Controversy over IAEA Nuclear Inspections

Iran repeatedly threatened to limit inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after its hardline parliament passed a new law in December 2020. The issue of allowing international monitoring then became intertwined with the renewed diplomacy between the world’s six major powers and Iran over the state of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The key turning points were:

  • December 1, 2020: Parliament passed a law requiring the government to raise uranium enrichment and suspend so-called "snap" inspections by the IAEA.
  • February 21, 2021: Iran and the IAEA reached a compromise that would require Iran to save all footage from cameras installed at declared nuclear sites for three months.
  • May 22, 2021: The compromise expired but was extended for an additional month on May 24.
  • June 24, 2021: The compromise expired and was not extended. 


New Law 

IAEA chief Raphael Grossi briefs reporters in Vienna
IAEA chief Raphael Grossi briefs reporters in Vienna

On December 1, Iran’s parliament, which is dominated by conservatives and hardliners, passed a bill requiring the government to take two steps: First, resume enriching uranium to 20 percent immediately. And second, to produce 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent annually. Since July 2019, Iran had been enriching to about 4.5 percent, slightly more than the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal. Uranium must be enriched to 90 percent or above to fuel a weapon.

The law also called for restricting U.N. nuclear inspectors, if U.S. sanctions on Iran's banking and oil sectors were not lifted within a month. It specifically pledged to suspend the Additional Protocol, a voluntary agreement that grants inspectors “snap” inspections of both declared and suspect nuclear sites. Accepting the Additional Protocol was part of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated with the world’s six major powers. The law went into effect on February 23, 2021.


On February 21, just before the new law went into effect, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed on a compromise. The arrangement provided the nuclear watchdog reduced access to the cameras installed at declared nuclear sites, but Iran would still be required to save all surveillance footage from those sites for three months, until May 21. If the United States lifted sanctions on Iran, Tehran vowed to hand over the tapes to the IAEA. If the Biden administration did not lift punitive economic measures, the footage “will be deleted forever," the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said. 

IAEA director general Raphael Grossi called it a “temporary solution” that “salvages” the situation. “Let's face it, there is less access,” he told reporters in Vienna after returning from intense talks in Tehran. “But still, we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification.” The nuclear watchdog would “continue its necessary verification and monitoring activities for a period of up to three months,” he added, without specifying what those activities would be. Tehran would still comply with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the most basic inspections of declared sites required under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran joined in 1970. 

The compromise generated controversy in Iran. “This arrangement is an insult to the parliament,” Mojtaba Zolnour, a hardline lawmaker from Qom, said. Parliament formally charged that the Rouhani government had no right to negotiate compromises that would dilute the law. The parliament voted, 221 to six, to review a report alleging the IAEA agreement was a “clear violation” of the law. Parliament also called on the judiciary to hold President Hassan Rouhani and other officials party to the negotiations accountable for accepting changes in the law. “The president on the way to court!” Mojtaba Rezakhah, a hardliner from Tehran, tweeted. The Rouhani government countered that the compromise was “compatible” with the Iranian law. “What has been agreed on is completely within the framework of the Parliament’s act,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on February 22. 

Compromise Extended 

The compromise expired on May 22. Hardline lawmakers demanded that the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran delete surveillance footage recorded by the IAEA's cameras. “After these three months, the International Atomic Energy Agency definitely won’t have the right to access the camera footage or transfer them,” Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said on May 23.  

But on May 24, Iran and the IAEA renewed the arrangement for another month. “If this understanding was important back in February, it was even, in my eyes, more important now,” Grossi said. He underscored that Iran’s nuclear activities had “grown qualitatively and quantitatively” in the previous three months. The extension was intended to give more time for negotiations in Vienna to bring Iran and the United States back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

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Agreement Expired

The extension expired again on June 24. Iran did not extend it or clarify whether it would continue to save surveillance footage. Keeping the recordings was a "political decision" by Iran to facilitate talks in Vienna, Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, tweeted on June 25. The IAEA was not “entitled” to data recording, he warned.  

