Controversy over Nuclear Inspections

On June 7, 2021, Rafael Grossi, head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, reported that Iran had failed to explain the origin of suspect uranium particles detected at three sites that had not been declared as part of its nuclear program. The traces of uranium were discovered during so-called snap International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of undeclared sites between February 2019 and September 2020. “I am deeply concerned that nuclear material has been present at the three undeclared locations in Iran and that the current locations of this nuclear material are not known by the agency,” Grossi told the IAEA Board of Directors. Tehran's refusal to answer questions from inspectors “seriously affects the ability of the agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” The three sites are reportedly at Turquzabad, a district in Tehran; near Karaj, outside Tehran; and near Isfahan.

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, 2019 -
Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, 2019 - 

The IAEA had demanded access to the three sites—none of which had been acknowledged as part of Iran’s declared nuclear program—to determine if they had been used to test or store undeclared uranium as part of a secret nuclear weapons program that continued until 2003. Iran allowed the IAEA access to Turquzabad in February 2019; it reported finding uranium particles in November 2019. Iran then demanded access to two other sites in January 2020, but Tehran stalled for eight months, until August 2020. In February 2021, the IAEA confirmed that it had found uranium particles at Karaj and near Isfahan. By June 2021, Iran had still not provided sufficient explanation about any of the three sites or sufficient documentation on a fourth location, where nuclear material might have been stored.

Iran and the IAEA have also been at odds over an Iranian law, implemented on February 23, 2021, after the assassination of a leading Iranian nuclear physicist, that limited the agency’s access to any site–either declared or undeclared—related to Iran’s nuclear program. In February 2021, Grossi negotiated a compromise that extended implementation of the law for three months until May 23. In the meantime, the compromise required that Iran preserve all surveillance footage on cameras installed by the IAEA at declared nuclear sites. On May 22, the extension was renewed for another month until June 24. The compromise did not, however, allow so-called “snap” inspections at undeclared sites, as allowed under 2015 nuclear deal.

Grossi’s warning in June 2021 coincided with negotiations in Vienna between Iran and the six major world powers on the future of the 2015 nuclear deal. On June 8, 2021, the United States warned Iran that limiting IAEA access to Iranian sites could jeopardize negotiations. “Such action would, at a minimum, seriously complicate ongoing efforts to reach an understanding on how Iran can return to compliance with its JCPOA commitments in return for a similar U.S. resumption,” said Louis L. Bono, the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. mission to international organizations in Vienna. The statement echoed calls by the European Union for Iran to return to compliance with the deal. “We strongly urge Iran to reverse all activities inconsistent with the JCPOA and return, without delay, to its full implementation, including of all transparency measures,” the European Union said on June 7.

On June 10, Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, said that the recurrence of sabotage and assassinations of nuclear scientists “leave no option for Iran but to reconsider its transparency measures and cooperation policy with the agency.” The following are statements from the IAEA, the United States, the European Union, and Iran on international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program.



Remarks by Grossi to the IAEA Board of Directors on June 7: “The lack of progress in clarifying the agency’s questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the IAEA to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

“After many months, Iran has not provided the necessary explanation for the presence of the nuclear material particles at any of the three locations where the agency has conducted complementary accesses. In the absence of such an explanation from Iran, I am deeply concerned that nuclear material has been present at the three undeclared locations in Iran and that the current locations of this nuclear material are not known by the agency. Nor has Iran answered the questions with regard to the other undeclared location, or clarified the current location of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc.”

“Since my last report, Iran has provided no new information in relation to one location; has not answered any of the agency’s questions nor provided any information in relation to two other locations; and provided a written statement on a fourth location without any substantiating documentation. The presence of multiple uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at three locations in Iran not declared to the agency, as well as the presence of isotopically altered particles at one of these locations, is a clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present at these locations.”


Statement by U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Louis L. Bono on June 8: 

“The United States, in close coordination with our allies and partners, is engaging in diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy and a vital instrument in addressing the international community’s longstanding concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.  We are making progress, but much work remains ahead of us.  To accomplish this objective, confidence must be rebuilt – in Washington, in Tehran, and elsewhere. 

