Iran Avoids IAEA Board Censure, For Now

Iran avoided a censure during the March meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors despite Tehran’s failure to cooperate with a yearslong agency investigation into past undeclared nuclear activities. The United States and the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) denounced Iran’s stonewalling during the quarterly board meeting and suggested that they will push for action at the June meeting if Iran does not cooperate with the agency.

The IAEA Building in ViennaIn a March 6 statement, the E3 said that “the need for the Board to hold Iran accountable to its legal obligations is long overdue.” The 35-member Board of Governors last passed a resolution censuring Iran in November 2022. That resolution said it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to fulfill its legal obligations and clarify all outstanding safeguards issues.

If there is no “decisive and substantive progress” the board “must be prepared to adopt another resolution at its next meeting” and to consider future actions, including “making a finding under Article 19 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement,” the E3 statement said.

Article 19 allows the IAEA board to report Iran to the Security Council for noncompliance with its safeguards agreement if the agency cannot verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials.

The IAEA reiterated in its Feb. 26 report on Iran’s safeguards implementation that until Tehran provides technically credible answers about the presence of uranium at the two undeclared locations, the agency “will not be able to confirm the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations.” (See below for details on the status of the safeguards investigation.)

In a March 7 note to the IAEA, Iran defended its cooperation with the agency, saying that Tehran has "done its utmost" to enable the agency to carry out its verification activities. The note said Tehran has completely fulfilled its safeguards obligations. 

The United States also raised the prospect of the IAEA board taking action if Iran continues to stonewall the agency, although the U.S. statement did not directly call for a censure in June if there is no progress. U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate said in a March 7 statement that the board “cannot allow Iran’s current pattern of behavior to continue.” She suggested that the board seek a “comprehensive summary report” that addresses Iran’s nuclear status and the “degree to which the Agency is in position to verify that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful.”

Holgate said that “based on the content of that report” the board should take “appropriate action in support of the IAEA and the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.” Holgate’s comments suggest that these actions could include further resolutions and consideration if Iran is in noncompliance with its safeguards obligations.

If the board does report Iran to the Security Council, Russia would likely veto any resolution against Tehran. However, France or the United Kingdom could exercise the option to snap back previous Security Council sanctions on Iran. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal and modified UN sanctions on Iran, includes a mechanism for reimposing those measures using a process that Russia cannot veto. The snapback mechanism expires in October 2025.

Iran is highly likely to rachet up its nuclear program if the board passes a resolution and/or reports Tehran to the Security Council, including enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. However, the board risks undermining the broader nonproliferation regime and the IAEA’s safeguards mandate if it fails to respond to Iran’s stonewalling. As Holgate said in her March 7 statement, the board "must consider further action for the sake of demonstrating that no state can indefinitely thwart implementation of its NPT-required safeguards obligations by obstructing" the IAEA. 

Concerns about Iran’s failure to implement its safeguards are amplified by recent comments from senior officials about the country’s capabilities to develop nuclear weapons.

When asked if Iran can produce nuclear weapons in a Feb. 11 interview with Nasim TV, former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi said that the country has crossed “all the scientific and technological nuclear thresholds” necessary to build a bomb. The previous month the current head of the AEOI, Mohammed Eslami, said that Iran has the capability to build a nuclear weapon, but “we do not want to do it.”

These statements are consistent with U.S. intelligence community findings, but any weaponization-related comments from senior Iranian officials are particularly troubling now given how quickly Iran could produce weapons-grade materials. While the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran is not currently engaged in key weaponization-related activities, clashes between Iranian-backed forces and U.S. troops and regional tensions increase the risk that Tehran will make the political decision to develop nuclear weapons.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi raised concerns about the uptick in weaponization comments in his opening remarks to the Board of Governors on March 4. He said that “[p]ublic statements made in Iran regarding its technical capabilities to produce nuclear weapons only increase my concerns about the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations.”

