Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that Israel had located another covert site in Iran tied to Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. If true, the allegation indicates that Tehran has violated not only the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but also the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime.
In a press conference, the Israeli prime minister claimed that Iran “conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons” at a “site near Abadeh, south of Isfahan.” However, when Iranian leaders realized that Israel “uncovered the site, here’s what they did: They destroyed the site. They just wiped it out.” Netanyahu then presented two satellite images: one, from late June of 2019, showing the original site, and the other, from late July, showing the site with its buildings gone.
Israel learned of the Abadeh site from materials originally contained in Iran’s covert nuclear archive, Netanyahu said. On January 31, 2018, the Mossad conducted a raid of a clandestine storage facility in Tehran’s Shorabad district, removing more than 100,000 files documenting Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The archive unveiled a range of nuclear sites, equipment, material, and activity previously unknown to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s disclosure comes a day after Reuters reported that the IAEA had discovered traces of uranium at another warehouse, this time in Tehran’s Turquzabad district, which Netanyahu exposed last year during an address to the UN General Assembly. So far, Iran has refused to explain the uranium’s origins. Moreover, Iran apparently razed the Turquzabad site, like it apparently did the Abadeh site, sharply limiting the IAEA’s ability to determine what took place there.
Article II of the NPT requires Iran to refrain from receiving, manufacturing, or acquiring nuclear weapons. If Netanyahu’s assertions are accurate, Iran’s activity at the Turquzabad and Abadeh sites would constitute apparent violations of the NPT as well as the JCPOA. Iran ratified the NPT, which is legally binding, in 1970.
The confluence of these developments also points to a larger failing of the IAEA. To date, the IAEA has not demonstrably fulfilled its legal mandate to inspect all suspicious sites in Iran, including the facilities, equipment, and material identified in the archive. Moreover, in the fall of 2015, Iran refused to cooperate fully with the IAEA’ investigation – conducted pursuant to a roadmap tied to the JCPOA – of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, in December 2015, the IAEA Board of Governors voted to close its agenda item on the inquiry.
However, the IAEA now appears to recognize that it can no longer allow Iran to deflect its questions. In a statement to the Board of Governors just before Netanyahu’s press conference, Cornel Feruta, the IAEA’s acting director general, said he stressed to Tehran the need “to respond promptly to Agency questions related to the completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations. The Agency will continue its efforts and will remain actively engaged. Time is of the essence.”
Feruta and his successor must not relent on this commitment. Instead, the IAEA should demand full answers from Iran regarding all outstanding past and present concerns related to its nuclear program, including Netanyahu’s allegations. If Iran continues to stonewall the IAEA, the Board of Governors has a legal responsibility – pursuant to Article XII of the IAEA Statute – to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for countermeasures.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.