IAEA Board Censures Iran Again

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Governors passed its second resolution this year censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into past nuclear activities that should have been declared under Tehran’s safeguards agreement.

The censure was expected, particularly after a Nov. 10 IAEA report said that there has been “no progress” in resolving the outstanding issues despite IAEA and Iranian officials meeting in September and November.

In a Nov. 17 statement introducing the resolution on behalf of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, UK Ambassador Corinne Kitsell expressed frustration with Iran’s continued stonewalling. “Over the course of nearly four years, we have seen numerous meetings fail to produce substantive progress,” she said, noting that "the outstanding issues in Iran are not historical – they are integral to the necessary verification assurances that Iran’s declarations are correct and complete."

While Iran must respond to the IAEA’s questions to meet its legally binding safeguards obligations, the agency has already presented a conclusive case that Tehran failed to declare activities from its pre-2003 nuclear program. The IAEA assessed in a May 2022 report that Iran should have declared nuclear activities related to uranium metal in its safeguards agreement. The agency still has outstanding questions about activities at three other locations, where inspectors detected uranium processed prior to 2003, suggesting further safeguards violations. Activities at these sites are no longer ongoing, but it is still critical that Iran fully cooperate with the IAEA to ensure that all of the country’s nuclear material is accounted for.

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 26-2, with five states abstaining and two absent, “decides” that it is “essential and urgent in order to ensure verification of the non-diversion of nuclear material” that Iran fulfill its legal obligations and address the outstanding safeguards issues. The June resolution was similar but used “calls upon” instead of the strong “decides” language in the operative clauses.

In a likely attempt to stave off the censure, Tehran made an eleventh-hour request to meet with the IAEA in Vienna to discuss the investigation, but the agency’s Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, told Reuters in Cairo that Iran “didn’t bring anything new,” to the Nov. 7 meeting. He said the IAEA and Iran would “meet again at the technical level in Iran in a couple of weeks.”

In opening remarks to the Board Nov. 16, Grossi said that he hopes a meeting will take place and that it must be “aimed at effectively clarifying and resolving” the safeguards issues.

However, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Mohammad Eslami, said Nov. 16 that an IAEA visit to Tehran is not on the agenda. He said if the IAEA was acting in good faith, it would not be proceeding with a resolution against Iran “which includes untrue content,” keeping with Iran’s absurd claims that the evidence that prompted the IAEA’s investigation was falsified. Eslami later said on Nov. 19 that Iran would respond firmly to the resolution, but did not provide details as to what steps would be taken. 

Even if Iran had confirmed the meeting, it likely would not have been enough to halt the resolution. Kitsell said “last-minute promises from Iran to hold additional meetings in the future after years of delay and denial are late and inadequate.”

In a statement to the board, U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate suggested that the Biden administration will support further action if Tehran continues to stonewall the agency’s inquiries. That could include referring Iran to the UN Security Council.

Holgate also accused Iran of trying to “threaten and intimidate the Board by mischaracterizing our intent in pursuing this resolution.” She said that “ignoring obligations and undercutting the international safeguards regime and its role in providing critical verification assurances is not an option.”

Russian Ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov described the resolution as “untimely” and “counterproductive.” Russia and China were the two states that voted against the resolution.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

Macron Suggests “New Framework”

French President Emmanuel Macron said a “new framework” will likely be necessary to address Iran’s nuclear program. Speaking on France Inter radio Nov. 14, Macron said he did not foresee any “new proposals” being made that could revive the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also expressed skepticism that the JCPOA would be restored anytime soon, saying Nov. 4 that the deal was “put on ice for the time being.”

The Biden administration is still open to resuming diplomacy with Iran over the nuclear deal if and when the time is right, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said while noting that reviving the deal is not the U.S. focus right now given Iran’s crackdown on protesters and drone sales to Russia. (See below for details on the drone sales.)

Malley, speaking to reporters Nov. 14 in Paris, said that negotiations are not happening “because of Iran’s position and everything that has happened” since talks stalled in September.

After closing in on an agreement to revive the JCPOA in August, Iran’s demands that the agreement to restore the nuclear deal require the IAEA to close its investigation into Iran’s nuclear past and refrain from future investigations created a stalemate. The United States and its P4+1 cannot negotiate over the IAEA’s work to fulfill its safeguards mandate, nor can it excuse Iran from meeting its legally binding safeguards obligations.

Malley did leave open the option for a different approach if “Iran takes the initiative to cross new thresholds” with its nuclear program but did not provide details on what those thresholds are or how long the status quo will remain sustainable.

While talks remain stalled, the United States is continuing to apply sanctions pressure and isolate Iran diplomatically, Malley said.

Malley’s comments and statements from other officials made clear that indirect negotiations are not ongoing during the impasse, despite periodic claims from Iranian officials that Tehran and Washington are in communication.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian suggested in late October that messages from the United States indicated that the Biden administration is “in a hurry to reach the agreement.” U.S. officials denied sending any such message.

Monitoring Gap Poses Challenges, IAEA Reports

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned again that it will “face considerable challenges” in confirming Iran’s inventory of centrifuges, heavy water, and uranium ore concentrate in the future due to gaps in its monitoring of the country’s nuclear program, even if Tehran were to cooperate and provide the agency with records of its activities.

In a Nov. 10 report, the IAEA said that “any future baseline” for certain JCPOA-related verification activities “would take a considerable time to establish and would have a degree of uncertainty.” The IAEA warned that “the longer the current situation persists the greater such uncertainty becomes.”