The U.N. nuclear watchdog demanded an "immediate response" from Iran on whether it would retain data collected at declared nuclear sites. Iran had yet to respond to the agency's questions, Grossi told the IAEA's board of directors on June 25. Secretary of State Blinken warned that expiration of the IAEA's monitoring agreement could complicate efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. "The concern has been communicated to Iran and needs to be resolved," he told reporters the same day. But Iran did not respond to the U.N. or U.S. inquiries. "There has been no new decision about deleting the data and footage from the IAEA's cameras," Foreign Minister Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 28.


Text of New Law and Comments by IAEA & Iran 

The Law

Law passed by the Parliament on Dec. 1, 2020:

Article 1: In order to meet the Supreme Leader’s nine conditions regarding the nuclear agreement, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is charged with producing 20 percent enriched uranium and stockpiling at least 120 kilograms of it in the country annually for peaceful purposes, immediately after the ratification of this law. The Organization is also charged with fulfilling the country’s need for uranium enriched above 20 percent for peaceful purposes, in full and without delay.

Article 2: To implement Article 3 of the Proportional and Reciprocal Action Plan for the Implementation of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), approved in 2015, and reach 190,000 separative work units (SWUs) enrichment capacity, immediately after the ratification of this law, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to increase enrichment capacity and production of enriched uranium to at least 500 kilograms per month, a level commensurate with peaceful uses in the country. It is also obliged to store and stockpile enriched materials in the country. 

Article 3: To achieve the goal set forth in Article 2, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to start installing, injecting (uranium) gas, enriching and storing materials up to the required enrichment level, with at least 1,000 second generation advanced machines (IR-2m), within three months after the ratification of this law. During this period, it is also obliged to start enrichment, research and development with sixth generation (IR-6) machines), with at least 164 machines of this type, increasing this to 1,000 machines within one year after the ratification of this law. 

“Note: The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to implement the standards of the Passive Defense Organization when determining the installation location of the aforementioned machines.

Article 4: The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to launch the metal uranium production factory in Isfahan within five months of the ratification of this law.

Article 5: In accordance with Article 4 of the Proportional and Reciprocal Action Plan for the Implementation of the JCPOA, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is obliged to design a new 40 MW (megawatt) heavy water reactor with the goal of producing radioisotopes used in hospitals, while simultaneously optimizing and initiating the Arak 40 MW heavy water reactor. It will inform Parliament of the timetable within one month after the ratification of this law. 

Article 6: In the event that the contracting parties, including the P4+1 countries (Germany, France, Great Britain, China and Russia), fail to fulfill their commitments under the nuclear agreement with Iran – and fail to normalize banking relations, completely remove export barriers, allow complete sale of Iranian oil and petroleum products, and complete and rapid return of foreign exchange [to Iran] from the proceeds of the [oil] sales – the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is charged with suspending inspections beyond the Safeguards Agreement, including voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol, two months after the ratification of this law.

Article 7: If the P4+1 countries commit to fulfill their obligations and completely lift sanctions, including nuclear, military and human rights [sanctions] against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the government is charged with submitting a detailed report of the actions to Parliament. The National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, as well as the Energy Commission of Parliament, will submit their assessments to Parliament in accordance with Chapter 7, Article 45 of the Rules of Procedure of the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

Article 8: The president, relevant officials and managers, and relevant administrative bodies are responsible for the correct and complete implementation of this law.

Article 9: Those who refuse to implement this law will be penalized for a second-to a fifth-degree felony in proportion to how they refuse to implement the law or obstruct its implementation, according to the Islamic Penal Code approved in 2013.”


IAEA Statements

Joint statement by the IAEA and Iran on Feb. 21, 2021: “The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recalled and reaffirmed the spirit of cooperation and enhanced mutual trust that led to the Joint Statement in Tehran on 26 August 2020, and the importance of continuing that cooperation and trust.

