September 2, 2020 | Insight

Iran Nuclear Challenge Looms for the Next U.S. President

September 2, 2020 | Insight

Iran Nuclear Challenge Looms for the Next U.S. President

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement with Iran last week for the IAEA to inspect two of Tehran’s alleged nuclear sites. According to the IAEA’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, the inspections will happen “very soon.” Yet knowledgeable officials do not expect the UN agency to announce results from its investigation until after the U.S. presidential election in November. The winner of that election will need to press the IAEA to continue its robust Iran investigation to ensure Tehran cooperates fully rather than manipulating the inspections process via superficial compliance.

Grossi heralded the agency’s agreement with Iran, reached after he flew to Tehran for last-ditch talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other high-level Iranian officials. Since January, Iran has refused to cooperate with IAEA requests to inspect the two sites, which the nuclear watchdog believes are connected to undeclared nuclear material and activities.

Iran likely acquiesced to the IAEA’s inspection requests to avoid condemnation at the IAEA’s quarterly Board of Governors meeting from September 14 to September 18, at which the Board plans to evaluate Iran’s non-compliance with its nuclear non-proliferation commitments. In June, the 35-member Board passed a resolution calling on the Islamic Republic to “fully cooperate with the Agency and satisfy the Agency’s requests without any further delay, including by providing prompt access to the locations specified.” Thus, if Tehran had continued to stonewall, it would have risked a Board vote to refer the matter to the UN Security Council for penalties. Instead, following Iran’s agreement to inspections, the IAEA’s next safeguards report, set to be released later this week, is expected to be less strident than previously planned.

The IAEA has new questions about Iran’s past undeclared nuclear weapons efforts – as well as their connection to Iran’s present-day activities – based on an archive of nuclear-related information the Israeli Mossad seized in 2018 from a Tehran warehouse. This detailed information, which Jerusalem provided to the IAEA, contained Iranian nuclear documents, photographs, and plans that identify previously unknown nuclear sites and activities that occurred under the Amad Plan, Tehran’s well-structured nuclear weapons program. After 2003, Iran downsized and dispersed the program but has never accounted for its efforts. Tehran set aside all documentation in a well-kept archive, ensuring that the instructions for developing a nuclear weapon could be used at a future time of Iran’s choosing, and the program’s technical leaders continued aspects of their work at research centers and remained on the government payroll.

In its previous quarterly report regarding Iran’s safeguards agreement, the IAEA obliquely identified three sites of interest, two of which it believed warranted inspections. The first site is likely the location of a former pilot uranium hexafluoride production plant aimed at making precursor gas for enrichment of uranium, the fissile material which Iran planned to use in nuclear weapons. Tehran demolished the site in 2004, just when its nuclear activities came under international scrutiny.

Experts believe the second location is called “Abadeh,” or more precisely “Marivan,” an outdoor test site where, in 2003, Iran conducted large-scale high-explosive tests relating to nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly warned in September 2019 that Iran had razed the site over the summer.

The IAEA also seeks Iran’s explanation of activities at a third location, Lavisan-Shian, sited as a former headquarters of Iran’s early nuclear weapons program. Here, the Islamic Republic may have worked on a neutron initiator, which triggers an explosion in a nuclear weapon. The IAEA did not request access to the site, due to Iran’s extensive leveling of it in 2003 – Tehran paved the area and constructed a recreational park atop it – but the IAEA would still like to know what occurred.

Despite its professed willingness to allow inspections at two of these three sites, Tehran likely plans to offer limited cooperation, then claim it has fully discharged its responsibilities. If Iran does so, the IAEA should document those tactics in its subsequent report, and the Board of Governors should refer Tehran to the UN Security Council.

In addition to Iran’s past razing of suspicious sites, delaying IAEA access has afforded Tehran additional time to remove evidence. While the IAEA carries out vigorous environmental sampling for nuclear material, absent Tehran’s truthful explanations and further corroboration, the agency may not be able to determine conclusively what occurred. Inspections could become a superficial concession that gives Iran a pretext for refusing deeper cooperation.

Moreover, Iran may assert that after the two inspections, it is freed from additional IAEA inquiry into matters relating to its nuclear history and from any further use by the IAEA of the Iranian nuclear archive. The Islamic Republic still claims that the Board of Governors’ 2015 resolution related to the Iran nuclear deal formally absolves Tehran of questions into the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

Now, Tehran will likely refer to wording in its recent joint statement with the IAEA, which reads, “In this present context, based on analysis of available information to the IAEA, the IAEA does not have further questions to Iran and further requests for access to locations other than those declared by Iran under its [Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement] and the [Additional Protocol],” two IAEA verification agreements.

In a press conference following his visit to Iran, Grossi clarified that he “could imagine” requiring further questions and accesses in the future. His statement indicated the IAEA has not agreed to limit its investigation – even if Tehran may feel differently. Even so, Iran’s permission for access could be a one-time peace offering designed to fend off a Board of Governors action until after the U.S. election. Tehran likely hopes it could do so indefinitely if a Biden administration adopts the Obama administration’s approach and opts not to press the matter.

There are already signs that the IAEA may be hesitating to confront Iran over documented misbehavior. According to knowledgeable officials, the IAEA is sitting on an already completed but separate interim report about its 2019 finding of undeclared refined uranium particles at an outdoor warehouse in the Tehran neighborhood of Turquz-Abad. Delayed release of that report deprives the Board of Governors of critical information about this part of the Iran investigation and Tehran’s cooperation (or lack thereof).

The IAEA needs a firm understanding of what the Iranian nuclear program accomplished in the past and may continue to do now, but the agency needs the Board’s full support to obtain it. The IAEA can facilitate this support by updating the Board regularly and as soon as the agency concludes its findings.

Whoever wins the U.S. election, Washington must urge the IAEA to follow leads regarding Tehran’s undeclared nuclear sites, material, and activities and undertake a full investigation into Iran’s nuclear past and present.

For its part, the Trump administration should fortify and broaden U.S. sanctions against reversal by a potential successor. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election, his administration would be well-served by enhanced sanctions leverage that could not easily be dismantled as part of another flawed nuclear agreement.

President Donald Trump should also continue pursuing the UN Security Council’s repeal of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which implements the 2015 nuclear deal. Ending the agreement would reinstate previous UN sanctions and resolutions demanding that Iran halt its enrichment program. It would also preserve an international arms embargo on the Islamic Republic that is set to expire in October and a missile embargo slated to expire in 2023. Revoking the nuclear accord would also provide a possible Biden administration with a clean slate to construct a lasting, more comprehensive agreement with Iran.

World powers cannot allow Iran to once again sweep its nuclear past under the rug. They should support the IAEA as it seeks to navigate the Iran nuclear investigation. How events proceed this fall will be a key determinant in reducing Tehran’s proliferation threat once and for all.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), and Iran Program. For more analysis from Andrea, Jacob, CMPP, CEFP, and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_CMPP, @FDD_CEFP, and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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