results of the environmental samples taken at Location 1.” It is not clear from the report whether those containers were the ones removed intact in 2018 (see above).
The IAEA found indications of the possible use and storage of nuclear material “where outdoor, conventional explosive testing may have taken place in 2003” at this undeclared location. According to a May 31 report by the IAEA, the agency observed activities consistent with efforts to sanitize part of the location from July 2019 onwards. While Iran denied an initial August 2019 request for access by the IAEA, it later granted permission under its August 2020 agreement with the Agency. Environmental sampling at the location indicated “the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles that required explanation by Iran.”
On Aug. 24, 2021, Iran provided the IAEA with information pursuant to its questions concerning the use of Location 4. The Sept. 7 report details the agency’s assessment that “there are inconsistencies between that information and other safeguards-relevant information available to the agency” about Location 4. Specifically, the report suggests that Iran claims there was no activity at the location between 1994 and 2018, which is inconsistent with information made available to the IAEA, including satellite imagery of the location.
According to the Sept. 7 report, “the agency’s original questions relating to this location remain unanswered. Iran has yet to provide, inter alia, explanations for the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles, and the source of the neutrons that the neutron detectors were to measure.”
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