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It's Time for Iran to Cooperate with the IAEA to Resolve Concerns About Its Nuclear Activities
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Volume 4, Issue 12, October 24, 2013

While much of the world's attention will remained focused on Iran's negotiations with six world powers over its nuclear program, Iran will meet with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on October 28 to continue talks over the agency's approach to investigating Tehran's alleged weapons-related nuclear activities.

These talks provide Iran with an important opportunity to address concerns about its past nuclear activities. Only with such cooperation can the IAEA assure the international community that Iran is no longer pursing actions related to nuclear-weapons development.

Iran-IAEA Negotiations

In an annex to its November 2011 report on Iran's nuclear program, the IAEA detailed concerns about several types of activities with potential military dimensions that the agency is requesting that Iran address. They include:

  • High-explosives experiments with nuclear weapons implications;
  • Neutron initiation and detonator development;
  • Suspected work to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile, along with arming, firing and fusing mechanisms; and
  • Iranian procurement activities related to its alleged warhead work.

Following up on these allegations, the IAEA submitted to Iran on February 20, 2012 a document identifying the kinds of actions that Iran needs to take to respond to the IAEA's concerns. This document is referred to as the "structured approach." Iran submitted a reply to the IAEA on February 26, 2012, which included an edited version of the structured approach document. The document presented Tehran's preference on how the agency should proceed with the investigations.

In total, Iran and the IAEA have met 11 times to negotiate the approach to the agency's investigations and resolvethe differences first laid out in February 2012. But the sides have failed to make progress on an agreement that will allow the agency to begin its work. In an address to the agency's Board of Governors on June 4, 2013, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said that after the first ten meetings, no progress had been made on the negotiations, and that the talks are "going around in circles."

Despite this lack of progress in the past, the October 28 meeting represents an important opportunity to make progress on the structured approach. This will be the second meeting between Iran and the IAEA since Hassan Rouhani took office as President in August. Rouhani, widely acknowledged to be more moderate than his predecessor, pledged to make Iran's nuclear program "more transparent."

Rouhani also appointed a new ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi. Najafi resumed negotiations on the structured approach with the IAEA on September 27, an introductory meeting that both he and IAEA Deputy Director Herman Naeckerts described as "constructive."

Still, significant differences remain, despite the change in leadership. In a September 26, 2013 document submitted to the IAEA following the agency's August 2013 report on Iran's nuclear program, Iran continued to insist that the IAEA provide it access to the evidence upon which it based it allegations about the possible military dimensions and raised objections to the agency's proposed approach to the investigation.  

Disputed Process

A comparison of the approaches favored by Iran and the IAEA indicate several areas of dispute that are preventing agreement on a modality for allowing the IAEA investigation to begin. As indicated by its February 2012 edits to the structured approach document, Iran objects to the IAEA's proposal on the sequence, scope, and allowance for follow-up activities as the investigation continues. While Tehran should have a say about how the IAEA proceeds, placing undue or arbitrary restrictions on the agency's investigations will continue to fuel international speculation that Iran has nuclear weapons ambitions.

Sequencing: In the February 2012 document, the IAEA laid out its intended sequence for investigating the topics of concern, but noted that some of the areas identified "may also be dealt with in parallel." Iran deleted the clause allowing for parallel investigations in its edits to the document and added the following language in a later paragraph "after implementation of action on each topic, it will be considered concluded and then the work on the next topic will start."

Iran's earlier rejection of parallel investigations would only prolong the process and hinder the IAEA's activities because many of the areas that the IAEA identified are interlinked. It is logical that, if in the course of its investigations in one area, it obtains information relating to another question, it be allowed to direct its attention to these multiple areas simultaneously.

Scope: In 2012, Iran wanted to limit the scope of the IAEA's investigations to only those issues identified in the annex to the November 2011 report.

It may be reasonable to begin with these issues, but the IAEA cannot agree ahead of time not to pursue new areas of concern that might emerge during the process and leave important questions unanswered.

Follow Up: In the 2012 structured approach document, the IAEA stated that it would identify follow-up actions throughout the process as necessary to facilitate its investigations. Iran's proposal on the approach removed that clause that would allow the IAEA to identify any further actions necessary throughout the investigations.

Restricting the agency's ability to follow up if new areas of concern emerge could prevent the IAEA from asserting that all of Iran's nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. In addition, evidence provided to the IAEA about Iran's activities comes in part from intelligence gathered by member states. It is unlikely that this information provides a complete picture of Iran's alleged nuclear activities with military dimensions.

If Iran wants to demonstrate the entirely peaceful nature of its nuclear program, then it should prioritize reaching an agreement with the IAEA that would allow the agency to proceed with its investigation as soon as possible.

The IAEA could encourage Iranian cooperation by assuring Tehran that the agency would not punish Iran in the future if it comes clean about its past activities and the agency is able to conclude that these activities are no longer being pursued.

Additional Transparency Measures

In the September 26 submission to the IAEA, Iran also explained its decision not to implement the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement or Modified Code 3.1 of its safeguards agreement. In both cases, Iran maintains that it has chosen not to observe the agreements because the IAEA's investigations into Iran's nuclear program are politicized and not based on technical or legal justifications.

Iran should reconsider its decision not to implement these agreements. While Iran is not legally required to implement the Additional Protocol, the transparency gained by such actions would go a long way to provide further evidence that Iran's nuclear program is for entirely peaceful purposes, as it claims.

If Iran implements Code 3.1, the IAEA will receive information about any plans Tehran has to expand its nuclear program earlier than it would under the existing safeguards agreement. Iran would also be obligated to share any design changes to existing nuclear facilities. This would give the agency a clearer picture of the trajectory of Iran's nuclear program and provide early assurances about the nature and purpose of new facilities.

The Additional Protocol would allow the IAEA to visit all of the facilities associated with Iran's nuclear activities, including sites that the agency does not currently have access to, such as the uranium mines, Iran's centrifuge production facilities, and its heavy water production plant. The Additional Protocol also substantially expands the IAEA's ability to check for clandestine, undeclared, nuclear facilities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, to investigate questions about or inconsistencies in a state's nuclear declarations.

With the Additional Protocol in effect, the IAEA would also be able to visit any site on very short notice. These monitoring and verification measures would give the agency a more complete picture of Iran's nuclear activities and allow for early detection of deviations from peaceful activities. Early notification would give the international community time to respond to any dash Iran might make toward building nuclear weapons.

Implementing the Additional Protocol is a step Iran could take quickly because it already negotiated the agreement with the IAEA. Iran signed the document and voluntarily implemented it between 2003-2006. However, because Tehran did not ratify the Additional Protocol, it is not legally bound to follow it.

Moving Forward

While the scope of Iran's future nuclear activities will be determined by the outcome of its negotiations with the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), an agreement is unlikely to be reached if Tehran does not answer the IAEA's concerns and assure the international community that it is not actively pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.

A deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium only to normal reactor-grade levels, limits its enrichment capacity and stockpile, and grants the IAEA more extensive access and monitoring, in exchange for a phased lifting of international sanctions related to its nuclear activities, is still within reach. For it to be realized, however, Iran must cooperate with the IAEA and allow the agency to resolve its outstanding concerns over Tehran's nuclear activities with possible military dimensions.--KELSEY DAVENPORT


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today. Daryl G. Kimball is ACA's executive director.