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The Iran nuclear deal is facing a new threat

With the IAEA now raising concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, saving the JCPOA just got more difficult.

A March 3 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is withholding access to two sites connected to its nuclear program and failing to cooperate fully to resolve questions relating to nuclear material has created a potentially problematic situation for states committed to preserving the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iran’s 1975 safeguards agreement with the IAEA places on Iran a legal obligation to “cooperate to facilitate the implementation of [IAEA] safeguards.” An additional protocol to that agreement obliges Iran to “provide the IAEA with access to…any location specified by the Agency…provided that, if Iran is unable to provide such access, it shall make every reasonable effort to satisfy Agency requirements…through other means.”

Withholding cooperation and access can result in the IAEA Director General finding that “the Agency is not able to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material…to nuclear weapons” and reporting to the Board of Governors that Iran is failing to comply with its safeguards agreement. The Board would then have to make its own, independent finding. Whenever the Board determines “non-compliance” to have occurred, it must report this to the United Nations Security Council.

At this distance, the consequences of a second Iranian “non-compliance” report (the first report to the Council occurred in 2006) cannot be predicted. However, they could include Iranian abandonment of the JCPOA and withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The root cause of this problematic situation is twofold. First, Iran denies that its nuclear program had a “military dimension,” i.e. research into aspects of nuclear weapon design and manufacture, in the years preceding 2004. Second, Iran denies that a certain building in a Tehran suburb ever housed a trove of documents, detailing that military dimension, which the Israeli government claims to have in its possession. The documents, which Israel has displayed publicly and made available to the IAEA, are Israeli fabrications, Iranians say.

It seems probable that withdrawing these denials would open the way to satisfying the IAEA’s need for an explanation of the traces of uranium and access to sites. It might also enable Iran to debunk an Israeli claim that Iran was intending to draw on those documents when it saw an opportunity to resume nuclear weapons work. It begs belief that Iran would have stored in an unguarded or very lightly guarded building in a Tehran suburb documents it valued for their potential to serve in the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

However, acknowledging that one has been “economical with the truth” is never easy, and it tends to be even harder for governments than individuals. So, Iran is unlikely to be tempted to “come clean.”

Failing such a change of tack, it is possible that the IAEA Director General will have to decide, perhaps as soon as June, whether the absence of an explanation for those traces leaves the Agency unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons. He may also have to decide on the significance of Iranian withholding access to two sites, unless Iran can find other means of satisfying the Agency’s requirements.

If the Director General reports that Iran has failed to comply with its safeguards agreement, precedent suggests that the Board may stop short of making a “non-compliance” finding. This is what happened in 2004 and 2005, when South Korean and Egyptian compliance failures were reported to the Board.  At the heart of the Board’s deliberation will be the issue of gravity. The Board will want to weigh the gravity of the safeguards failure or failures in question, their implications for international peace and security and the likely consequences of a report to the Security Council. A consensus finding will be desirable but, if necessary, a vote can be called.

Paradoxically, the situation is a reminder of the value to the international community of Iran continuing to cooperate with the IAEA to the extent provided in the JCPOA. If Israel and the United States succeed in provoking Iran into abandoning the JCPOA and withdrawing from the NPT, the consequent loss of access to current and future Iranian nuclear activities will dwarf any possible gain from delving deeper into the military dimension of Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear program.

Editor’s note: The author updated this article on March 17, 2020 to correct a misunderstanding concerning the location where IAEA inspectors found traces of natural uranium. That location differs from the location where Israel claims to have found Iranian nuclear-related documents. The correction necessitated changes to parts of the subsequent analysis.

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