President Joe Biden’s Iran policy centers on the notion of “compliance for compliance” — if Iran returns to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States will follow suit and lift its sanctions on Iran. But with recent revelations that Tehran has been cheating on the deal from day one, Biden must compel Iran to fully account for all undeclared nuclear activities before easing sanctions. Otherwise, he will irreparably harm the international safeguards regime.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi on March 1 announced that the agency visited three sites in Iran last year and discovered undeclared nuclear material at two of them. The Institute for Science and International Security stated that one of the sites was the location of a pilot uranium conversion facility and the other was used to test components for Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Grossi also reported that for the last 18 months, “Iran has not provided the necessary, full and technically credible explanation” for why the IAEA found nuclear material at an additional site where Grossi said there was a “clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present.”
These are not historical problems. The Biden administration faces an imminent threat to the IAEA’s safeguards regime. Iran committed to the nonproliferation principles enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the IAEA safeguards regime. A core element of these commitments is that non-nuclear weapon states, like Iran, commit to not develop nuclear weapons and the IAEA implements a system of safeguards that verify Iran is not using declared facilities to produce nuclear weapons.
When a country conducts nuclear activities at undeclared sites outside the safeguards system, it suggests that the country is attempting to produce materiel or components necessary for a nuclear weapon.
Tehran's repeated attempts to hide its activities is a troublesome sign that we do not yet know the full extent of those activities. If the Biden administration sweeps this issue away as the Obama administration did to preserve the JCPOA it will have devastating impacts on the IAEA safeguards regime.
A reporter recently asked State Department spokesperson Ned Price a simple question: Does Iran need to declare to the IAEA all its currently undeclared nuclear sites, materials and activities for the regime to be considered “back in compliance” with the JCPOA? Mr. Price's response was anything but simple: “...we know that Iran continues to take steps in excess of the JCPOA... So it’s precisely why we put this offer on the table, to meet with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1, to try and get back to that point of joint full compliance with the JCPOA… And so the IAEA will be the judge as to whether Iran is or is not in full compliance.”
Price’s convoluted answer raises several concerns and could signal Biden’s willingness to ignore Iran’s potential breach of the NPT. First, Iran’s concealment of a secret nuclear archive — which Tehran likely kept to allow for a quick restart of its nuclear weapons program — and its undeclared nuclear activities occurred before the Iran-U.S. JCPOA standoff. The State Department should not tie Iran’s concealment to its post-2019 JCPOA breaches. Since the deceit occurred before, during and after JCPOA negotiations, we should expect the deceit to continue if the United States returns to the agreement without first resolving these issues.
Second, Price’s statement does not explicitly call out Iran and wrongly frames a U.S. return to the JCPOA as a possible solution. President Obama said in August 2015 that “if Iran cheats, we can catch them — and we will.” On Implementation Day in January 2016, the Obama administration claimed that the JCPOA allowed the IAEA to continuously monitor “every element of Iran’s declared nuclear program” and the IAEA would also verify "that no fissile material is covertly carted off to a secret location to build a bomb.”
The Biden administration must come to terms with this basic truth: The IAEA didn’t know that Iran was concealing a nuclear archive, nuclear sites and nuclear materials until the Mossad discovered the archive.
The JCPOA’s verification regime failed, much as it did in the early 2000s when foreign sources tipped off the agency to Iran’s secret nuclear facilities. An Iran-IAEA deal brokered last month could lead to Iran destroying three months of monitoring data that could further weaken IAEA monitoring.
The JCPOA’s monitoring deficit is worsened by Iran’s refusal to allow inspections at military sites. Given that Iran’s secret military-nuclear organization, SPND, employs nuclear weapons scientists, the United States cannot have confidence in the IAEA’s ability to fully verify Iran’s activities until and unless the regime fully accounts for its undeclared work. In 2015, the Obama administration made a fatal error of allowing the JCPOA to proceed without forcing such a full accounting. The Biden administration now has an opportunity to correct course.
Finally, the State Department spokesperson’s claim that the IAEA will decide whether and when Iran is in full compliance with the JCPOA raises additional questions. While the IAEA plays an important role in verifying and monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, certification of Iran’s commitments would be a political decision through the JCPOA’s Joint Commission or the IAEA’s Board of Governors.
Preventing undeclared nuclear activities is a fundamental nonproliferation principle that is supported by Republicans and Democrats. If the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA without resolving the problem of Iran’s undeclared activities, it would send a dangerous message and green light Tehran to advance a clandestine nuclear weapons program. North Korea will be taking notes given its own unresolved nuclear activities, and countries eying expanded nuclear programs, like Saudi Arabia, may learn the same lesson. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East could follow.
President BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE should deliver a clear message: There will be no sanctions relief for Iran without a full accounting. There should be no going back to a nuclear deal based on nuclear deception. To delude himself otherwise, Biden would repeat the mistakes of the past and slowly unravel the NPT framework, leading to a more dangerous world with more countries with nuclear weapons.
Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Goldberg previously served as Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the National Security Council. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at FDD. He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. He was the nonproliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks. Follow him on Twitter @NatSecAnthony