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IranSource March 26, 2020

New tensions between Iran and the IAEA threaten the JCPOA

By Sina Azodi

Earlier this March, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released two reports regarding Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Unlike previous reports, which detailed Iran’s compliance, the new documents were reminiscent of the pre-JCPOA era and could signal an increasingly negative trend in the country’s relationship with the world’s nuclear watchdog. Amid the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, concerns are also being expressed by some experts that the disease could hamper the ability of the IAEA to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Opponents of the JCPOA are trying to use these developments to destroy what remains of the landmark 2015 agreement by achieving a “snapback” of UN sanctions lifted by the deal.

According to the first report, Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran, as of February, Iran’s stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) was 1020 kilograms, more than three times the amount allowed under the JCPOA. At the same time, Iran has kept its enrichment level at 4.5 percent—more than the 3.67 percent specified in the nuclear deal but well below 20 percent, which it enriched prior to the signing of the JCPOA, and from which it is relatively easy to reach the 80 percent needed to make nuclear weapons.

While Iran has the technological capacity to enrich at higher and more sensitive levels, it has not made the political decision to do so, perhaps to avoid antagonizing the remaining signatories of the nuclear deal. Iranian officials have stated that their steps are reversible and that Tehran is ready to go back to full compliance if “European signatories of the pact fulfilled their obligations.” Iran wants to avoid snapping back of UN-imposed sanctions, which the remaining parties to the deal could do if Iran steps too far outside the limits of the 2015 accord.

The IAEA also issued a second negative report, NPT Safeguards Agreement With the Islamic Republic of Iran, strongly censuring Tehran for lack of cooperation with the agency. The IAEA has requested access to three undisclosed locations where Iran allegedly conducted undeclared nuclear activity. After initially ignoring three letters demanding access to these locations, Tehran responded by stating that the “Islamic Republic of Iran will not recognize any allegation on past activities and does not consider itself obliged to respond to such allegations.” Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharib-Abadi added, “Intelligence services’ fabricated information. . . creates no obligation for Iran to consider such request.”

He was apparently referring to the “Iran Nuclear Archive” stolen from a warehouse near Tehran by Israeli operatives in 2018. The documents provide a great deal of information about Iran’s past nuclear activities, strategic intentions and a 2003 order to halt a structured weapons program but do not elaborate on any post-2003 decision-making. The release of the Israeli archive—publicized two weeks prior to US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA in May 2018—seems to have influenced both the US decision to withdraw and a tougher stance toward Tehran on the part of the IAEA.

The negative reports are providing new ammunition to the Trump administration efforts to prevent the lifting of a UN-imposed arms embargo on Iran which is supposed to occur in October. In a statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, US ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott denounced Iran’s refusal to “address the Agency’s questions regarding possible undeclared natural uranium at a location that has been heavily sanitized.” 

That the Trump administration seeks to completely kill the nuclear agreement is no secret. However, the remaining parties to the agreement—Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the European Union—retain a strategic interest in preserving the JCPOA. This explains why Germany, France and Britain—also known as the E3—extended the process of the dispute resolution after deciding to trigger a provision in the JCPOA, the Dispute Resolution Mechanism, in January under US pressure.

A snapback of sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter would be the final blow to the agreement and would likely compel Iran to withdraw from the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obliges members not possessing nuclear weapons not to develop them. Such a scenario would endanger the entire non-proliferation regime and clearly be detrimental to US national interests. As a Department of Energy spokesman recently noted, “It remains vital to the United States that the IAEA continue to perform its verification mission in Iran.”

It’s worth noting that new tensions with the IAEA are unfolding in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 2,000 Iranians. Critics of the JCPOA, including Andrea Stricker and Jacob Nagel of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have argued that Tehran appears to be “content with the pandemic’s debilitating impact” on IAEA monitoring; however, the authors fail to provide any substantial evidence to support their claim.

In the same vein, George Moore of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies has argued that suspending inspections, even temporarily, could leave a gap that Iran could exploit if it chose to develop nuclear weapons. However, a careful analysis of Iran’s behavior suggests that Tehran is interested in maintaining the JCPOA, even though it has not received the economic benefits it was promised. Meanwhile, remote monitoring equipment on site in Iran continues to record the amount and level of low-enriched uranium Iran is producing.

In analyzing Tehran’s nuclear intentions, it is important to recognize why Iran began a quest for a nuclear deterrent. After initially suspending its nuclear activities following the 1979 revolution, Iran resumed work during the Iran-Iraq War, when it was systematically subjected to the use of chemical weapons by Iraq and feared Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear arms. However, Iran’s geopolitical environment has fundamentally transformed since the US toppling of Saddam in 2003, and Tehran no longer faces an existential threat from either Iraq, or its neighbors. At a time when it is confronting a much more immediate crisis that has also taken the lives of senior officials, it seems unlikely that Tehran would choose this moment to try to break out and “dash” for a nuclear weapon, as Moore has suggested. 

Still, the recent trend in Iran’s relationship with the IAEA is concerning. To alleviate tensions, Iran should fully cooperate with the IAEA’s demands. The IAEA, in turn, should seek to satisfy its concerns without humiliating Tehran over activities that appear to have occurred long ago.

Sina Azodi is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is also a foreign policy advisor at Gulf State Analytics, and a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of South Florida, where he focuses on Iran’s nuclear program. Follow him on Twitter: @azodiac83.

Image: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi waits for the beginning of a board of governors meeting (Reuters)