April 4, 2018 | Memo

The IAEA’s Right and Obligation to Inspect Military Facilities in Iran

FDD Research

In order for the nuclear deal with Iran to ensure the “exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must be able to inspect all necessary locations either in the territory of Iran or under its control elsewhere, including all military sites.[1] Since Iran’s military industry has played a well-documented and important role in developing the country’s nuclear capabilities, the absence of inspections at military sites would prevent the effective monitoring of the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The IAEA’s authority to inspect military sites derives from Iran’s legally binding Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) as well as the Additional Protocol (AP) to the CSA, which Iran committed to apply as part of the JCPOA.[2] Like all other countries subject to CSA safeguards under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran cannot declare any site to be a sanctuary off-limits to IAEA inspectors.

The text of the CSA clearly establishes the scope of IAEA inspections. According to paragraph two, the Agency has the “right and obligation to ensure that safeguards will be applied” to ensure that nuclear material “is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” During the early 1990s, the IAEA board of governors and general conference made a series of decisions affirming that the Agency has the right and obligation to verify the non-diversion of both declared and undeclared nuclear material. These decisions specified that verifying the non-diversion of undeclared material required access to military sites.

Since the conclusion of the JCPOA, Iranian political and military leaders have stated that they will never allow IAEA inspectors to access military sites, a position completely at odds with the provisions of both the JCPOA and Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. The IAEA’s own statements indicate that it is reluctant to request access to military sites, even though the IAEA inspectorate has unique authority to access people, places, and facilities under the CSA and AP. However, it must fully exercise these rights and obligations in order to ensure the full and meaningful implementation of the JCPOA.

The PMD investigation remains open

To justify its denial of access to military sites, Iran has cited the December 15, 2015 resolution passed by the IAEA board of governors, which addressed Iran’s obligation under the JCPOA to address concerns about the possible military dimension (PMD) of its nuclear program, which the IAEA addressed most comprehensively in the annex to its November 8, 2011 report. Iran’s argument is a willful misreading of paragraph nine of the board of governors’ resolution, which “closes the Board’s consideration of this item,” i.e. PMD. Rather than precluding the inspection of military sites, this decision means only that after the JCPOA was implemented, the board would discuss verification of Iranian commitments under a new agenda item – the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 – rather than the previous agenda item which was linked to prior UN resolutions.

Furthermore, the decision to close the original PMD agenda item did not reflect an assessment by the board that Iran had addressed the 12 concerns raised by the Agency’s November 2011 report. The December 2015 IAEA report, which preceded the board’s decision, makes clear that the Agency did not resolve all of the outstanding PMD issues but rather only provided an assessment based on limited additional information. As a result, the Agency was not able to establish the credible baseline essential for long-term monitoring of Iranian nuclear activities. In the absence of such a baseline, the IAEA cannot detect in a timely manner and at an early stage if Iran restores its nuclear military program or key activities related to it. Thus, the IAEA secretariat needs to proceed with its obligations under the CSA and AP to verify the completeness of Iran’s declarations, a process that requires access to military sites.

Why the IAEA needs access to military sites

While verifying the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, IAEA access to military facilities is crucial in order to:

  1. Complete the IAEA investigation of Iran’s nuclear weapons-related research and development (R&D) program and PMD concerns;
  2. Confirm the absence of nuclear fuel cycle or weapons-related R&D at military installations;
  3. Ensure the absence of gas centrifuge-related manufacturing of equipment at military workshops; and
  4. Confirm that nuclear installations are not constructed and operated at military installations.

Experience shows that Iran has often conducted nuclear R&D and manufacturing activities at military sites, so the IAEA would be remiss if it did not inspect them. When Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was revealed in 2003, Tehran acknowledged that several workshops that were part of its military industries were involved in production of key gas centrifuge equipment. In 2004, Iran actually agreed to IAEA monitoring of such facilities located at military sites. Iran has since then moved the production of these centrifuge components to other sites, but its military facilities and personnel retain the relevant expertise and manufacturing capabilities. Therefore, the IAEA must not only monitor the new declared sites for the production of centrifuge rotors, but also establish a baseline for monitoring facilities where Iran historically produced these rotors.

Iran has also constructed fuel cycle facilities at military sites. In September 2009, the United States, UK, and France revealed that Iran had constructed a pilot fuel enrichment plant at Fordow, employing a site that was previously a military facility. The plant’s construction had taken place in violation of Iran’s obligation under its CSA to provide design information as soon as it had decided to construct such a facility.

Under Section T of the JCPOA, Iran is obliged to refrain from any activity which “could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.” Verification of this undertaking is only possible through access to all relevant locations and equipment, which is customarily located at military installations, as illustrated by the examples above.

A robust verification regime is based on transparent reporting

As part of the IAEA’s full exercise of its rights and obligations under the CSA, its investigators should produce detailed, impartial, factual, and transparent reports of their findings in written form. Their written reporting represents the official record of the IAEA’s findings; any statements made by the IAEA secretariat in technical briefings – albeit helpful – are not entered in the official record. If and when investigators visit military sites, their findings must become part of the official record.

The text of the CSA makes clear that the board of governors has the right to request such information in written form. Paragraph five of the CSA directs that “specific information relating to such implementation in the State may be given to the Board of Governors and to such Agency staff members as require such knowledge by reason of their official duties in connection with safeguards.” Before the implementation of the JCPOA, this paragraph guided the IAEA’s reporting practices and led to the provision of detailed reports to board members so they could independently follow the undertakings of Iran and the work of the secretariat. This reporting practice should be restored to meet the standard of transparency expressed in the preamble of UNSCR 2231.


Only through the rigorous implementation of the provisions of the CSA, the AP, and the JCPOA can the IAEA member states be assured that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. The IAEA is obligated to verify the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations, and thus there can be no sanctuaries immune from IAEA inspection. Only with a full and timely picture of how the IAEA secretariat fulfills its verification and monitoring mandate can the international community determine if Iran is complying with its part of the nuclear bargain.

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.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

[1] Article III of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons states: “Each Non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards. … The safeguards required by this Article shall be applied on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of such State, under its jurisdiction, or carried out under its control anywhere.” International Atomic Energy Agency, “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/140, April 22, 1970. (https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/infcircs/1970/infcirc140.pdf)



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