The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on November 11 that it had detected the presence of man-made, refined uranium particles at “a location in Iran not disclosed to the Agency.” The finding indicates that Iran may have concealed undeclared nuclear activity from the IAEA, potentially violating its nonproliferation agreements.
According to media reports, IAEA officials told the Agency’s member states at a special November 7 meeting of its Board of Governors that the site in question was a warehouse in the Turquzabad district of Tehran. Israel publicly exposed the site in September 2018, alleging that it contained nuclear-related equipment and material from Iran’s past and potentially ongoing nuclear weapons program.
When questioned by the IAEA, Iran reportedly stated that the particles at Turquzabad came from scrapped equipment used at Iran’s Gcchine uranium mine and mill facility. However, IAEA officials told the Board of Governors that the particles were refined beyond the yellowcake form produced by the Gcchine mill, indicating that Iran may not have provided the full story. Even if the yellowcake originated from Gcchine, additional uranium conversion work occurred elsewhere at some point.
The presence of refined uranium particles at an undeclared site in Iran is also of serious concern in light of disclosures from Iran’s covert nuclear archive, a trove of files seized by Israel during a January 2018 raid at a different Tehran warehouse. The archive exposed some of Iran’s past, previously unknown nuclear weapons-related activities, which may have also involved the use of natural uranium compounds.
For example, the archive discloses high explosives tests conducted in the early 2000s at the Parchin military site, which Iran later sanitized extensively. The IAEA nonetheless discovered refined uranium particles at Parchin in 2015, a finding that Iran has not explained. The IAEA’s findings at Turquzabad offer renewed reason to suspect that the particles found at Parchin could be connected to a past or possibly ongoing, covert nuclear weapons program.
IAEA environmental sampling at sites like Turquzabad has strengths and weaknesses. It is a sensitive technique capable of detecting particles and their chemical composition below a microgram in weight of uranium or plutonium. But those samples tell only what was found in the exact spot from which the sample was taken, with no indication of what might be at other locations within a particular site.
Further complicating matters is the IAEA’s delay in visiting the Turquzabad facility. The Agency visited it in February 2019, but according to commercial satellite imagery, Iran had already begun emptying cargo containers and sanitizing the site in the summer of 2018, an effort it continued up until the IAEA’s inspection. Tehran’s actions have thus made it difficult for the IAEA to determine the full scope of what occurred there.
The verification and monitoring of Iran’s voluntary undertakings under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), rely heavily on its implementation of past nonproliferation agreements. These include Iran’s legally binding Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA), which requires Iran to declare all nuclear material in its territory, and the Additional Protocol (AP), a voluntary agreement providing additional tools to detect undeclared sites. Any issues with implementation of the CSA and the AP would have implications for Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.
In its November 11 report, the IAEA called on Iran to cooperate with its investigation into the uranium particles found at the Turquzabad site, stating, “It is essential for Iran to continue interactions with the Agency to resolve this matter as soon as possible.” In light of Iran’s misconduct, parties to the JCPOA can now decide whether to invoke the dispute resolution process of the JCPOA to support the full implementation of the CSA and AP.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) focusing on nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, and other security topics. Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at FDD. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.