To meet the Iran nuclear challenge, the IAEA must remain apolitical

World powers should not restore the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, but should hold the Islamic Republic accountable for violating its international nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi listens as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at the opening of the IAEA General Conference at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 21, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER)
IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi listens as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at the opening of the IAEA General Conference at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 21, 2020
Following a series of provocative Iranian nuclear advances in December and January, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog told Reuters, “It is clear that we don’t have many months ahead of us. We have weeks.” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael M. Grossi was referring to the need for parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran to quickly salvage the accord and restrain Tehran from taking further escalatory nuclear steps. Grossi’s conclusion, however, is upside-down and backward.
Suggesting the nuclear deal as the appropriate mechanism to address Iran’s atomic coercions, the director-general inadvertently inserted the IAEA into politics, best left to states. The IAEA would better fulfill its mission and mandate by sticking to the crucial task of impartially investigating and reporting Tehran’s breaches of its non-proliferation obligations.
World powers should not restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but should hold the Islamic Republic accountable for violating its international nuclear non-proliferation obligations. These extend beyond the JCPOA to Iran’s legal commitments as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iran’s recent nuclear extortion is especially outrageous when juxtaposed with the fact that Tehran is under IAEA investigation for NPT violations. The IAEA is investigating new evidence of “possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities,” according to IAEA reports. Thanks to an archive of Iranian nuclear documents seized by Israel in 2018, the IAEA now knows more than ever about Iran’s past nuclear-weapons program, including that it had a pre-2003 crash of the program and planned to hide, maintain, and further the program’s capabilities and activities after that time.
One year ago, the IAEA asked to visit two alleged sites of concern where Iran might have carried out activities using undeclared nuclear material. Tehran refused – a violation of its basic NPT requirements.
In August 2020, after a months-long standoff, buoyed by a resolution of the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors calling for Iran’s cooperation, the IAEA and Iran reached an agreement for access. The IAEA finally visited the two sites last fall, where it no doubt took environmental samples to detect the presence of undeclared nuclear material.
The first visit was to a former, suspected pilot uranium hexafluoride production plant where Iran might have prepared uranium gas to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons; the other was to a former, large-scale high-explosive test site for nuclear weapons development called Marivan and previously known as Abadeh. The IAEA also has questions about activities relevant to Iran’s development of a neutron initiator for a nuclear explosive device, which it believes Iran carried out at a third site called Lavisan-Shian. Iran razed and sanitized Lavisan-Shian long ago, and recently did the same at Marivan.
Another open issue is Iran’s failure to account for the agency’s discovery of undeclared refined uranium particles at a warehouse in the Tehran neighborhood of Turquz-Abad. The warehouse allegedly held nuclear-related equipment and material from Iran’s nuclear-weapons activities, until Iran moved it.
IRAN MIGHT believe that after the inspections, it is freed from additional inquiry over its nuclear weapons history or current activities, and that discussion of the nuclear archive documents has concluded. In support of this theory, Iran has cited the JCPOA’s instruction of the IAEA to “close” the matter of Tehran’s past nuclear-weapons work. However, any new information that comes to light is subject to IAEA review.
While knowledgeable officials did not expect Grossi to report on the IAEA’s findings from its inspections until after the US election in November, the IAEA has still not issued its report even after the presidential inauguration. It is therefore worth asking: Has the IAEA experienced mission drift, timing the release of critical inspection findings until after the inauguration of a JCPOA-friendly US president?
As the Iranian economy continues in a nose-dive, the Islamic Republic expects US President Joe Biden to fulfill his pledges to remove US sanctions and return Washington to the JCPOA. Tehran has steadily carried out – but recently accelerated – its JCPOA violations in an effort to scare America into rejoining the accord it left in 2018.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran plans to produce uranium metal, a material that can be used to make advanced nuclear-reactor fuel – or alternatively – nuclear-weapon cores. On January 4, Iran also announced that it has resumed enriching uranium to a level of 20% at its underground Fordow enrichment plant. Enrichment to 20% represents most of the effort needed to make weapons-grade uranium, the fissile material suitable for nuclear weapons. Both steps, prohibited under the JCPOA, position Iran closer to nuclear weapons if it decides to build them.
