At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fell into a worrying slowdown of inspections. Now it is rebounding. IAEA officials say close to full teams of inspectors are flying back and forth from Tehran.
IAEA Director General Rafael M. Grossi announced that for the first time in the UN nuclear watchdog’s history, it is using chartered jet flights to conduct safeguards visits. One senior IAEA official remarked to his team that he is very pleased with the solution, stating from now on, “The sky is our limit.”
These welcome developments come at a time when the IAEA is closely monitoring Iran’s consistent reduction of its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The IAEA reported last month that Tehran now has adequate low-enriched uranium for more than one nuclear weapon, and is steadily deploying advanced centrifuges to allow it to enrich uranium at a quicker pace.
Simultaneously, the IAEA is undertaking an investigation into Iran’s alleged violations of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including denial of access to two sites and refusal to answer questions about another matter. Information from Israeli intelligence led the IAEA in April 2019 to also detect undeclared, refined uranium particles at a site in the Tehran neighborhood of Turquz-Abad. Iranian officials have yet to explain.
Whether the IAEA is able to continue its important work, including obtaining immediate and unrestricted physical access to nuclear sites, will have serious ramifications for safeguarding Tehran’s nuclear activities and clearing up past and possibly ongoing safeguards infractions. The agency will need to guard against any attempts by Iran to avoid tough questions or exploit the health crisis for proliferation purposes.
The IAEA’s efforts in Iran currently fall along two separate tracks. It is carrying out an investigation into alleged undeclared nuclear material and activities, while also applying routine safeguards at the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities. According to the most recent data in the IAEA’s Safeguards Implementation Report for 2018, out of 421 total inspections the agency carried out that year in 59 countries, 385 took place at Iran’s 21 nuclear facilities. This was in addition to conducting “complementary access” visits to other sites of interest to the IAEA, pursuant to Iran’s Additional Protocol. The agency’s task of safeguarding Iran’s nuclear program is thus significant – and a mission compounded in difficulty by a pandemic.
OVER THE past two years, the IAEA obtained startling new information from the government of Israel about potentially undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. In January 2018, the Mossad seized a vast archive of Iran’s nuclear files from locked vaults at a Tehran warehouse.
The archive’s contents detailed a vast, pre-2003 Iranian program aimed at developing one or two nuclear weapons per year. The information directed the IAEA to new sites, personnel and activities of interest. Even though many of the activities described occurred long before the negotiation of the JCPOA, some may continue, according to Iranian memoranda among the documents. The archive’s information has been corroborated by other governments and non-governmental experts.
Iran has not reacted well to the discovery, denying the authenticity of the materials. In recent months, however, senior IAEA officials have been meeting with Iranian officials to raise difficult technical questions about those matters, some of which were covered in the March IAEA NPT safeguards report. This includes Iran’s denial of access to the two suspicious sites and its refusal to answer direct questions about those sites and another matter.
So far, IAEA officials privately report, the agency is determined to continue pressuring Iran to approve unrestricted access to the sites. Director General Grossi is also planning a visit toward the end of April to make sure the IAEA’s requests are progressing in the right direction.
To counter the IAEA’s demands, Iran has stated its desire to negotiate a “roadmap” toward eventually discussing the agency’s requests to visit the two sites and related topics. Seeing this as a stalling tactic, according to the IAEA officials, the agency told Iran that it is only willing to discuss specific technical and logistical matters connected directly to the visit parameters and continues to demand immediate, unrestricted access.
Tehran has used similar stalling tactics in the past, which typically have two main goals. The first is to buy time to allow officials to “organize” the suspect sites – actually sanitization efforts entailing cleaning, moving away of materials and machines, and scraping or covering earth to defeat IAEA environmental sampling. Iran has undertaken such efforts at multiple other sites in the past, and most recently at the Turquz-Abad warehouse where the IAEA found uranium.
