In the Iran nuclear crisis, the IAEA stands alone
“And how many divisions does the Pope have?” former Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin is alleged to have quipped in response to a political comment by the Vatican. Though outdated, the retort remains instructive. In international relations, it always helps to have a credible enforcement mechanism. Such a mechanism is missing in action in the escalating drama between the UN nuclear watchdog and Iran.
At a recent press conference, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi declared that the agency will investigate Iran’s nuclear breaches even if it lacks political cover from member states. Though principled, the comments reflect a crisis in the making. An international organization with a monitoring and verification mandate should not have to go it alone against an aspiring nuclear rogue.
Fortunately, President Joe Biden can reverse course, but by taking a page from Iran’s playbook: threaten progress on one track — the current negotiations to re-establish the nuclear deal — to bolster another: IAEA investigations. The Biden administration should condition any nuclear talks on Iran first thoroughly clearing its case with the IAEA.
As the IAEA digs-in to defend the non-proliferation regime, U.S. and international support lags. Washington’s cognitive dissonance on the nuclear issue has been on display for months, seen in round after round of talks to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Meanwhile, the list of Iranian nuclear violations grows, and its illicit procurement and proliferation-sensitive activities continue. By over-focusing on the fast-expiring JCPOA instead of pressing for answers on undisclosed nuclear activities, sites, and material, the U.S. and Europe are playing into Tehran’s hands.
Iran’s ability to wield nuclear escalation and obfuscation to elicit concessions is well-known. Earlier this year, Tehran extorted the IAEA by threatening to delete agency recordings and measurements at nuclear sites if it did not get reprieve from sanctions. Tehran did this both to increase pressure on the agency to accept subpar answers to inquiries and drive the U.S. to the negotiating table. In so doing, Iran sufficiently spooked America and Europe from bringing pressure to bear over its non-proliferation violations at a spring meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors.
Rather than allowing Iran to treat the IAEA as a punching bag and liability, Washington should look to the agency as an asset to bolster.
The IAEA has recently uncovered new evidence of Iran’s breaches of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Over the past three years, the agency detected uranium particles at three sites, which could indicate covert nuclear activities. Iran initially stalled the IAEA’s investigation by denying access. Under pressure, the regime relented and permitted inspections, but has since provided explanations that the IAEA deems “not technically credible.”
Through safeguards established by the NPT — the cornerstone treaty that stems the spread of nuclear weapons — Iran is required to declare its use of nuclear material and identify sites where it uses such material, so the agency can confirm both non-diversion and peaceful use. Iran’s NPT obligations are legal and separate from the JCPOA’s political promises. As such, they endure regardless of the accord’s status.
The IAEA’s investigation gained new momentum in 2018 when Israel seized and exposed a secret Iranian “atomic archive.” The documents indicate that Tehran planned to build five nuclear weapons by 2003 under a well-structured program called the Amad Plan. Iran’s leaders, rather than halting the Amad Plan altogether in mid-2003, as assessed by the U.S. intelligence community, planned to preserve and further its weaponization activities.
The IAEA verified the authenticity of this documentation and has been asking to visit sites where Iran used nuclear material. Indeed, denying evidence of this work is difficult — the archive contains photographs of technicians, signatures, Amad Plan meeting minutes, lists of officials and scientists, overhead and ground imagery, and nuclear weapons schematics. Although the IAEA visited three relevant sites, there are still about 17 to 21 sites mentioned where Iran carried out weapons-related activities. Underscoring the cat-and-mouse dynamic, Iran methodically scrubs sites of evidence prior to IAEA inspections.
The IAEA has also never visited the alleged center of Iran’s ongoing nuclear weaponization work, SPND, nor spoken to Iranian scientists who purportedly continued their efforts. As a result, as assessed by the Institute for Science and International Security in a new book, Tehran is likely closer to a nuclear weapons capability than in 2003, having had time to overcome weaponization logjams, produce near weapon-grade enriched uranium, and improve its nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Director-General Grossi has declared that he views outstanding safeguards issues as a present, and not a past matter, but the IAEA board, the 35-member elected body assigned to hold states accountable to their NPT safeguards obligations, may not help.
The board, under pressure from the U.S. and Europe not to disrupt JCPOA negotiations, yet again withheld a resolution — formal admonishment against Iran’s non-cooperation — at the June IAEA board meeting. As principal leaders in shoring up the non-proliferation regime, the U.S. and E3 (France, Britain, and Germany) must lead on resolutions for them to have any chance of success.
In a greater twist of irony, should world powers re-establish the JCPOA, they will effectively block the IAEA board (and themselves) from holding Iran accountable to its non-proliferation obligations. The board’s main recourse is to refer a non-compliant state to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for sanctions. The JCPOA obstructs UNSC sanctions against Iran because under the terms of its implementing resolution, 2231, all UN sanctions against Iran are lifted. To penalize the Islamic Republic, the UNSC would first need to bring down 2231.
As a result, the current nuclear crisis is likely to repeat itself in a handful of years as JCPOA restrictions sunset, if a military conflict or regional proliferation cascade do not take place first. To prevent all three, the Biden administration should resist the siren song of JCPOA resurrection and first empower the IAEA to do its job. If no baseline for Iran’s past and present nuclear activities can be established, there is no foundation for a deal.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.