Following the IAEA board meeting, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani dismissed concerns that Iran's nuclear program is intended for weapons. He reiterated that Iran is working with the agency to resolve all outstanding issues and that if the "other side" demonstrates political will it would be possible to quickly return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

While the Biden administration has ruled out restoring the JCPOA, The Financial Times reported that U.S. officials raised concerns about Iran's nuclear program during indirect talks with Iran in Oman. The talks, which took place in January, focused on Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, policy director for disarmament

IAEA Reports Small Decrease in 60 Percent Uranium Stockpile

Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium decreased slightly over the past quarter, according to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While the stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent is a serious concern because it can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade levels (above 90 percent), the decrease has no impact on proliferation risk in the short term.

Specifically, the agency’s Feb. 26 report noted that the decrease is a result of Tehran downblending 32 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent to 20 percent. As a result, the stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent dropped from 128.3 kilograms to 121.5 kilograms.

U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate, November 2023 (Photo: U.S. Mission to IOs in Vienna)The 20 percent enriched uranium poses less of a proliferation risk than the 60 percent material. However, given the size of the stockpiles, Iran’s decision to blend down the 60 percent material does not effect breakout, or the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade material for a weapon. Tehran’s breakout to one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium (90 percent enriched) is still about one week and in one month Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for about six weapons.

U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate told the agency’s Board of Governors on March 6 that the United States continues to have “serious concerns” about Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium. Holgate said Tehran’s actions “are counter to the behavior of all other non-nuclear weapons states party to the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty” and that “Iran should downblend all, not just some, of its 60 percent stockpile, and stop all production of uranium enriched to 60 percent entirely.”

As a result of the down blending, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched material grew significantly over the past quarter, from 567 kilograms to 712 kilograms. The 92 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium that Iran produced from down-blending the 60 percent material accounted for about two-thirds of the growth in that stockpile.

The IAEA reported no changes in the number of centrifuges cascades Iran is using to enrich uranium at both the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. Iran did complete the installation of six additional cascades of IR-4 centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, but Tehran is still only operating three of the 12 IR-4 cascades at the facility.

The agency did not report any new centrifuges installed at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, despite Iran announcing plans in November 2022 to significantly expand the capacity of that plant from six cascades of IR-1 centrifuges and two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges to 16 cascades. According to Iran's notification to the IAEA, at least eight of the 16 cascades will be the more efficient IR-6 centrifuges.

The IAEA has not had access to the facilities where Iran manufactures and assembles centrifuges since February 2021, so it is unclear if Tehran is stockpiling centrifuges for future installation. The lack of monitoring raises concerns that Iran may divert centrifuges for illicit nuclear activities.

Holgate said, “Iran’s lack of transparency with respect to centrifuge production is seriously concerning and raises significant questions with respect to the nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.”

The IAEA report noted that Iran is continuing to work on the Khondab Heavy Water Research Reactor (also known as the Arak reactor) but has not provided an update on the commissioning timeline for that facility. Iran had previously told the IAEA it expected to commission the reactor in 2023. Iran is completing the reactor based on the design modifications agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal, which significantly reduces its proliferation risk.

The IAEA report reiterated previous warnings that Iran’s decision to cease implementation of the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement in February 2021 and its decision to remove surveillance equipment has had “detrimental implications for the Agency’s ability to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

The report also noted that there was no progress over the quarter on Iran’s commitment to voluntarily “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.” Iran made that commitment in a March 2023 Joint Statement with the agency. After taking limited steps on transparency in April and May, including allowing the IAEA to install enrichment monitoring devices and cameras at one centrifuge production facility, Iran has taken no further steps to enhance monitoring.

The report said Grossi is “seriously concerned that Iran has unilaterally stopped implementing” the March 2023 Joint Statement.

IAEA Reports No Progress on Safeguards Investigation

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported no progress on a yearslong investigation into undeclared nuclear activities at two sites in Iran over the past quarter. While the nuclear activities took place two decades ago, Iran is still legally obligated under its safeguards agreement to cooperate with the agency’s inquiry to ensure that all its nuclear materials are accounted for.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (C), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Mohammad Eslami (R), head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, hold a press conference during Grossi’s visit to Tehran on March 5.  (Photo by Amid Farahi/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images)In its Feb. 26 report on Iran’s safeguards implementation, the IAEA said Iran has not provided the agency with “any information on the outstanding safeguards issues relevant to either of the two undeclared locations.” Tehran informed the agency in August that it had information about the whereabouts of containers removed from one of the sites, Turquazabad, but did not respond to IAEA requests to provide that information.