Iran’s other goal is to indicate that cooperation with agency investigations is forthcoming, hoping that meanwhile, pressure from the IAEA Board of Governors would diminish. Such tactics are frequently successful with the Russians and Chinese.
Notably, the IAEA’s NPT compliance investigation in Iran is a renewed one, restarted following the installation of a new director general last December. The JCPOA mistakenly closed an earlier investigation into the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. It is on this basis that Iran now denies that it must answer any of the IAEA’s questions about its past.
After the March COVID-19 slowdown began, the agency is reportedly back in action in Iran to routinely apply safeguards. It appears to have returned to a near-normal pace of conducting physical inspections in the Islamic Republic after overcoming several obstacles.
LAST MONTH, inspectors’ travel plans to Iran were abruptly canceled and several officials were temporarily quarantined in Tehran hotels. The IAEA even contemplated installing additional remote monitoring measures at Iran’s nuclear sites as a substitute for actual inspections. Since March 16, the IAEA’s offices in Vienna have been shuttered and its officials working from home.
The IAEA’s Grossi explained in a video statement that the coronavirus outbreak “is putting an enormous challenge in front of everybody. The IAEA is no exception.”
Grossi stated, however, that “IAEA operations are expected to continue with minimal disruption under these extraordinary circumstances. Safeguarding nuclear materials all over the world will not stop for a single minute,” he elaborated. In a separate statement to The Jerusalem Post, an IAEA spokesperson reiterated, similarly, that the agency is not stopping its Iran work “for a single minute.”
According to an IAEA official, a team flew to Iran on April 17, and another team will arrive at the end of the month. During its last visit, the IAEA also transferred to Tehran two coronavirus testing machines. Inspectors also visited the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. While air transportation and physical visits to certain sites in areas of greater COVID-19 outbreaks have been more limited, the IAEA intends to visit all necessary sites.
In order to encourage the inspectors to continue their work during the outbreak, the director general decided to allow hazard pay. Every inspector will be entitled to a special bonus, a “critical mission travel allowance,” worth up to $1,600 per month and based on actual days in the field.
IAEA officials also stated that remote and electronic monitoring remains in place at Iran’s two declared enrichment sites, Natanz and Fordow, and it continues to conduct physical inspections. The IAEA is tracking uranium production and accumulation at those facilities, as well as Iran’s ongoing centrifuge research and development. Installation and operation of additional advanced centrifuges, and Iran’s accumulation of vast amounts of low enriched uranium, continue in violation of the nuclear accord. Thus, the agency is able to track the extent to which Iran is continuously surpassing the limits. The IAEA reported its latest data on Iran’s JCPOA non-compliance in a separate safeguards report.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the IAEA should continue to pressure Iran to cooperate with its investigation and allow immediate and unrestricted visits to suspicious sites. Despite the IAEA’s safeguards, Iran continues to expand its enrichment program to threatening levels. As noted above, it now has adequate low-enriched uranium for more than one nuclear weapon and continues to install faster centrifuges.
The agency should take pandemic-related precautions for its inspectors but maintain regular physical inspections at all Iranian nuclear sites. Tehran is likely to exploit any reduction in monitoring and could use the pandemic as an excuse to deny or delay access. Were it to manufacture an access crisis on the pretense of a COVID-19-related issue, Tehran could divert uranium and continue enriching it at clandestine facilities, using newer, easier-to-hide advanced centrifuge capabilities.
Remote monitoring mechanisms already employed by the IAEA are important, but only to enhance its mission. The IAEA should not rely heavily on these in the mistaken assumption that they can replace information obtained via physical visits. Nor should the agency be drawn into lengthy discussions about a roadmap for access, which will ultimately serve no purpose.
The IAEA’s board of governors should support the agency’s investigation and vote on a resolution to condemn any Iranian failure to cooperate. If it continues to stonewall, the board should vote to refer the matter to the UN Security Council for the re-imposition of sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal. Only international unity in the face of Tehran’s ongoing obstruction will yield results.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow and also a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting National Security Advisor and head of the National Security Council.