The foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Britain, along with the EU’s foreign policy chief, issued a statement in early June. In it, they expressed “deep concern that Iran is not meeting several of its commitments” under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, they did not address whether Tehran is complying with a separate set of legally binding accords: the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and the CSA’s Additional Protocol (AP). These agreements obligate Iran to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with information about all nuclear facilities, materials and activities in its territory.
Unfortunately, there are strong indications that Tehran is in breach of its obligations. Documents seized from a warehouse in Tehran by Israel in January 2018 disclose a wealth of new information about Iran’s nuclear program that was previously unknown to the IAEA. These files, part of a covert archive, show that Iran secretly constructed, operated or had begun to build facilities designed to process nuclear material. Despite the requirements of the CSA and AP accords, Iran failed to report these actions to the IAEA. Pursuant to the IAEA Statute, the IAEA’s Secretariat, which is responsible for inspecting Iran’s nuclear program, is obliged to report these findings to the Board of Governors, which can then reach a formal determination of Iranian compliance with its safeguards agreement.
Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly disclosed the archive in April 2018, experts at the Institute for Science and International Security and I have co-authored 10 detailed technical reports analysing its contents. We found that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was more developed than previously understood. In fact, Iran had an ambitious plan to manufacture five nuclear devices by 2004 and even test one of them at an underground site. Iran failed to report to the IAEA a number of facilities and laboratories it had developed to achieve this objective, thereby violating the CSA and AP.
More than a year later, the IAEA has yet to report Iran’s breaches to the Board of Governors. This lapse contravenes the IAEA’s own legal obligations under the CSA, which requires the agency to apply safeguards on all special fissionable material for the purpose of verifying that it is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
The breaches of safeguards obligations hamper the IAEA’s ability to provide assurances on Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and on the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. Leaving these problems unresolved undermines the IAEA’s independence and reduces the credibility of its conclusions.
The IAEA’s inaction weakens its ability to assess Iran’s fulfillment of its obligations under the JCPOA. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which passed days after the JCPOA’s conclusion, requested the Director General of the IAEA “to undertake the necessary verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments for the full duration of those commitments under the JCPOA.” If nuclear weaponisation activity continued at the sites discussed in the archive, Iran would be in violation of the JCPOA, in addition to the CSA and AP.
The IAEA’s delay further undermines its mandate by allowing Iran to generate cover stories. This occurred in 2009 when Western intelligence exposed the uranium enrichment plant located under a mountain at Fordow. In its November 2009 report, the IAEA stated that Iran’s failure to declare the site and to provide relevant design information prior to its construction was “inconsistent with its obligations” under the CSA.
The report further stated that after Fordow’s exposure, Tehran claimed that the site aimed to produce only low-enriched uranium rather than high-enriched uranium, which Iran would need to build a nuclear weapon. However, the nuclear archive shows that Iran actually designed the site to produce high-enriched uranium to develop one or two nuclear weapons a year. Only after Fordow’s exposure did Iran repurpose the site to produce low-enriched uranium after placing it under IAEA safeguards.
Iran’s breaches of its safeguards obligations reflect a long-standing pattern. The IAEA first confirmed Iran’s violations of the CSA in February 2003, several months after an Iranian opposition group exposed the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. According to the IAEA’s June 2003 report, Iran then agreed to provide design information for new nuclear facilities “as soon as the decision to construct, or to authorise construction, of such a facility has been taken, whichever is earlier.”
While Iran subsequently provided some information that year on its clandestine uranium enrichment activities, it did not provide a complete declaration of its past nuclear activities. Apart from the Fordow enrichment plant, Iran failed to disclose the Shahid Boroujerdi facility, which aimed – as the nuclear archive indicates – to manufacture fissile material components for Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Similarly, Tehran did not declare the true purpose of the Gchine (Gachin) mine and milling facility, which the archive shows was originally part of Iran’s covert nuclear fuel cycle aimed at the production of nuclear weapons. As the archive proves, Iran also opted not to declare its manufacture and use of neutron initiators with uranium, which would help trigger a chain reaction in the weapons-grade uranium core of a nuclear weapon.
In its November 2003 report to its Board of Governors, the IAEA described many other “failures and breaches” of Iran’s “obligations to comply with its safeguards agreement.” As the report noted, Iran failed to declare key nuclear materials, their processing and use, and the facilities where Iran processed and stored them. To resolve these shortcomings and address the IAEA’s concerns on issues related to possible military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program, the agency and Iran agreed in 2007 on a work plan that would lead Tehran to explain the full scope of its past and present activities. However, the process came to a halt in the autumn of 2008 due to Iranian intransigence.
In 2015, Iran had another opportunity to provide the required declarations after the conclusion of the JCPOA. At the time, Iran agreed to provide the IAEA with information and access to nuclear sites relating to past and present outstanding issues. In December 2015, the agency concluded that Iran, prior to the end of 2003, had conducted a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. Some activities also occurred after 2003. The agency assessed, however, that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies or acquiring certain relevant technical competences and capabilities in nuclear weapons development. The IAEA also did not find credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material to advance the possible military dimension aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.
However, Tehran still failed to provide answers to IAEA questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities. At the time, the IAEA reported that environmental samples taken at the Parchin military complex contained depleted uranium particles inconsistent with Iran’s statement that it had not handled nuclear material there. Since the JCPOA’s implementation, the IAEA has not followed up on its findings at Parchin or its other unanswered questions. In its latest May 2019 report, the IAEA echoed other reports issued since the JCPOA, stating: “Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for Iran remained ongoing.”
More than a year has passed since Israel’s disclosure of the archive. It is essential for the IAEA to report Iran to the Board of Governors for its violations of the CSA and AP accords. This action is required by Article XII of the IAEA Statute, requiring inspectors to “report any non-compliance to the Director General who shall thereupon transmit the report to the Board of Governors.” In practice, the IAEA generally defines non-compliance as the diversion of nuclear material for nuclear weapons, for other nuclear explosive devices or for unknown purposes. Non-compliance can also include the processing of unreported nuclear material and the construction of undeclared nuclear facilities. Any case in which IAEA efforts to verify non-diversion have come to a standstill would also constitute non-compliance.
In the end, the breaches of safeguards obligations hamper the IAEA’s ability to provide assurances on Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and on the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. Leaving these problems unresolved undermines the IAEA’s independence and reduces the credibility of its conclusions. On a broader level, countries reach safeguard agreements with the IAEA so that other parties also meet their obligations in a verifiable manner – and expect the IAEA to address all violations in an open and timely manner. The IAEA Secretariat must now do its duty by reporting Iran’s violations to the Board of Governors, which must then determine the appropriate steps to bring Iran into compliance.
Olli Heinonen is Senior Advisor on Science and Nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC. He is a former deputy director general of the IAEA, and head of its Department of Safeguards.