This January, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) embarked on the difficult road towards Transition Day – October 18, 2023, or earlier if the IAEA can reach a Broader Conclusion that all of Iran’s nuclear materials and facilities are for peaceful purposes and it is not engaged in any undeclared nuclear activities. There are several incentives for Iran to try to reach Transition Day long before the eight-year mark.
Depending on Iran’s level of cooperation and the IAEA’s findings, a Broader Conclusion could technically be achieved in less than four years. At that point, Iran will be a nuclear-threshold state, with all the regional and international security implications that entails. Tehran will be able to produce enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon quickly, and at a time when elements of the JCPOA monitoring regime are being rolled back.
To achieve a Broader Conclusion, the IAEA needs to be assured that all nuclear material in Iran is under Agency safeguards and that there are no indications of undeclared nuclear material and activities in the country.
Since 2003, the IAEA has gained inroads into Iran’s past and current nuclear program. During the Agency’s investigations between 2003 and 2005 – a period during which Iran also provisionally implemented the Additional Protocol – the IAEA mapped the historical production of nuclear materials at installations owned or controlled by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. It then raised additional questions in its Iran Work Plan in 2007, but Iran halted this cooperation the following year.
Even more problematic, Iran terminated its provisional implementation of the Additional Protocol in 2005, meaning that between that year and the interim agreement in November 2013, the IAEA was not able to closely monitor its uranium mining, centrifuge research and development, and nuclear equipment manufacturing activities. Gaps in the Agency’s knowledge therefore remain.
The most challenging element of efforts to reach a Broader Conclusion will be addressing the Possible Military Dimension (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. In 2015, the IAEA and Iran concluded a Road Map to address the PMD issue. However, in its December 2015 report, the Agency was unable to determine the full picture of Tehran’s efforts and left a number of questions unanswered. Although its Board of Governors has declared the PMD as an agenda item closed, the IAEA should pursue answers to outstanding questions. It needs to provide assurances, with high confidence, that Iran has indeed terminated all weapons-related activities.
The Agency must have direct access to all weaponization-relevant people and sites – including military sites – in order to verify the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations. This includes access to the Parchin military facility (and all relevant personnel), where the IAEA has found man-made uranium particles that could indicate undeclared nuclear material and activities in the country. Without this access, the Agency will not able to issue a credible Broader Conclusion.
If Iran fully cooperates with the IAEA, verifying facts on ground will not be a lengthy process. Reaching Transition Day as quickly as possible is in the Iranian interest for the simple reason that nuclear restrictions will loosen, giving it more sanctions relief. On that day, the UN Security Council will terminate sanctions on ballistic missiles and conventional arms transfers, and the U.S. and EU will provide another round of significant sanctions relief.
The operational parameters of Iran’s procurement channel will also change. From now until Transition Day, exporting countries need prior approval from the UN Security Council for any transfer of nuclear single- and dual-use items to the Islamic Republic. After Transition Day, states selling single or dual-use nuclear items are still obliged to inform the Security Council, but prior approval is no longer required. Then, after Termination Day, the procurement channel is automatically terminated.
Restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment will remain in place for a few years after Transition Day, but Tehran can use the Broader Conclusion to advance the narrative that it should be treated as a country in good standing with its nuclear nonproliferation obligations. It will argue that restrictions on centrifuge number and type, and the size of its low-enriched uranium stockpile, should be lifted or relaxed. It will also stock up on key raw materials like carbon fiber and maraging steel, inventories of which will not be subject to continuous monitoring. Iran will then develop more advanced centrifuges and update its equipment manufacturing and testing capabilities, helping it more easily break out to nuclear-weapon capacity.
Reaching the Broader Conclusion is a significant step towards accounting for Iran’s nuclear work, but an incomplete one. Such a conclusion examines whether a country is engaged in undeclared nuclear activities, but does not analyze that country’s long-term intentions. And while such a conclusion is based on technical parameters, it will have a lasting political impact as well: establishing and legitimizing Iran as a nuclear threshold state.
Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.