While Iran is subject to a heavy-water cap under the JCPOA, questions about the stockpile size pose less of a proliferation risk given that Iran does not have an operational reactor that requires the heavy-water as a moderator. Uncertainty over centrifuge and uranium ore concentrate stocks, however, is much more serious. If the IAEA cannot establish a baseline and record of Iran’s production of these materials it will drive concerns that Tehran diverted centrifuges and uranium for a covert program and could pose a challenge to verifying some of the JCPOA’s restrictions.

The Nov. 10 report also documents the growth in Iran’s nuclear program over the past quarter. Over the quarter, Iran produced 6.7 kilograms of 60 percent uranium-235, for a total stockpile of 62.3 kilograms enriched to that level. Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent grew by 54.5 kilograms, for a total of 386.4 kilograms. Iran also produced 924.3 kilograms of uranium enriched to about five percent, but it used some of this material as feed for enriching to higher levels, so the total stockpile was 1,029.9 kilograms. The overall stockpile of enriched uranium declined slightly between the Sept. 7 and Nov. 10 reports, but that was due to Tehran using uranium enriched to 2 percent as feed to produce uranium enriched to higher levels.

If Iran made the decision to breakout or produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb (25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent), it could do so in less than one week (weaponization would take an additional 1-2 years). This one-week breakout period will not drop much more, but the speed at which Iran could produce several bombs’ worth of weapons-grade uranium is continuing to decline. This is concerning because breaking out to build one bomb does not have much security value but being able to produce enough weapons-grade material for several weapons, disperse it to multiple cover locations, and build several weapons, would provide significantly more security and deterrent value. Currently, Iran could likely produce enough weapons-grade uranium for three bombs in about one month.

While the stockpiles of uranium enriched to 60 and 20 percent grew at expected rates, Iran’s installation of advanced centrifuges increased significantly over the past quarter. Since the last report was issued on Sept. 7, Iran installed nine additional cascades of IR-2 centrifuges, bringing its installed total of IR-2m cascades at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant to 15, and one additional cascade of IR-4 centrifuges.

Iran Sells Drones to Russia

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian admitted Nov. 5 that Iran sold “a limited number of drones” to Moscow, but said the transfer took place before Russia invaded Ukraine.

However, debris recovered from downed drones contradicts Amirabollahian’s claims regarding the timing of the sale and demonstrates that at least some of the transfers took place after Russia’s invasion. The Guardian reported Nov. 10 that the Ukrainian military shared evidence that a component from one of the Iranian drones was manufactured in February 2022.

Iran had previously denied selling any drones to Moscow, but a Russian adviser to the defense ministry was caught on a microphone Oct. 20 saying that “we all know the drones are Iranian, but the government has not admitted to it.”

Russia has used the drones to ratchet up its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian targets. There is also evidence that Iranians have helped train the Russian military to use the drones.

Regardless of the timing, the drone transfers violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which prohibits Iran from exporting missiles and drones capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, which is generally defined as a 500-kilogram payload over 300 kilometers.

Amirabdollahian denied reports that Iran intends to sell ballistic missiles to Russia, calling them “completely wrong.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said on several occasions that Russia intends to buy the Fateh-110 and Zolfagar ballistic missiles from Iran.

In remarks Oct. 31, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said that the United States would continue to shine a light on Iran’s drone transfers and would do the same if Iran transfers ballistic missiles, suggesting that the Biden administration did not have evidence of any such missile sale at that time. The following day, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the Biden administration is “concerned that Iran might be considering the provision of surface-to-surface missiles.”

Transferring the Fateh-110 and the Zolfagar would also violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

The United States and the European Union have responded to the drone sales with further sanctions.

Iran Launches Rocket for Satellite

Iran tested a new rocket designed to deliver satellites into space. The Nov. 5 launch was a success, according to Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace division for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The launcher, a solid-fueled system dubbed the Ghaem-100, will be used to put the Nahid satellite into orbit.

Iran is not prohibited from developing satellite launch vehicles, but UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, calls upon Iran to refrain from activities relevant to developing missiles that are designed to be nuclear-capable.

The State Department called the launch “unhelpful and destabilizing.” It said in a Nov. 5 statement that Iran’s development of SLVs poses a “significant proliferation concern” because they “incorporate technologies that are virtually identical to, and interchangeable with, those used in ballistic missiles.”

Iran has launched satellites into orbit in the past, but its record of success is mixed. Earlier this year, Russia launched a satellite for Iran. The United States raised concerns about that satellite, saying it would be used by Iran for spying. Iranian officials say the Nahid satellite that the Ghaem-100 will deliver into orbit is for telecommunications purposes.

ACA Lays Out Plan B Options for Iran

Iran’s unrealistic demands for an agreement to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the narrowing political space in Europe and the United States to reach a deal with Tehran significantly diminished prospects for restoring the 2015 accord. With Iran’s nuclear program closer to a bomb than at any point in its history, the Biden administration cannot afford to allow the diplomatic stalemate to continue.

To prevent further escalation, the United States and its partners in the JCPOA must begin considering new diplomatic approaches to stabilize the current crisis. One option would be for Iran and the United States to take voluntary, confidence-building steps that reduce proliferation risk and decrease the likelihood of conflict. On the nuclear side, Iran should consider increasing the monitoring of its nuclear program and allowing greater access for IAEA inspectors. Increased transparency would provide further assurance that any attempt by Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium would be quickly detected and that Tehran is not diverting materials from currently unmonitored facilities that support its nuclear program, such as centrifuge production workshops, for covert purposes. In return, the United States could consider limited sanctions relief, such as allowing a set limit of oil sales per month.

Read more in the Arms Control Association’s Issue Brief, “A Plan B to Address Iran’s Acceleration Nuclear Program.”

In Case You Missed It…