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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
IAEA Investigations of Iran's Nuclear Activities

Last Reviewed: 
October 2020


Contact: Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 463-8270 x102

Ali Akbar Salehi (left), the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and Yukiya Amano, director-general of the IAEA, sign a framework agreement in Tehran on November 11, 2013. (Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) first publicly outlined its concerns about Iranian activities related to the development of a nuclear weapon in an annex to its November 2011 quarterly report on Iran's nuclear program. The report laid out 12 main areas for investigation, explained in detail below. These issues became known as the possible military dimensions, or PMDs, of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s concerns about these activities pre-dated the public report, and little progress was made to resolve these issues until 2013.

In November 2013, Iran and the IAEA announced a Joint Framework for Cooperation in which Iran agreed to take several steps to address the IAEA’s concerns, including providing information and access to research reactors and production plants. The IAEA and Iran agreed to additional steps in 2014.

Before Iran completed all of the steps, the 2013 Framework for Cooperation was superseded by the 2015 Roadmap for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program, which required Iran to provide information on all the concerns the IAEA had identified in the 2011 report.

The 2015 Roadmap was announced concurrently with the nuclear deal concluded between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Sanctions relief in the nuclear deal was contingent upon Iran cooperating with the agency’s investigation. The IAEA released its assessment to conclude the Roadmap process in December 2015.

Beginning in 2019, the IAEA requested Iran answer questions about possible undeclared nuclear activities and materials. As part of that investigation, the IAEA requested that Iran allow inspectors access to facilities outside of the country’s declared nuclear program in order to follow up on evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities that, based on IAEA reports, appear likely to have been part of the pre-2003 weapons program. The IAEA and Iran signed an agreement on accessing two locations in August 2020, after prolonged negotiations and an IAEA Board of Governors Resolution in June 2020 calling upon Tehran to work with the agency.


2011 IAEA Report:

In November 2011, the IAEA released a report outlining the agency’s evidence that Iran had engaged in various activities related to nuclear weapons development. The report provided evidence suggesting that Iran pursued a structured nuclear program before the fall of 2003, and that certain weapons-related activities continued after that program was dismantled.

According to the report, Iran engaged in efforts to procure nuclear and dual-use materials and equipment. The twelve PMDs of Iran’s nuclear program detailed in the report are as follows: 1) Iran’s nuclear program management structure, 2) procurement activities, 3) nuclear material acquisition, 4) possession of nuclear components for an explosive device, 5) detonator development, 6) high explosives and associated experiments, 7) hydrodynamic experiments, 8) relevant modeling and calculations, 9) development of a neutron initiator, 10) preparations to conduct a nuclear explosive test, 11) integration of a nuclear warhead into a missile, and 12) studies looking into a prototype Iranian re-entry vehicle

Additionally, Iran was found to have acquired nuclear weapons development information and documentation from an unnamed clandestine nuclear supply network and to have explored development of an indigenously-designed nuclear weapon. The IAEA’s published November 2011 report omits details about the latter two points, but the nuclear supply network is widely believed to have been that of Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan.

The report, consistent with a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment, speculates that Iran’s structured nuclear program (known as the AMAD Plan) “was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order’ instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials,” and that certain research and development activities may have resumed. For more on the IAEA’s November 2011 report, see: The IAEA’s Iran Report: Assessment and Implications.

The agency’s 35-member Board of Governors adopted a resolution Nov. 18, 2011, that expressed “deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear program” and called on Iran to provide the agency with “access to all relevant information, documentation, sites, material, and personnel.”

Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili responded positively to a call from China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States (P5+1) to begin negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in February 2012. Iran and the P5+1 met in April of that year.


2013 Joint Statement on Framework for Cooperation

Prior to reaching the July 2015 roadmap, the IAEA and Iran had taken some steps to clarify the outstanding issues between 2013-2014. 

Under the November 11, 2013 Framework for Cooperation, Iran and the IAEA committed to resolving the agency's concerns through a step-by-step process to address all of the outstanding issues. An annex to the framework laid out the first six actions that Iran pledged to take within three months (see details below).

On February 9, 2014, Iran and the IAEA announced a further seven actions that Iran would take by May 15, 2014 (see details below). Iran completed the initial two sets of actions within the time period specified, all of which fall into one of the 12 main areas of investigation. In June 2014, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said that the agency would not issue an assessment on any action until the investigation was completed and the agency could assess the information gathered as a system.

