After years of stonewalling, Iran pledged on March 4, 2023 to cooperate with a U.N. probe into traces of uranium at three undeclared sites that date back to a covert program before 2003. Tehran also promised to reinstall monitoring equipment, including cameras, that had been removed from nuclear facilities in June 2022. The IAEA and Iran “put a tourniquet on the bleeding of information and lack of continuity of knowledge,” Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said after two days of talks in Tehran. The talks included meetings with President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and Mohammad Eslami, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEIO).
At a press conference in Vienna, Grossi said that Tehran made “very concrete.” commitments to be more transparent. The IAEA would be able to increase the frequency of inspections at Fordo, the facility buried beneath the mountains near Qom, by 50 percent, he said. Iran would also provide access to people for IAEA investigations.
But the joint statement was, however, brief and vague and provided no details on enforcement. Tehran committed only on a “voluntary basis” to allow the IAEA to conduct “further appropriate verification and monitoring activities” established at follow-up meetings of technical experts.
Within hours of his press conference in Vienna, the AEIO spokesman contradicted Grossi. Iran and the IAEA had “no talks or agreements about installing cameras,” Behrouz Kamalvandi told local media. Inspections at Fordo would increase by less than 50 percent, he said. Iran would not provide the U.N. watchdog access to people involved in the nuclear program. He also claimed that the IAEA had not asked Iran about new access to undeclared nuclear sites. “The agency has not made a request so far,” Kamalvandi said.
On March 6, Grossi acknowledged that Iran’s actions would largely depend on future negotiations. “We have our ideas, and this will be part of the technical discussions” during the follow-up talks in Iran, he told reporters.
Reaction to Iran-IAEA Talks
Some experts initially welcomed the agreement. Iran’s “willingness to increase monitoring is a positive and necessary step to de-escalate tensions and reduce the risk of miscalculation,” Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, said on March 4. The announcement was a “step in the right direction” but “not sufficient to reduce the growing proliferation risk posed by Iran’s advancing nuclear program,” she added.
But others were deeply skeptical about Iran’s intentions. On March 3, the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank that monitors arms control, warned that Iran “can now break out and produce enough weapon-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 12 days, using only three advanced centrifuge cascades and half of its existing stock of 60 percent enriched uranium.” It could also produce enough weapons-grade uranium for an additional four nuclear weapons in a month. “Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for five nuclear weapons in one month and seven in three months,” the institute reported.
Iran’s Nuclear Advances
U.S., European and U.N. officials have long expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear advances. Iran has “amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons,” Grossi warned in January 2023. Tehran could produce enough fuel for one nuclear weapon in “about 12 days,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl warned members of Congress in February.
In January, the IAEA discovered that Iran had altered the connection between cascades of centrifuges – the cylindrical machines that enrich uranium – at the Fordo facility without notifying the U.N. watchdog. Inspectors also found traces of uranium enriched to 83.7 percent, very close to weapons-grade purity or 90 percent. Iran claimed that “unintended fluctuations in enrichment levels may have occurred,” according to a February IAEA report. The agency concluded that Iran had not accumulated uranium enriched to 83.7.
But Tehran has continued to stockpile uranium enriched to 60 percent. By February 2023, Iran had amassed 87.5 kilograms (192 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60 percent-- up 247 percent in just three months from 25.2 kilograms (56 pounds) in November, the IAEA reported. “No other country in the world today utilizes uranium enriched to 60 percent for the purpose Iran claims,” Ambassador Laura Holgate, the U.S. representative to the IAEA, said on March 7. “Iran should cease this deeply troubling activity that runs counter to the behavior of all other states worldwide.”
Other steps are required, however, to produce a viable bomb, including making a warhead, marrying it to conventional explosives, and developing a delivery system. The weaponization process could take months or even years, according to arms control experts and Israeli intelligence. Tehran has still not made the political decision to cross the threshold, CIA Director Bill Burns said in February 2023.
IAEA Board of Governors Meeting
“Iran’s nuclear advances were a key item on the board’s agenda. Before Grossi’s trip to Tehran, Britain, France and Germany were reportedly considering a motion to censure Iran over the traces of uranium enriched to 83.7 percent. U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for an IAEA censure. “Anything short of a censure signals to the Iranian regime that it will face no punishment for the dangerous advancement of its nuclear activities,” he said in a statement on March 6.
