Since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded in 2003 that Iran had systematically concealed activities that it was required to report to the agency, two tracks have been used to respond to Iran’s challenge: an IAEA track and a diplomatic track.
During the last nine years, the spotlight has gradually shifted away from the IAEA track because Iran limited its cooperation with the agency’s investigation of past activities, while sustaining its uranium enrichment and heavy water reactor programs in defiance of orders from the United Nations Security Council to suspend these programs. And since late 2009, when Yukiya Amano succeeded Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the IAEA, Amano has taken a lower diplomatic profile in the Iran crisis, confining the IAEA to the core mission of investigating and safeguarding the Iranian program while leaving to member states the task of negotiating a comprehensive diplomatic solution.
The diplomatic track is now in high gear. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the IAEA’s role in resolving the crisis will be secondary. In fact, the IAEA track will prove absolutely essential to making the diplomatic track a success, because it will test Iran’s sincerity in reaching an agreement with the six powers (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) negotiating with Tehran.
The IAEA’s relationship with Iran is bilateral, following from the agency’s safeguards agreement with Iran under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obligates the IAEA to verify that Iran’s nuclear activities are dedicated to peaceful use. Beginning in 2003, when the IAEA confirmed media reports that Iran had constructed nuclear facilities it didn’t declare to the agency and then learned that Iran had failed to declare uranium processing activities and uranium imports, the IAEA intensified this independent track with Iran.
In addition, the IAEA was also tasked by its board of governors with shedding light on Iran’s past and current nuclear activities. Under the IAEA statute, these findings may serve as the basis for decision-making by the board of governors and, thereafter, the U.N. Security Council. Beginning in 2006, on the basis of the secretariat’s reports to the board and followed by IAEA board referrals, the Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran and enlarged the IAEA’s role in Iran to monitor its compliance with Security Council resolutions.
Iran has tried to leverage its cooperation with the IAEA to weaken sanctions, while the board and the Security Council are counting on the IAEA Department of Safeguards to provide a reliable assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities upon which it can base its judgments and conduct diplomacy with Iran. And since 2003 the IAEA has provided such an assessment, despite the severe limitations imposed by Tehran on the IAEA’s access to information.
In the aftermath of an IAEA report to the board last November bringing forth evidence that Iran engaged in research and development for a nuclear explosive device, additional sanctions from the United States and the European Union against Iran will enter into force in a few weeks. In parallel, Iran and the six powers are meeting to scope out a possible comprehensive resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The IAEA’s reconstruction of the historical development of Iran’s nuclear program is needed to provide the international community a benchmark to assess unresolved allegations that Iran has engaged in nuclear weapons-related activities. At the same time, the IAEA’s ongoing monitoring of current Iranian nuclear activities is crucial to verify that Iran does not cross the line into clandestine actions that are not permitted by Iran’s safeguards agreement.
After the IAEA found that Iran had failed to declare numerous nuclear activities for 18 years, Iran and the IAEA signed in 2003 an Additional Protocol for safeguards, an agreement giving the IAEA more access to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran also agreed – as had many other NPT states before – to a 1991 safeguards provision called “Code 3.1” that required states to inform the IAEA about new nuclear facilities as soon as it was decided to build them. But in 2006 and 2007, respectively, Iran suspended implementation of the Additional Protocol (which it never ratified) and Code 3.1. Meanwhile, the IAEA was probing Iran’s nuclear history, and finding evidence it deemed credible that Iran had engaged in secret military research related to nuclear weapons since the late 1980s.
In 2007, the IAEA agreed to a “work plan” sought by Iran to eventually conclude the IAEA’s investigation. Since 2008, Iran has claimed it has fulfilled the work plan and, therefore, that Security Council sanctions are groundless and that the IAEA’s role should be limited to routine safeguards on activities that Iran has formally declared to the agency. Since 2011 Iran has promised the IAEA it would increase cooperation if the IAEA declares the 2007 work plan fulfilled. So far, Amano hasn’t been willing to do this, especially because Iran hasn’t cleared up allegations that it has worked on development of nuclear explosives.
This year, in parallel with efforts by the six powers to restart diplomacy with Iran, the IAEA has again stepped up bilateral dialogue with Iran over safeguards implementation. On May 22, Amano announced that the IAEA is close to reaching an agreement with Iran over a “structured approach document on which we have been working [with Iran] since January.”
Conclusion of a new IAEA agreement with Iran would greatly empower the diplomatic process – provided that the IAEA doesn’t sign away its rights to rigorously investigate any leads that Iran is carrying out undeclared nuclear activities, including research and development for nuclear weapons development.
Since February, Iran has proposed a new agreement, which allows Iran to address outstanding issues one by one until remaining boxes are checked and without imposing a deadline for Iran to respond to IAEA requests for access to locations, individuals, and documents. If Amano concedes these points, it will not be possible for the IAEA to assure the world in a reasonable period of time that its understanding of the scope of Iran’s program is comprehensive.