The Atomic Rulebook: Iran and IAEA Safeguard Violations

Originally published here.

A Page From History, And The Atomic Rulebook

IAEA Board of Governors Meeting. Photo Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA Imagebank

On December 8, 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed that there should be an international, independent, nuclear watchdog agency, an organization to monitor “the dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might…”. Thus, in 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA was born. It has evolved and expanded over the years to include 150 member states, a large staff, and a multifaceted mission.

Among other things, the IAEA:

… verifies through its inspection system that States comply with their commitments, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other non-proliferation agreements, to use nuclear material and facilities only for peaceful purposes.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) states, in part, that [pdf]:

Each Non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards… for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfilment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices… The safeguards required by this Article shall be applied on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of such State, under its jurisdiction, or carried out under its control anywhere.

This means that member states absolutely must comply with their safeguard agreements — in other words, if they’re going to be a member of the club, they have to play by the rules. As stated by the IAEA [pdf]:

Safeguards are a set of activities by which the IAEA seeks to verify that a State is living up to its international undertakings not to use nuclear programmes for nuclear weapons purposes. The safeguards system is based on assessment of the correctness and completeness of the State’s declarations to the IAEA concerning nuclear material and nuclear-related activities. To date, 145 States have entered into such agreements with the IAEA, submitting nuclear materials, facilities and activities to the scrutiny of IAEA’s safeguards inspectors.

Back in 1968, Iran signed the NPT and officially became a member of this special nuclear club. Their membership has been anything but uneventful, especially in recent years.

This Fall has been no exception.

Not Playing By The Rules

January 2009 satellite image of the Qom nuclear facility in Iran. Click to enlarge.*

In late September 2009, Iran sent a letter to the IAEA, notifying the watchdog that they had been building a clandestine uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, close to the holy city of Qom. Iran’s hand was forced, in part, by knowledge that intelligence officials from France, the UK, and the US were on the verge of disclosing the facility.

Since then, a lot has happened. There has been quite a bit of detailed analysis of what might or might not be going on at the Qom site; regardless, rules are rules, and as the IAEA’s Director-General, Mohamed ElBaradei said at the end of September:

Iran broke international law by not disclosing sooner its recently revealed uranium enrichment site, the head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency said.


“Iran has been on the wrong side of the law in so far as to inform the agency at an earlier date,” ElBaradei told CNN’s sister station in India, CNN-IBN. “Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that.”

His words are reinforced by the latest IAEA Safeguards Report on Iran, which has been sent to the IAEA Board of Governors. The report [pdf] is fairly detailed, and shows that the Qom facility (a.k.a. the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, or FFEP) is “at an advanced stage of construction”, though no centrifuges have yet been installed; Iran’s other fuel enrichment facility, at Natanz, continues to operate and produced low-enriched uranium.

According to the report, Iran’s explanation for the existence of the FFEP is that it was planned as a “contingency enrichment plant” because they felt that Natanz was a military target, and that if it was hit, they could continue uranium enrichment at the FFEP. They also claim that they started construction on the Fordow site “in the second half of 2007″, and have therefore not violated any safeguard agreements (see the discussion of “modified code 3.1″ here and here).

However, that is not true. The IAEA report states:

During the meetings, the Agency [IAEA] informed Iran that it had acquired commercially available satellite imagery of the site indicating that there had been construction at the site between 2002 and 2004, and that construction activities were resumed in 2006 and had continued to date. The Agency also referred to the extensive information given to the Agency by a number of Member States detailing the design of the facility, which was consistent with the design as verified by the Agency during the DIV. The Agency also informed Iran that these Member States alleged that design work on the facility had started in 2006.

Several analysts at the nonpartisan, nongovernmental Arms Control Association (ACA) put it this way:

… the [IAEA] has rejected a possible loophole Iran pursued where it could construct a nuclear facility in secret and claim, in case that secret is revealed, that Tehran was simply not yet obligated to inform the Agency about such construction,” said Peter Crail, nonproliferation analyst with ACA.