“The AEOI informed the IAEA that in order to comply with the act passed by the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran called “Strategic Action to Cease Actions and Protect the interest of Iranian Nation” (The “Law”) Iran will stop the implementation of the voluntary measures as envisaged in the JCPOA, as of 23 February 2021.

“In view of the above and in order for the Agency to continue its verification and monitoring activities, the AEOI and the IAEA agreed:

“1. That Iran continues to implement fully and without limitation its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA as before.

“2. To a temporary bilateral technical understanding, compatible with the Law, whereby the IAEA will continue with its necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to 3 months (as per technical annex).

“3. To keep the technical understanding under regular review to ensure it continues to achieve its purposes.”


Grossi in Vienna on Feb. 21, 2021: “I can say that we got a good result. We got a reasonable result after what was a very, very intensive consultation [and] negotiation with our Iranian counterparts. As you know, in view of the imminent deadline established by a law passed by the Iranian parliament, we at the agency believed that it was necessary ... to have this conversation with our Iranian counterparts to avoid a situation where we ...would lack information about important activities taking place in Iran. This was the spirit under which I proposed to come to Iran. Vice President [Ali Akbar] Salehi accepted, and I was there yesterday and today. 

“Basically, what we have agreed is the following. In the first place, we reconfirmed that Iran will continue to implement the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement without any limitation, as they have been doing so far. In the second place, we agreed that – in review of the law and in particular the provision that establishes limitations – we reached a temporary, bilateral, technical understanding whereby the agency is going to continue its necessary verification and monitoring activities for a period of up to three months. 

“And lastly, we agreed that we are going to keep this understanding [that] we reached under review constantly. If there is anything we want to suspend or extend, this can be done. My hope [and] the hope of the IAEA has been to be able to stabilize a situation which was very unstable. I think this technical understanding does it so that other political consultations at other levels can take place. And most importantly, we can avoid a situation in which we would have been, in practical terms, flying blind.”      

Question: “Can you be more specific about what was agreed to during the three months?”              

Grossi: "This means that we have agreed at a technical level on a certain number of things that are going to continue so that we have the necessary monitoring access to information and activities. There's one thing that needs to be clear, ladies and gentlemen, this law exists. This law is going to be applied, which means that the Additional Protocol, much to my regret, is going to be suspended. Nevertheless, we decided to go there and agree on a specific bilateral arrangement...that will allow us to breach this period in the best possible way without losing the necessary monitoring and verification capacities." 

Question: “How much less access will you get?”

Grossi: “Let's face it, there is less access. But still, we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work for... a temporary, technical understanding… This is not a replacement for what we used to have. This is a temporary solution that allows us to continue to give to the world assurances of what is going on there in the hope that we can return to a fuller picture.”

Question: “Will there be a change in the number of designated inspectors for Iran?”

Grossi: “No. No change. What changes is the type of activity… What we have agreed is something that is viable. It is useful to bridge this gap. It salvages this situation now, but, of course, for a stable, sustainable situation there will have to be a political negotiation and that is not up to me.”


Grossi to the U.S. Nuclear Threat Initiative on Feb. 23, 2021: “This is a system that allows us to continue to monitor and to register all the key activities that are taking place throughout this period so that at the end of it we can recover all this information."

“In other words, we will know exactly what happened, exactly how many components were fabricated, exactly how much material was processed or treated or enriched and so on and so forth.”

“Some say at the end of it, if Iran wants [to] and there is no agreement, they will destroy this information. Yes, but if at the end of it there is no agreement everything is destroyed. There is no confidence anymore... we would be basically flying blind, without any idea of what would be taking place in terms of enrichment activities and other relevant activities.”


Grossi to the IAEA Board of Governors on Mar. 1, 2021: "On 15 February 2021, Iran informed the Agency that Iran would 'stop the implementation of voluntary transparency measures as envisaged in the JCPOA, as of February 23, 2021,' including the provisions of the Additional Protocol and Modified code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.