“In this context, Iran’s steps to limit the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities, including under its Additional Protocol, will only make it harder to re-establish pragmatic diplomacy and reach the outcome Iran says it seeks. IAEA verification is a cornerstone to the nonproliferation regime and the foundation on which the JCPOA is built.  Iran should not undermine that foundation at the very time we all seek a mutual return to compliance.

“We commend Director General and his team for their tireless efforts to engage Tehran on maintaining necessary cooperation, in particular the understandings reached that allow for information to be collected and preserved in Iran that will enable the Agency to maintain continuity of knowledge related to specified JCPOA-related monitoring.  We strongly encourage Iran to avoid any action that would prevent the collection of or IAEA access to the information necessary for it to quickly re-establish that continuity of knowledge.  Such action would, at a minimum, seriously complicate ongoing efforts to reach an understanding on how Iran can return to compliance with its JCPOA commitments in return for a similar U.S. resumption, and would be inconsistent with Iran’s stated desire for all participants to return to such performance. 

“As the Director General’s latest report and the numerous interim reports since we last met make clear, Iran continues escalatory steps that exceed the JCPOA’s constraints.  In particular, Iran continues installing and operating numbers and types of centrifuges beyond the JCPOA’s limits, producing quantities and enrichment levels of uranium also beyond the JCPOA’s limits, and producing uranium metal.  Since this Board last met, Iran has also exceeded JCPOA constraints by enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235. 

“All of these steps, and Iran’s scaling back of IAEA access, raise significant proliferation concerns.  We urge Iran to refrain from taking further steps beyond the JCPOA’s limits and to return to all of its JCPOA commitments, including by allowing the IAEA to have unimpeded access to sites and activities necessary to fulfill its monitoring and verification responsibilities under the JCPOA, and by fully implementing the Additional Protocol.  We further urge Iran to join the United States in reaching and implementing an understanding for a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA.

It is our sincere hope that achieving a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA will lead to expanded work for the IAEA in resuming the necessary monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear-related JCPOA commitments. 


Statement by the European Union on June 7:

“The E.U. reaffirms its resolute commitment to and continued support for the JCPOA at this critical point in time and is determined to continue working with the international community to preserve this agreement of strategic importance and a key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture. The E.U. calls on all countries to support its implementation in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015)…

“The E.U. is deeply concerned at Iran’s decision to suspend, as of 23 February 2021, the implementation of transparency measures as envisaged in the JCPOA, including the Additional Protocol. This action has significantly reduced the Agency’s access and oversight regarding sites, activities and relevant information. Additionally, Iran has not provided updated declarations and the IAEA was not able to conduct any complementary access under the Additional Protocol. The IAEA is deprived of an essential part of its knowledge of Iran’s activities on the entirety of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, including R&D with advanced centrifuges. Iran’s decision substantially restricts IAEA’s ability to verify that nuclear material and activities in Iran remain for exclusively peaceful purposes.

“The E.U. expresses its deepening concern at Iran's continued actions inconsistent with the JCPOA and with severe and, in the case of R&D activities, irreversible proliferation implications including:

  • the continued accumulation of enriched uranium, currently 16 times the threshold allowed by the JCPOA;
  • enrichment activities above the maximum enrichment level of 3.67% set by the JCPOA, to up to 60%; Iran has thus become the first and only country world-wide to produce 60% uranium in an IAEA-safeguarded facility. This is an alarming development;
  • the continued installation, testing and accumulating uranium with advanced centrifuges;
  • the production of more than 2 kg of natural uranium metal and the progress in the installation of equipment to produce uranium metal enriched up to 20% at the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (FPFP); the completion of the installation of equipment for the production of uranium metal at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF), which is now ready to operate.

“The E.U. wholly supports the Director General’s efforts to maintain necessary verification and monitoring activities of Iran’s nuclear commitments…We strongly urge Iran to reverse all activities inconsistent with the JCPOA and return, without delay, to its full implementation, including of all transparency measures, and support the efforts of the JCPOA participants in addressing all relevant issues within the JCPOA framework.”


Statement by Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharibabadi on June 10: 



Photo credits: Rafael Grossi by IAEA Imagebank via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]; 
Some of the information in this article was originally published on June 9, 2021.