In 2022, the 35-nation Board of Governors censured Iran twice for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into past nuclear activities. The probe dates back to 2018 but the activities in question took place before 2003, when Iran halted its nuclear weapons program. In November 2022, a resolution – drafted by the United States, Britain, France and Germany – passed 26 to 2, with five abstentions and two countries absent. Russia and China, which have veto power at the U.N. Security Council, opposed the resolution. In June 2022, the IAEA board had passed a similar resolution, also sponsored by the United States, Britain, France and Germany. Both rebukes stopped short of referring Iran’s case to the U.N. Security Council for debate or potential action. The following is the joint statement issued by Iran and the IAEA with remarks by Grossi and Iranian officials.
Joint IAEA-Iran Statement
IAEA Director General H. E. Mr. Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the Islamic Republic of Iran on 3 and 4 March 2023. In the context of his visit, he met President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, H. E. Mr. Ebrahim Raisi, as well as with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, H. E. Mr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), H. E. Mr. Mohammad Eslami.
These high-level meetings addressed the importance of taking steps in order to facilitate enhanced cooperation, to expedite as appropriate the resolution of outstanding safeguards issues.
Both sides recognize that such positive engagements can pave the way for wider agreements among state parties.
The AEOI and the IAEA agreed on the following:
- Interactions between the IAEA and Iran will be carried out in a spirit of collaboration, and in full conformity with the competences of the IAEA and the rights and obligations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on the comprehensive safeguards agreement.
- Regarding the outstanding safeguards issues related to the three locations, Iran expressed its readiness to continue its cooperation and provide further information and access to address the outstanding safeguards issues.
- Iran, on a voluntary basis will allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities. Modalities will be agreed between the two sides in the course of a technical meeting which will take place soon in Tehran.
IAEA Director General Grossi
To the IAEA Board of Governors on March 6, 2023: “On Saturday, I returned from Tehran where I held talks with senior officials including President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, H. E. Mr. Ebrahim Raisi; Minister of Foreign Affairs, H. E. Mr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian; and Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), H. E. Mr. Mohammad Eslami.
“These high-level meetings addressed the importance of taking steps to facilitate enhanced cooperation, to expedite as appropriate the resolution of outstanding safeguards issues.
“Both sides recognize that such positive engagements can pave the way for wider agreements among state parties.”
“You have before you my latest report on Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015). As you are aware, the Agency has not been able to perform JCPOA verification and monitoring activities in relation to the production and inventory of centrifuges, rotors and bellows, heavy water and uranium ore concentrate (UOC) for two years, including nearly nine months when the surveillance and monitoring equipment were not installed.
“Following my discussions with Vice-President Eslami in Tehran on Saturday, I note Iran’s agreement to allow the Agency to proceed with further monitoring and verification measures indispensable to the Agency fulfilling its mission.
“Achieving this will be very important because it would allow the Agency to begin to establish a new baseline necessary in the event of a resumption of Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.
“I now look forward to the follow-up technical discussions and to the prompt and full implementation of Iran’s assurances and the Joint Statement between Vice-President Eslami and myself. You will find this joint statement attached as an annex to my latest report on the NPT Safeguards Agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is before you.
“In January, Iran implemented a significant change to the declared design information for the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) without informing the Agency in advance. This was contrary to Iran’s obligations under its Safeguards Agreement. Following discussions between Iran and Agency officials, Iran has since confirmed that it will facilitate the further increase in the frequency and intensity of Agency verification activities at FFEP, as notified by the Agency.
“Also in January at the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, we found particles of high enriched uranium with enrichment levels well beyond the enrichment level declared by Iran. The Agency and Iran have initiated technical discussions to fully clarify this issue.
“I welcome Iran’s high-level assurances that it is willing to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities, and to cooperate with the Agency to resolve the outstanding safeguards issues, including those pertaining to the three undeclared locations in which the Agency found traces of uranium particles of anthropogenic origin. In the spirit of the joint statement, I look forward promptly to engaging in technical follow-up discussions with Iran, as we have agreed. There is important work ahead of us.”
In a press conference in Vienna on March 4, 2023: “It's high time we come to some concrete results. So this was the spirit of the meetings we had, and I believe we have a clear understanding in that regard so that we can start implementing a number of very concrete measures very soon.”
“For us, what is important, the only thing that matters, is that we are able to inspect, that we are able to account for every gram of enriched material that is there, and this is the spirit of the exchanges, and we have been working satisfactorily in that regard.”
“What we have agreed is on a number of concrete actions like accesses that we are going to have to information and places.”
“But what we decided is that we are going to be having a number of technical meetings starting very, very soon... we have discussed the places and the things that we are going to be to be inspecting, and they and you know them, because they have been described in all my reports.”