"I had already informed that stopping or limiting the Agency's verification and monitoring activities at this stage would have a serious impact on the Agency's ability to report on the implementation of Iran's commitments.

"On 21 February 2021, I had discussions in Tehran with Vice-President Salehi and Foreign Minister Zarif to find a mutually agreeable solution for the Agency to continue essential verification activities. As it has been announced, we were able to reach a temporary bilateral technical understanding. You will find the terms of this understanding attached as an Annex to my report. I want to emphasize that it is a temporary technical understanding and that it is compatible with Iranian law. It is to enable the Agency to resume its full verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA if and when Iran resumes its implementation of those commitments."


Grossi to Newsweek on Mar. 23, 2021:

"We need to know what was going on there, we need to know exactly what kind of activities were taking place there, and we need to know if there was material, where is this material now... Because it hasn't been declared. This necessitates a very detailed and technical discussion, which was not taking place."

"We have some information, we have some hypotheses, and we are going to be putting very clear questions to our Iranian counterparts in order to see whether we can clarify this... It's difficult to say I want to clarify this by 'X' date. But my intention would be to try to at least have some credible elements within the next few months, by the summer, if possible."

"My obligation is to make sure that everything is duly accounted for, otherwise we may repeat past experiences where the IAEA was accounting for things in other places forbidden or undeclared activities were ongoing so it is an urgent matter. It is something that requires clarification, because, without that, the shadow of the cloud will be looming large over anything we do with Iran."


Grossi on May 24, 2021“We were able to agree on a couple of things which are related, as you know, to this temporary technical understanding which we reached last February in Tehran. We agreed, number one, that the information collected by our technical equipment at different locations in Tehran is going to be saved and will continue to be under the custody of the agency at every site where it is at the moment. This is number one. And number two: that the equipment and the verification and monitoring activities that we agreed will continue as they are now for one month expiring then on June 24, 2021.”

“If this understanding was important back in February, it was even, in my eyes, more important now because since February a number of things, as you know, have been happening in Iran in terms of the activities there which have increased, grown qualitatively and quantitatively, so what we saw as a possibility that should be avoided back then was even more right now.”

“We have a number of technical documents that detail the places where we are basically having cameras, flow meters and electronic online systems to check on the enrichment that is taking place in the different locations. There is not much mystery. What we cannot get into is exactly what place, what kind of equipment because this is, of course, safeguards confidential information.”

“This is not equivalent to the levels that you may have with the additional transparency measures that were provided for by the JCPOA and Additional Protocol. I think we should all be reminded of the fact that this temporary, technical understanding is a sort of a stop-gap measure. It’s something that we came up with as a way to avoid… flying completely blind.”

“One thing we had agreed on back in February was that at the expiration of the technical understanding the information would be erased, and this is not going to happen.”


Iran Statements

Resolution passed by the Parliament on Feb. 22, 2021: “The joint agreement and statement of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is a clear violation of the law on strategic action to lift sanctions and protect the interests of the Iranian people, and we request an interim cancellation by the Judiciary.”


PBS Interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, on Mar. 9, 2021: 

Salehi: "The cameras are still there... Those will keep on recording whatever they want to record. But the IAEA will not have access to the information. For up to three months, if the JCPOA is back, they will be given the administration."

Question: "And if not, you said you're going to trash them."

Salehi: "If not, yes."

Question: "And with trashing them, are you not trashing verification and transparency? Is that not what you would be doing?"

Salehi: "It is easy to resolve the issue. Come back to the JCPOA, and not let this happen."


Speaker Qalibaf on May 23, 2021: “After these three months, the International Atomic Energy Agency definitely won’t have the right to access the camera footage or transfer them." 


Ambassador Gharibabadi on May 24, 2021:



This article was originally published on February 22, 2021. It was updated on July 7, 2021. 

Photo Credit: Rafael Mariano Grossi briefs Press on Iran by IAEA Image Bank via Flickr (CC by 2.0)