The IAEA’s leaked late Saturday report escalated its standoff with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Already in March, the IAEA publicly condemned Iran for the first time for failing to explain concealed nuclear material detected by the agency and for failing to allow it to inspect two nuclear sites.
The condemnation came on the backdrop of months of behind-the-scenes attempts to get explanations and access to the nuclear sites in order to avoid a public escalation, since the IAEA would rather not embarrass the ayatollahs. It likely even dates back to 2018 in late April or September, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed to the world various Iranian nuclear violations discovered by a Mossad operation inside Tehran that January.
Add to all this that the agency has a new director, Rafael Grossi, who was not involved in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Together with the lapse of time, this explains why the world’s normally quiet atomic energy inspectors are now raising the temperature on the Islamic Republic.
Yet, as the IAEA finds a rare backbone, its efforts are already being sabotaged by Russia.
Sticking to a script that is not interested in truth but rather to what is in Moscow’s interests, Russia's Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov dismissed the reports that Iran has denied IAEA access to nuclear sites.
In uniquely Russian-style, he said that the extended refusal to grant access is not a “denial,” but simply what it looks like: Iran has not yet granted the IAEA access.
This re-defining of Iran’s blatant and clear denial of IAEA access might make sense if we were in February or earlier – around a couple weeks after the agency first made the request. But it is now untenable after so many months have passed and since Iran has no explanation for its stalling.
Ulyanov’s statement, along with Russia’s continued ignoring of the US “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, make it clear that his country has no interest in reining in Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In fact, Ulyanov went even further, attacking the leaking of the report to the media, instead of dealing with Iran's potential nuclear violations.
Probably the only question now is how far Moscow will go in ignoring Tehran’s violations.
Are they just siding with Khamenei at tactical points in order to undermine the US pressure campaign as well as any agency or country that seems to be pushing Iran to comply with the 2015 nuclear restrictions?
Or are Ulyanov’s comments a sign that Russia no longer opposes Iran developing nuclear weapons?
Most analysts would probably say the former and that Moscow would still oppose Iran openly breaking out to getting nuclear weapons. This would simply be because Russian President Vladmir Putin does not like anyone else getting too powerful and would rather sell civilian nuclear items to Iran than have it become completely independent.
But if Khamenei continues to block IAEA inspections, how does the West or Russia know what progress Iran is really making?
The only “good” news from the IAEA’s latest report is that the Islamic Republic has kept its uranium enrichment quality at a low level. According to the leaked report, Iran produced about 500 more kilograms in enriched uranium in three months – and that if they maintain this pace, they will probably have enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons three months from now.
But when Iran passed the low-enrichment nuclear weapons threshold in March, The Jerusalem Post learned that top Israeli officials were not in crisis mode because Tehran had stayed away from medium enrichment levels like 20% or 60%, let alone the weaponized level of 90%.
From that perspective, even as Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment stock continues to grow, they are not getting any closer to a nuclear bomb as long as they keep all of their uranium at low quality levels.
The assumption has been that Khamenei will not make any other major moves in any direction before the November US presidential election.
The only question now is whether the tension between the IAEA and Iran will boil over before then. And if so, will that tension frame the nuclear standoff post-election – or will Moscow's support of Tehran blunt the impact of this new pressure?