“Iran not only tried this tactic when the Fordow enrichment facility near Qom was revealed by Western governments in September, it made similar claims when its original secret nuclear facilities were made public in 2002,” added Crail.

Another analyst at the ACA said:

“Rather than cooperating with the Agency only under pressure, Tehran should agree to expanding IAEA access under the terms of the Additional Protocol to ensure that it is not pursuing any other significant nuclear activities in secret,” added Thielmann.

“Securing such additional transparency from Iran should be the priority for the P5+1 in their negotiations with Tehran,” [Greg] Thielmann concluded.

In other words, this is an opportunity for Iran to establish greater transparency about the purpose of their nuclear program. Deception is breeding distrust, and understandably so. Why are they being secretive? What is the point, if their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes?

What’s Next?

The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany (France, the UK, the US, China, Russia, and Germany). Last month, they met with Iranian nuclear negotiators to try to hammer out a deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which makes medical isotopes. The deal put forth was basically that approximately 70% of Iran’s low-enriched uranium would be removed from the country, sent to Russia for enrichment to nearly 20%, and then fabricated into fuel assemblies by France. Iran agreed “in principle” to the deal, but the deal has since crumbled, especially with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s implicit rejection of it as being part of “naive and perverted” diplomacy with the United States.

The IAEA Board of Governors will meet next week, on November 26, where they will discuss the latest safeguards report.

Joshua Pollack is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as well as the much-respected website, I asked him what part the (nearly failed) Tehran Research Reactor deal plays in the big picture, specifically with respect to the latest safeguards report. He said:

I think that if [the Tehran Research Reactor deal is not resolved before] the Board of Governors meeting, the nicest possible thing you could say about it is that the game is in overtime. I think that will seriously complicate things, because the Board of Governors is quite likely to send Iran to the Security Council again, with a violation of safeguards, over the Qom facility, and that means that the momentum is going to be very negative, after the Board of Governors meeting, because we’ll all be back in punishment mode, and the Iranians will be back in defiance mode, and it’s going to be very hard — if it’s hard to get a deal done now, it’ll be a lot harder to get one done then, because the atmospherics will shift quite starkly.

And similarly, if we can get it done before then, it would change the atmospherics in the Board of Governors enough that the referral to the Security Council, which I assume would still happen, would be much gentler in tone, and would not basically come with the promise of sanctions on it, because there’s a substantial overlap between getting a two-thirds vote on the Board of Governors and getting a sanctions vote in the Security Council. It’s not a slam dunk. You have to deal with the Russian and Chinese vetoes. But, if they get a referral, they will pass a Security Council resolution, and I doubt it will be totally toothless. I’m not predicting what will be in it, but, you know, going into the Board of Governors meeting without making a deal is going to create a very dark and ugly atmosphere, and that is going to lead to a pretty tough referral.

Unless there’s a miracle, and Iran suddenly decides to go with the original terms of the nuclear deal offered by the P5+1, things look like they will be very difficult for them indeed, going into the Board of Governors meeting.

Conclusion And A Cautionary Note

A world without rules would be very chaotic indeed. A world without rules regarding dual-use technology, like nuclear fission and its related technologies, would be a nightmare.

When an independent, international watchdog agency like the IAEA has concerns about illicit activity involving nuclear materials, they have those concerns for a reason. Picking and choosing which of their findings one is going to believe (or not believe) because it doesn’t fit one’s worldview is not the way to approach their conclusions. The rules laid out by the IAEA and by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty are absolutely clear, and they are absolutely to be followed to the letter.

It is my opinion that it would be a happier world if all states, whether or not they have signed the NPT, could somehow pledge to only use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and never for weapons.

Unfortunately, the world is not ideal.

I’ll end with something that Josh Pollack said to me. We were talking about how invariably, someone will mention “this means we’re going to bomb Iran” whenever news like the current safeguards report comes up.

This is about diplomacy. It’s not about war. This is just the opening move…

The diplomatic ball is in Iran’s court now. What are they going to do with it?

*Image Credit: DigitalGlobe-ISIS.

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