According to IAEA assessments, Turquzabad was used to store nuclear materials and equipment. The other site under investigation, Varamin, included a pilot-scale uranium processing and conversion facility that was used between 1999-2003. (The IAEA was investigating two other locations where undeclared activities occurred but has no additional questions about those sites at this time.) The report reiterated that Iran must provide the IAEA with technically credible explanations for the presence of uranium at the two locations and account for the material for the agency to confirm that Iran’s nuclear declaration is complete and correct.

U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate told the agency’s Board of Governors during its quarterly meeting March 7 that Iran has been given “reasonable opportunity” to respond to the agency’s inquiries and that Tehran cannot be allowed to “indefinitely delay and deflect.”

She said the IAEA board must consider “further action for the sake of demonstrating that no state can indefinitely thwart implementation of its NPT-required safeguards obligations by obstructing” the IAEA.

Iran’s unwillingness to respond to the agency’s inquiries deepens concerns about “the nature and intent of Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities,” including enrichment to 60 percent, Holgate said.

Both the United States and the E3 suggested that the board must be prepared to take further action against Iran if it does not cooperate with the agency. (see above for details.)

The Feb. 26 report noted that Iran did provide the IAEA with additional information regarding an accounting discrepancy at its uranium conversion facility. The IAEA identified the discrepancy in March 2022 and Iran agreed to work with the agency to resolve the issue. On Feb. 7, Iran provided the IAEA with a corrected report. However, the IAEA said the corrected material report raised a new inconsistency with past reports from 2003-2004 on the amount of uranium in waste at the conversion facility. The IAEA said this “requires further consideration by the agency.”

The March 6 safeguards report also reiterated that Iran is failing to implement modified Code 3.1 of its safeguards agreement. Modified Code 3.1 requires Iran to provide the IAEA with design information about a nuclear facility as soon as the decision is made to begin construction. This gives the agency a longer lead time to develop an effective safeguards approach when compared to the previous notification time required under the initial Code 3.1, which was 180 days before nuclear material was introduced.

In the report, the IAEA said it requested information in February about reactors Iran commenced construction on. Iran replied to the letter, saying that its implementation of modified Code 3.1 is “suspended” and the agency will receive “relevant safeguards information for any new facilities… in due time.”

The IAEA continues to reiterate that modified Code 3.1 is a legal obligation and cannot be unilaterally suspended or modified by Iran.

Holgate said Iran’s failure to implement modified Code 3.1 is an “expanding concern.”

In a joint statement, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom told the IAEA board that it is “unacceptable” for the IAEA to rely on satellite imagery to monitor the construction of new nuclear facilities in Iran and that “Iran’s history of constructing undeclared nuclear facilities” makes the failure to implement modified Code 3.1 “particularly concerning.”

US Intelligence Says Iran Not Engaged in Weaponization Activities

“Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities necessary to produce a testable nuclear device,” according to the U.S. intelligence community assessment in the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. However, the document noted that Iran’s expanding nuclear program and its reduction of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring put it in a “better position” to produce a nuclear device if the decision is made to do so.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment was released after a Congressional hearing on the topic March 11.

The U.S. intelligence community warned in the report that Iran will probably escalate its nuclear activities in response to further sanctions, attacks, or censure against its nuclear program. “Iran probably will consider installing more advanced centrifuges, further increasing its enriched uranium stockpile, or enriching uranium up to 90 percent in response,” the report said.

The report also noted that Iran is working on improving the “accuracy, lethality, and reliability” of its missiles. It warned that Iran’s work on space launch vehicles would shorten the timeframe for building an intercontinental ballistic missile if Tehran decided to pursue that system.

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