“What is important that I can tell you is that we have agreed that we are going to be moving on to concrete visits, concrete access to certain people of interest, and certain material.”
“For me, the importance of today is where we are today, and that I believe that an improvement – a marked improvement at least in terms of my dialogue with the Iranian government – has been registered. I think I was heard, and I hope we will be seeing results soon. We will see.”
“As you know, over the past few months, there was a reduction in some of the additional monitoring and further activities in the area of verification that we had related to cameras, related to online enrichment mechanisms, in terms of flow monitoring systems, which were not operating, so we have agreed that those will be operating again.”
“If we don't have information about important aspects related, for example, to the fabrication of centrifuges, and other things, it would be very difficult for us to give Iran and the parties the necessary assurances to reestablish the necessary baselines. All of this requires a lot of time, requires painstaking effort on the part of my inspectors, and also their Iranian counterparts, and reconciling figures, looking at the information. These have been lost, so if I can maybe use a figure of thought, we have put a tourniquet on the bleeding of information and lack of continuity of knowledge we had.”
“We came to the conclusion that this particular facility [Fordo] required more inspection activity, we proposed that to Iran, Iran agreed to that, and now we are increasing the intensity of the inspections effort there, which we believe is important because of the reconfiguration of this cascade – it is a very efficient cascade goes very fast. So we came to the conclusion, okay, you can do this, but we need to inspect more here. And this is what was agreed, and it’s a very important step forward – 50 percent more inspections that we are going to have there. So I think it's a very good improvement in terms of transparency.”
“What we're trying to do, again, we don't judge intentions, we saw an event, which is of course, worthy of clarification because we had information on a certain level of enrichment in a certain facility. After taking some samples, we see a peak – sometimes in this type of facilities, there can be oscillations, or peaks, that can be accidental or can be limited in time.”
“And what is important at the same time to say is that there hasn't been any accumulation, production of enriched uranium at that level, this is also very important so people are not misled.”
“Iran gave us some explanations, we provided comments and there was a little bit of a ping pong without us seeing eye to eye on these things.”
“We agreed to restore monitoring and verification capacities. We agreed that we are going to have certain accesses.”
“And I think we are we are taking steps in the right direction. I don't want to sound overly optimistic or overly pessimistic.”
In remarks at a press conference with Mohammad Eslami, head of the AEOI, on March 4, 2023: “Globally speaking, there are two sets of matters that are important. Clearly, there is great expectation about our joint work in order to move forward in the issues that Iran and the agency are working on, to clarify and to bring credible assurances about the nuclear program in Iran.”
“The second set of issues, which is very important, has to do with [the] scientific, technical cooperation we are having and will continue to have with Iran.”
“[The meetings occurred in] atmosphere of work, honesty and cooperation.”
“What we do here and the agreement we are trying to reach could help with restoring the JCPOA.”
“By having a constructive discussion … and having good agreements, like I am sure we are going to have, we are going to be paving the way for important agreements.”
“I think any attack, any military attack on a nuclear facility… is out of the normative structures that we all abide by.”
“We certainly hope that we are going to be able to protect the nuclear power plant which is under threat now, which is [Ukraine’s] Zaporizhzhia… But this is valid and applicable to every nuclear facility in the world.”
In a meeting with Grossi on March 4, 2023 “The Islamic Republic of Iran expects the approach of the Agency's activities in Iran to be completely professional and avoiding being influenced by domineering powers.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran expects the IAEA's view to be completely professional and avoiding being influenced by the domineering powers.”
“Some countries, America and the Zionist Regime at the head of them, have used the nuclear issue as a pretext to put more pressure on the people of Iran, while this regime does not adhere to any international pact regarding the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
“The Europeans also did not fulfil their obligations in this agreement, while Iran adhered to its obligations and this adherence was approved more than 15 times in the Agency's reports.”
Mohammad Eslami, head of the AEOI
“They too have obligations that they need to adhere to.”
“We came to an arrangement [with Grossi] to define our cooperation within the framework of the safeguards.”
“Iran never sacrifices its national interests for anything else.”
“We are committed to our safeguards agreement with the agency and we won’t allow any elements or actions to undermine this cooperation, so our work will continue and we won’t allow any non-compliance to cause a lack of trust.”
Behrouz Kamalvandi, AEOI spokesperson
“There were no talks or agreements about installing cameras.”
Photo Credits: Fars News Agency (CC BY 4.0)