In response, Grossi urged the parties to the nuclear deal to start thinking about a plan to bring Iran back into compliance with the accord.
To be sure, the director-general is concerned that Iran intends to follow through on a threat to stop adhering to an IAEA supplementary inspection regime known as the Additional Protocol (AP). Iran’s halting of its adherence to the AP would limit the IAEA’s inspection rights to only those sites and activities that Tehran has declared. This is a major problem for implementing nuclear safeguards in a country like Iran, which has routinely hidden sites and activities with nuclear-weapons applications.
Thanks to a new Iranian parliamentary law – calibrated in advance with the Iranian supreme leader’s Guardian Council, which screens legislation for fidelity to the regime’s revolutionary ideology – Tehran claims it has a legal obligation to abrogate its adherence to the AP. In addition, the law states, Iran must implement more escalatory nuclear steps, such as installing hundreds more advanced centrifuges to enable it to stockpile enriched uranium more quickly. Iranian officials say that Tehran will complete these steps, unless, by the end of February, the United States lifts its punishing regime of sanctions, and the JCPOA’s other parties provide Tehran with promised economic incentives.
GROSSI AND President Biden, however, are falling prey to the precise aim of Tehran’s nuclear blackmail: obtaining adequate relief from sanctions to allow the corrupt regime to rule another day. Inexplicably, President Biden and his advisers expect returning to the JCPOA will be a springboard to a successor agreement. But once Tehran obtains sanctions relief, it will have no incentive to negotiate a second-stage agreement with stronger terms. The strategically flawed JCPOA allows Tehran to retain all the equipment and capabilities to resume, at will, its nuclear threats against the international community. In addition, with the leverage of sanctions removed, it is doubtful that Tehran will cooperate further with the IAEA’s NPT compliance investigation.
As tempting as it may be for the Biden administration, Grossi and the European parties to the deal (United Kingdom, France, and Germany) to look to the JCPOA as an immediate way to restrain Iran, the solution does not lie in the accord but in a stronger, different one yet to be reached.
For his part, President Biden should shift course from JCPOA reentry pledges. He should fully support the IAEA’s continuation of its NPT investigation to determine the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. He should also seek far more from Tehran than compliance with the JCPOA in order for Iran to receive sanctions relief. Unless Iran negotiates a better agreement that permanently closes all its pathways to a bomb, including removing associated equipment and infrastructure, the Biden administration should maintain the US maximum economic-pressure campaign.
The IAEA, for its part, must recalibrate its critical role. As the world’s only neutral, technical nuclear monitor, it should avoid becoming a tool of Iran’s negotiating strategy. Upon assuming the position of IAEA chief in 2019, Director-General Grossi’s stated ambition was to eliminate agency politicization, thereby leading the IAEA back to a professional track. Maintaining that course will allow the IAEA to retain its role as an impartial organization for ensuring compliance with UN nuclear treaties and resolutions.
Sampling results from the IAEA’s two recent nuclear site visits might help clarify more of what Iran accomplished in the past, but they will unfortunately leave open questions regarding which activities Tehran continues today. The IAEA must continue to seek answers to those questions.
Suggesting Iran’s case is not closed, Grossi wisely established a new phrase in safeguards-reporting, referring to Iran’s false or incomplete explanations as “not technically credible.” The IAEA should immediately clarify with Tehran that it will continue its investigation. World powers should support the IAEA’s efforts, which will help the agency maintain legitimacy and integrity, and not only with regard to the Iran case.
The IAEA must reclaim its place as an apolitical professional organ. The IAEA Board of Governors awaits a report, and Grossi should swiftly deliver. Iran’s commitment to resolving the agency’s questions must be a key factor in any US decision to return to the negotiating table.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and 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. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at FDD. Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro.