On December 2, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its long-awaited report on possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program. The report asserts that Tehran not only undertook nuclear-weapons work until 2003, but in some areas, that work continued as late as 2009.
Additionally, for the first time, the IAEA has linked various instances of previously reported clandestine activities into a coherent account of Tehran’s nuclear-weapons development process. In other words, the IAEA has noted that Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities represented a parallel nuclear program (from mining to uranium conversion and enrichment) carried out alongside its declared one.
What did the IAEA conclude?
In addition to the disconcerting finding that Iran had a parallel clandestine weapons program, the report also confirms that the IAEA has not been able to determine the full picture of Iran’s efforts. The Agency lacks information on the extent to which Iran obtained a design for a nuclear device and whether it retains single-use testing and manufacturing capabilities. These and other gaps in the IAEA’s information complicate its ability to effectively monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.
The IAEA report notes that the Agency has not seen any indications that Iran has diverted declared nuclear material for military-related activities. That is good news. Yet it’s unlikely that Iran would divert material from declared facilities. Instead, Tehran would likely use undeclared facilities and materials for such activities. Until the IAEA reaches a broader conclusion that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and accounted for, it can’t verify with high confidence that no undeclared activities exist – a certification that is likely many years away.
This uncertainty, coupled with the fact that under the JCPOA Iran is permitted to maintain a substantial uranium-enrichment capacity, means that the IAEA will face a significant challenge as it implements its ongoing verification procedures.
Did Iran fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA?
Iran has demanded that the international community “close the file” on PMDs, even though the Islamic Republic has failed to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation and provided the Agency with incomplete information on some matters and none on others. Iran also has prevented the IAEA from interviewing key personnel in charge of PMD activities. Moreover, the verification procedures implemented at the Parchin military complex – where the IAEA believes Iran conducted weaponization activities – differed significantly from standard protocols that the IAEA has applied in the past, both in other countries and in Iran, including at Iran’s military sites.
Due to the IAEA’s limited access to information, the Agency is not able to state whether the conclusions reached in its report have been made with low, medium, or high confidence. This omission is important because Iran is a nuclear-threshold state with increased enrichment capacity in 10 to 15 years. The IAEA’s conclusions, therefore, have a direct impact on the risks associated with the lifting of sanctions, crafting verification parameters, and monitoring Iran’s procurement.
The JCPOA provided the Islamic Republic with an opportunity to clarify its past nuclear-weapons work, but it refused to come clean. Instead, Tehran yet again failed to fulfill its obligations under Security Council resolutions demanding it “cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues, particularly those which gave rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency.” Without Iran’s cooperation and transparency, the file simply cannot be closed.
What is the next step for the IAEA?
A reliable verification scheme requires measures to ensure that Iran cannot reconstitute its weapons program without early detection. Absent a complete understanding of the extent and scope of Tehran’s nuclear-weapons work, effective verification will be compromised.
In the light of the above, the JCPOA’s verification and monitoring procedures need to be reinforced. The P5+1 needs to take additional action before the IAEA confirms that Iran has met its nuclear obligations, triggering sanctions relief set to come on “Implementation Day” (likely in mid-2016). When the new report is brought before the IAEA’s Board of Governors on December 15, it should adopt a resolution based on the following:
1. The detection of undeclared nuclear material and activities requires a credible baseline for monitoring and verification. The P5+1 and IAEA should therefore request a complete declaration from Iran of all of its past and present nuclear activities.
2. The IAEA needs to provide assurances, with high confidence, that all weapons-related activities have been terminated. The Agency must consequently have direct access to all relevant people and sites.
3. The environmental sampling process at Parchin served as a poor precedent for investigations at other locations, including military-related sites. Any future sampling and investigations, in Iran and elsewhere, must be done in-situ by IAEA inspectors and experts.
Olli Heinonen is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and served as the head of its Department of Safeguards. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a member of the Iran Task Force, an independent, non-partisan group of former government officials and nuclear, legal, and sanctions experts.