U.N. Watchdog Update on Iran’s Nuclear Program

On August 30, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had begun to enrich uranium to 4.5 percent, beyond the 3.67 percent limit stipulated in the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In a new safeguards report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also verified that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium exceeded the 300 kg limit. But Iran’s stockpile was still many metric tons short of what it had before the JCPOA. 

The breaches of the deal observed by the IAEA since July have been reversible and not drastic enough to make a significant difference in Iran’s potential “breakout time” – the time needed to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon. Iran would need to quadruple its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and enrich it to greater than 90 percent. 

Iran continued to adhere to other aspects of the deal and allowed inspectors access to all sites that they needed to visit. But the report implied that Iran’s cooperation could use improvement. “Ongoing interactions between the Agency and Iran...require full and timely cooperation by Iran. The Agency continues to pursue this objective with Iran,” said the report. 

In early September, diplomats told Reuters that the IAEA found uranium traces at a site in Tehran. It was the same building described by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 as a “secret atomic warehouse.” He alleged that 15 kg of unspecified radioactive material had been stored at the facility. One diplomat noted that the uranium was not highly enriched. But the presence of the material raised questions about Iran’s transparency. Environmental samples often contain particles of radioactive material that has long since been moved from a site. The diplomats said Tehran had not yet explained the particles’ origin or if it was related to pre-2015 nuclear activities. 

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton called for a report as soon as possible. 


On September 8, Cornel Feruta, the IAEA’s acting director general, visited Tehran and met with top officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi. Feruta arrived two days after Iran began using advanced centrifuges, the third step in rolling back its commitments to the nuclear deal. Tehran warned European powers that it would ramp up its nuclear program unless they delivered on economic relief. Feruta discussed implementation of the Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol and verification of Iran’s activities as part of the JCPOA.


On September 9, the IAEA Board of Governors convened for a regularly scheduled session. “It is important to advance our interactions and, therefore, I also stressed the need for Iran to respond promptly to Agency questions related to the completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations,” Feruta said in his opening statement.


The following is an excerpt:

Madam Chairperson,

My report on Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) covers relevant activities of the Agency in that country in the last few months.

Yesterday, I visited Tehran for talks with senior Iranian officials. We discussed IAEA verification and monitoring activities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as well as safeguards implementation pursuant to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.

Regarding the JCPOA, the Agency was informed about Iran’s latest activities related to centrifuge research and development. I issued a report yesterday on the Agency’s verification of those activities.

The Agency continues to verify and monitor Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. I will report any further relevant developments to the Board in a timely manner.

The Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement. Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran continue.

Regarding the implementation of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, during my discussions in Tehran, I emphasized the importance of full and timely cooperation by Iran. It is important to advance our interactions and, therefore, I also stressed the need for Iran to respond promptly to Agency questions related to the completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations. The Agency will continue its efforts and will remain actively engaged. Time is of the essence.

The Agency’s work related to nuclear verification is always consistent with our mandate and established safeguards practice. It is independent, impartial, factual and professional. We will continue to work in this manner, which is essential for maintaining the Agency’s credibility, both now and in the future.