A May 20, 2014 meeting resulted in an agreement on an additional 5 actions to be taken by August 25, 2014 (see details below). Iran completed three of the five actions by the end of August 2014. Two remaining issues related to nuclear weapons development remained unresolved. Iran and the IAEA met several times throughout the spring, and in its May 29, 2015, quarterly report, the IAEA noted that Iran shared information on one of the outstanding issues related to nuclear weapons development. Before all of these actions were completed, this agreement was superseded by the July 2015 Roadmap. 

The full text of the initial Framework for Cooperation and its accompanying annex is available here. The detailed steps taken under the original framework are laid out below.

Provide mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Gchine mine in Bandar Abbas.

Iranian Actions to be completed by Feb. 11, 2014

Status

Provide mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Gchine mine in Bandar Abbas.

Completed. Iran facilitated IAEA access to the Gchine uranium mine on January 29, 2014.

Provide mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Heavy Water Production Plant.

Completed. The IAEA visited the Heavy Water Production Plant at the Arak site on December 8, 2013.

Provide information on all new research reactors.

Completed. In a February 9 joint statement, the IAEA and Iran announced that Iran completed the actions agreed to on November 11.

Provide information with regard to the identification of 16 sites designated for the construction of nuclear power plants.

Completed. In a February 9 joint statement, the IAEA and Iran announced that Iran completed the actions agreed to on November 11.

Clarification of the announcement made by Iran regarding additional enrichment facilities.

Completed. In a February 9 joint statement, the IAEA and Iran announced that Iran completed the actions agreed to on November 11.

Further clarification of the announcement made by Iran with respect to laser enrichment technology.

Completed. In a February 9 joint statement, the IAEA and Iran announced that Iran completed the actions agreed to on November 11.

Iranian Actions to be completed by May 15, 2014

Status

Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Saghand mine in Yazd.

Completed. An IAEA team was provided access to the Saghand mine on a May 5-6 visit to Iran.

Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Ardakan concentration plant.

Completed. An IAEA team was provided access to the Ardakan plant on a May 6 visit to Iran.

Submission of an updated Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) for the IR-40 Reactor (Heavy Water Reactor at Arak).

Completed. In its March 20 report on the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA noted that Iran completed an updated DIQ for the agency on February 12. Iran provided follow-up information in response to the agency's questions about the DIQ on March 29.

Taking steps to agree with the Agency on the conclusion of a Safeguards Approach for the IR 40 Reactor.

Completed. Iran and the IAEA met on May 5 to continue work on the safeguards for the IR-40 reactor at Arak. The approach is not yet completed.

Providing mutually agreed relevant information and arranging for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Centre.

Completed. The agency was able to visit the center on March 12.

Providing information on source material, which has not reached the composition and purity suitable for fuel fabrication or for being isotopically enriched, including imports of such material and on Iran’s extraction of uranium from phosphates.

Completed. Iran provided this information to the IAEA in an April 29 letter.

Providing information and explanations for the Agency to assess Iran’s stated need or application for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire detonators.

Completed. Iran provided the IAEA with information on the detonators at a meeting on April 26 and in subsequent letters on April 30 and an additional May 20 meeting.

Iranian Actions to be completed by Aug. 25, 2014

Status

Exchanging information with the Agency with respect to the allegations related to the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran.

Completed. In its May 29, 2015, quarterly report, the IAEA noted that Iran shared information on one of the outstanding issues related to nuclear weapons development.

(While Iran did not complete this activity on schedule, it was resolved by Aug. 15, 2015, as part of the new July 14, 2015 roadmap)

Providing mutually agreed relevant information and explanations related to studies made and/or papers published in Iran in relation to neutron transport and associated modeling and calculations and their alleged application to compressed materials.

Completed.In its May 29, 2015, quarterly report, the IAEA noted that Iran shared information on one of the outstanding issues related to nuclear weapons development. (While Iran did not complete this activity on schedule, it was resolved by Aug. 15, 2015, as part of the new July 14, 2015, roadmap.)

Providing mutually agreed information and arranging a technical visit to a centrifuge research and development centre.

Completed. According to the Sept. 5 IAEA quarterly report, IAEA inspectors were able to visit this facility on Aug. 31.

Providing mutually agreed information and managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops, and storage facilities.

Completed. The Sept. 5 IAEA quarterly report said that the agency was able to access these sites Aug. 18-20.

Concluding the safeguards approach for the IR-40 reactor.

Completed. The agency and Iran completed the safeguards approach on Aug. 31, six days after the Aug. 25 deadline.


2015 Roadmap for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program

The July 14, 2015, Roadmap laid out a schedule for Iran to address the IAEA’s concerns and the agency to complete its investigation.

