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What the latest IAEA reports mean for the future of the Iran nuclear deal

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on June 5 detailed the latest ways that Iran has exceeded limits agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal and failed to cooperate with monitoring obligations that predate the accord. The agency also listed the ways that Iran continues to honor both its ongoing safeguards obligations and additional verification measures agreed to by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. While it would be Pollyannaish to call the glass half full, it would be flatly wrong to call the glass empty.

For starters, it must be acknowledged that Iran’s steady departure from the JCPOA limits are a measured reaction to the Trump administration’s refusal since May 2018 to honor its own obligations to the accord. Iran began last summer to exceed the 202.8 kg limit on low enriched uranium (commonly expressed as 300 kg of uranium hexaflouride, UF6). It has now accumulated 1,571.6 kg, although 483 kg of that amount is enriched only up to 2 percent or less, far from the 90 percent needed for a bomb. Subtracting the latter leaves 1,085 of useful material, which if further enriched to weapons grade, a process that would take several months, is theoretically enough for one nuclear weapon.

While the stockpile amount is worrisome, it is useful to remember that before the JCPOA was negotiated, Iran had about 9,000 kg of UF6, enough for several bombs. Iran is not racing to reach that level, which at the current pace of accumulation would take another three years.

Iran has kept the number of centrifuges at its main enrichment facility at Natanz to the 5,060 limit specified by the JCPOA. However, since January, Iran has employed 1,044 centrifuges for enrichment at the deeply buried facility at Fordow. In a fresh departure from the accord, Iran said it will set up a new centrifuge cascade at the small pilot enrichment facility at Natanz. It did not specify what kind of machines will be installed there, but Iran already is operating about 100 centrifuges of various advanced designs at the pilot plant.

The knowledge gained by operating such advanced machines cannot be washed away, in contrast to the stockpile excesses, which are reversible. But how much of an advantage this R&D effort will confer is debatable. The fact that Iran is experimenting with 14 different types of advanced centrifuges suggests a scattergun approach.

While the enrichment excesses should not be downplayed, the latest IAEA reports make clear that Iran continues to abide by the JCPOA in several respects. Iran has not engaged in any reprocessing activity. It has not made any effort to resume work on the Arak research reactor under its previous, problematic design, nor to produce fuel for that reactor.

Iran continues to allow IAEA monitoring of all centrifuges in operation, storage, and manufacture. It also allows monitoring of yellowcake production and storage and of heavy water (the accumulation of which is just over the 300 metric ton limit). In accordance with other JCPOA transparency measures, Iran continues to permit the IAEA to use on-line enrichment monitors and electronic seals, and to facilitate the automated collection of measurement recordings. Long-term visas and working spaces have been provided to inspectors.

Iran also continues to provisionally apply the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement (albeit not to the Agency’s satisfaction as discussed below). The IAEA says that its verification and monitoring of Iran’s other JCPOA nuclear-related commitments also continues. Despite acute problems posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the IAEA cited “exceptional cooperation” from authorities in Austria and Iran that have facilitated its ability to maintain its verification and monitoring activities. In short, contrary to premature obituaries, the JCPOA is not dead.

Yet there are other ominous developments. The above details having to do with matters under the JCPOA are discussed in one of two reports the IAEA provided to member states on June 5. In a second report, the IAEA detailed issues relating to its safeguards agreement with Iran that has been in force since 1974. The agency expressed “serious concern” about Iran’s failure to cooperate with its investigation of possible undeclared nuclear material and past activity at three sites.

Iran refused to allow IAEA access to two sites where it seeks to detect any past nuclear activity by taking environmental samples. The third site has been so thoroughly cleansed that sampling would not be useful. In addition, for almost a year Iran has refused to engage substantively with the IAEA over its questions concerning the use of possible undeclared nuclear material in the early 2000s and what had happened to it since. A June 5 report in the Wall Street Journal was the first to provide the details.

The most serious questions concern suspected work on an undeclared uranium metal disk that might have been used in the production of uranium deuteride as a component for nuclear weapons. Other issues include the unreported processing and conversion of uranium ore and the possible use and storage of nuclear material at a location where explosive testing may have taken place.

The activities in question all allegedly occurred 15 or more years ago, and there is no indication they continue today. Yet, how far Iran advanced in its past nuclear weapons work remains a highly relevant question, as does the disposition and whereabouts of the material involved. Iran’s obligation to answer IAEA queries predates the JCPOA. Continued failure to satisfactorily address IAEA questions and requests for access will lead inevitably to another finding of a safeguards violation and a report of such to the Security Council.

Iran told the IAEA that it “will not recognize any allegation on past activities and does not consider itself obliged to respond to such allegations.” It bases this claim on the unsatisfactory way that the agency in late 2015 closed the file on the question of Iran nuclear activities of a “possible military dimension” in order to allow implementation of the JCPOA. There was no promise not to again explore past activities, however, if new information came to light, which it has. The IAEA has an obligation to investigate the new leads about possible undeclared nuclear material and activity in the “atomic archive” purloined from Iran by Israeli intelligence in early 2018.

The issue is not purely one of legal requirements, however; it must be seen in the larger political context. The  Wall Street Journal reported last month that Iran actually did appear ready to accept inspectors and the taking of environmental samples, but that it did not happen due to internal politics in Iran. The internal dynamics are affected, of course, by outside forces, which overall have contributed to Iran’s sense of betrayal. The United States is pressing to extend an arms embargo on Iran and continues to apply new sanctions designations. Meanwhile, Europe remains unable to arrange for any but a miniscule amount of trade that is protected from those sanctions.

Yet if Iranians were disposed to look for positive signs, recent days have produced some. Contrary to concerns, the U.S. did not attempt to prevent Iranian oil tankers from delivering oil to Venezuela. Last week, the U.S. released two Iranians who had been held on sanctions charges. President Trump thanked Iran for its reciprocal release of an American prisoner and repeated his interest in new negotiations. Although the “big deal” he touts is not in the cards, there is an opportunity to keep the situation from further unraveling. The issues raised in the IAEA reports are important but not imminently dangerous. There is no need to go off half-cocked over a glass that is half empty.

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