UN nuclear agency votes to turn page on Iran

UN nuclear agency votes to turn page on Iran
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The board of governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted unanimously Tuesday to turn the page on Iran’s history of nuclear weapons work after concluding that Tehran once took initial steps to build a bomb.

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Tuesday’s action by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog was warmly welcomed by the Obama administration, despite heated opposition from Capitol Hill, where critics warn that the move essentially gives Iran a free pass for its past work.

In a statement to the 35-nation board of governors, Director General Yukiya Amano said the agency has “no credible indications” that any work on nuclear bombs went on in Iran beyond 2009, and the country shut down much of its “coordinated” work in 2003.

The IAEA could not “reconstruct all the details of activities conducted by Iran in the past,” Amano said, yet “we were able to clarify enough elements to provide an assessment of the whole picture.”

“As is the case with all my reports, this assessment is factual, technically sound and balanced,” he added.

The completion of the 12-year investigation is another step toward implementing the international Iran nuclear deal reached this summer. International sanctions are scheduled to be rolled back once the IAEA determines that Iran has taken a series of steps to halt its nuclear program, which will likely not happen for months.

Iran is “working very seriously to complete the preparatory activities,” Amano told reporters on Tuesday, setting the stage for the IAEA to certify that sanctions can start to lift in coming months.

Ending the investigation “will in no way preclude the IAEA from investigating if there is reason to believe Iran is pursuing any covert nuclear activities in the future, as it had in the past,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

“Today’s resolution makes clear that the IAEA’s Board of Governors will be watching closely to verify that Iran fully implements its commitments under the” nuclear deal, Kerry added.

Ahead of Tuesday, critics were skeptical that the IAEA had been able to conduct a thorough investigation of Iran’s past activity, given the country’s apparent reluctance to give inspectors free access to their facilities.

In Congress, many lawmakers balked when the IAEA refused to publicly disclose the terms of its investigation. The agreement was a “secret side deal,” they claimed, that critics from both sides of the aisle said underscored their fears that the pact was too weak.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who had helped lead the House’s opposition to the nuclear deal, called Tuesday’s vote “a total capitulation to the Iranian regime’s aggressively dishonest behavior.”

“The president will now use this decision to lift sanctions on Iran without having the complete truth regarding its nuclear weapons related activity,” Pompeo added. “This is a grave and historic error that sends the wrong message.”

Congressional criticism of the Iran deal has been on the rise in recent weeks, following allegations that Iran test-fired two ballistic missiles.

The U.N. has yet to formally respond to those tests, which do not violate the nuclear agreement. However, Reuters on Tuesday obtained a confidential U.N. report claiming that the first of those tests should have been banned by a U.N. Security Council resolutions, raising the possibility of new sanctions.

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said he would not rule out additional U.S. sanctions against Iran in response to the ballistic missile tests.

"If our national security professionals determine that additional sanctions are useful ... then I'm confident that the president wouldn't stand in the way of those sanctions moving forward," Earnest said.

Failing to muster a full-throated response to the missile tests will merely “empower,” Iran as it heads into the final stages of the nuclear deal, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) told U.N. Ambassador Samantha PowerSamantha Jane PowerWe've lost sight of the real scandal Congress should defy Dan Coats' last request on phone surveillance Sunday shows preview: Democratic candidates make the rounds after debate MORE last week.

“We want to make sure the agreement is implemented in the way that it was laid out,” he added.

—Jordan Fabian contributed. Last updated at 1:59 p.m.