The IAEA announced on August 15, 2015, that Iran met the first deadline for providing documents and written explanations to the agency's questions regarding the 12 main areas for investigation as outlined in the November 2011 annex. The agency submitted follow-up questions to Iran on September 9, and on September 20, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and Deputy Director General Tero Varjoranta traveled to Tehran to discuss the investigation and visit the Parchin site. They confirmed that environmental samples were taken at Parchin for analysis in IAEA labs. On October 15, 2015, the deadline for additional responses, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had responded to its follow-up questions and completed all activities under the roadmap.

The completed assessment, released on December 2, 2015, concluded that Iran had pursued a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, including a coordinated “range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” but did not divert nuclear material from its civilian nuclear program as part of its weaponization efforts.

The report found that although Tehran’s organized nuclear weapons program ended in 2003, some activities continued through 2009. According to the assessment, the “activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competencies and capabilities.” The agency said it found “no credible indications” that nuclear material was diverted to the weapons program or that any undeclared activities have taken place since 2009.

In several areas, like nuclear testing preparations and fuzing, arming, and firing a payload, the IAEA did not receive any new information. In other areas, such as Iran’s work at a uranium mine, the IAEA assessed that Tehran’s activities were consistent with its declaration to the IAEA. However, the IAEA assessed that Iran’s program structure, computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device, and certain types of experiments with detonators were part of a nuclear weapons development program prior to 2003.

Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman at the U.S. Department of State, said on December 2 that the IAEA’s conclusion is “consistent with what the United States has long assessed with high confidence.”

Following a meeting on December 15, 2015, the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors voted unanimously to close the investigation into Iran's past weaponization work while continuing to report on Iran's implementation of the July 2015 nuclear deal with the P5+1.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi said that Iran "disagreed" with some of the agency's findings, arguing that the “scientific studies of dual-use technologies have always been for peaceful civilian or conventional military uses” rather than nuclear weapons work, he said.

The full text of the "road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program" is available here. Highlights of the IAEA's findings in each of the 12 areas are below:

  1. Program management structure: The IAEA assessed that, prior to 2003, Iran had an organized structure “suitable for the coordination of a range of activities relevant” to nuclear weapons design. The activities that continued beyond 2003 were not a coordinated program.
     
  2. Procurement activities: The IAEA had “indications” that Tehran attempted to purchase items relevant to developing a nuclear weapon prior to 2007 and information that Iran purchased materials for its fuel cycle activities through companies not affiliated with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Iran admitted to looking into procuring a high-speed camera for conventional purposes but said it ultimately did not do so.
     
  3. Nuclear material acquisition: The IAEA assessed that the Gchine uranium mine, previously thought to be a potential source of uranium for undeclared nuclear activities between 2000-2003, would not have produced any substantial amounts of nuclear material before 2006. The IAEA found that the activities at the mine were consistent with Iran’s explanations and declarations. Overall, the IAEA assessed that “any quantity of nuclear material” that would have been available for the nuclear weapons development program “would have been within the uncertainties associated with nuclear material accountancy and related measurements.”
     
  4. Nuclear components for an explosive device: The IAEA had evidence that Tehran had access to documentation on the conversion of uranium compounds to uranium metal, which is part of the weaponization process, and made progress on reducing a uranium compound into a metal form. Tehran denied that it conducted any metallurgical work for weapons purposes. The IAEA’s final assessment found no indication of Iran conducting activities related to the uranium metal document.
     
  5. Detonator development: The IAEA assessed that Iran’s work on explosive bridge wire detonators has “characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device.” The agency found that some of Iran’s explanations, that the detonators were developed as a safer alternative because of explosive accidents, were “inconsistent” and “unrelated” to the IAEA’s timeframe for detonator development.
     
  6. Initiation of high explosives and associated experiments: Iran admitted to the IAEA in August and September 2015 that it conducted work on certain types of explosives, but had a “technical requirement for the development” of multipoint initiation explosive technology for conventional weaponry. The IAEA noted that there are non-nuclear weapons applications for the development, but assessed that the work was “relevant to a nuclear explosive device.”
     
  7. Hydrodynamic experiments: As part of its investigation over the past several months, IAEA officials were able to visit Parchin, a military site where the agency suspected that Tehran conducted hydrodynamic tests in an explosive chamber. Since the IAEA requested access in 2012, Iran conducted extensive construction and renovations. Tehran said in September 2015 discussions with the IAEA that one of the main buildings in question was used for storing chemicals for the production of explosives. An environmental sampling at the site found “chemically man-made particles of uranium” but did not indicate that it was used for long-term storage of chemicals as Iran claimed. The IAEA assessed that its satellite imagery analysis and environmental sampling “does not support Iran’s statements on the purpose of the building” and that Iran’s activities at the site impeded the agency’s investigation. The IAEA did not draw a definite assessment as to what occurred at Parchin.
     
  8. Modeling and calculations: The IAEA assessed that Iran conducted modeling and calculations related to nuclear explosive configurations prior to 2004 and between 2005-2009. During the agency’s investigation between August-October 2015, Iran maintained that it was not in a position to discuss its work on hydrodynamic modeling because it was for conventional military purposes and not an IAEA concern. The IAEA noted in its report that there are conventional applications for such modeling and that the calculations derived from the modeling were incomplete and fragmented, but assessed overall that Iran conducted computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device between 2005-2009.
     
  9. Neutron initiator: The IAEA’s evidence indicated that Iran continued work on neutron initiators after 2004, although the agency assessed prior to the July 2015 agreement with Iran that some of the indicators that Iran undertook work on generating neutrons through shock-compression were “weaker than previously considered.” Iran provided the IAEA with information about its neutron research and let the IAEA visit a research intuition in October 2015. Iran maintained that its research in the area was not related to “shock-driven neutron sources.”
     
  10. Conducting a test: The IAEA noted it has not received any additional information regarding Tehran's plans to conduct a nuclear test since its November 2011 report. The IAEA noted in the November 2011 report that Iran may have undertaken “preparatory experimentation” relevant to a nuclear weapons explosive device and obtained a document on the safety arrangements for explosive nuclear testing.
     
  11. Integration into a missile delivery vehicle: The IAEA assessed that two of the workshops it identified in 2011 as producing components and mock-up parts for engineering of a Shahab-3 (Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile) re-entry vehicle for a nuclear warhead exist and that the capabilities are “consistent with those described” in documentation provided to the agency on Tehran’s work on a re-entry vehicle.
     
  12. Fuzing, arming, and firing system: The IAEA report noted in the Final Assessment report that it had not received any new information since the November 2011 report on development of a prototype firing system for a Shahab-3 payload that would allow the missile’s payload to safely re-enter the atmosphere and then explode above a target or upon impact.

2019 Investigation

While the PMD investigation was closed in 2015, the IAEA is mandated to ensure that all nuclear materials and activities in Iran are under appropriate safeguards. The IAEA is obligated to investigate if it has evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities and press Iran for information or access as inquiries regarding its safeguards implementation arise.

In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel provided the IAEA with copy of documents that Israel stole from Iran. The documents, known as the “Atomic Archive” allegedly contained information about Tehran’s nuclear weapons activities. Based on the information, Netanyahu pressed the IAEA to investigate a warehouse in the Turkazabad district of Iran.

The IAEA has not publicly confirmed receipt of the archival material or whether the documents are the basis of the agency’s requests to Iran for information and access that began in 2019. IAEA officials have also reiterated that any information provided by member states is subject to the agency’s review and verification process. According to former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson, the IAEA has worked to unpack and clarify a mountain of information about Iran’s possible past nuclear activities revealed in the so-called ‘atomic archive’ since Netanyahu first commented on the archive in 2018.

In November 2019, Acting-Director General Cornel Feruta told a special convening of the Agency’s Board of Governors that the IAEA had “detected natural uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at a location in Iran not declared to the Agency.” It was later speculated that that location was the Turquzabad site, which IAEA inspectors had visited earlier that year to take environmental samples.

Seeking to explain the presence of undeclared uranium, Iranian officials have stated that the warehouse was previously owned by a private company that may have used the facility to store equipment from Iran’s uranium mine. According to the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, “particles can fly and land anywhere.”

In March 2020, the IAEA released a report detailing additional efforts by the Agency over the past year to investigate three sites in Iran associated with possible undeclared nuclear activities and the storage of nuclear materials. The locations and activities in question were again presumed related to Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear weapons research. The reported noted that the IAEA requested access to two of the sites in January 2020, but Iran had refused to allow inspectors to visit the areas in question. Diplomats have alluded to the fact that the Agency’s investigation into these three sites is connected to its investigation into the atomic archive, suggesting the two may be closely related.

Iran refused to cooperate with the Agency’s requests for over a year, until August 2020, when Tehran and the IAEA settled their dispute after Iran agreed to grant the Agency access to two of the sites to conduct environmental sampling. It was reported Sept. 30 that the IAEA completed its inspection of the second site, and that environmental samples from both locations were sent to agency labs to test for the presence of nuclear material.