IAEA Board Welcomes EU-Iran Agreement: Is Iran Providing Assurances or Merely Providing Amusement?

Introduction

After a weekend of last-minute negotiations, on Monday, November 29th, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a mildly-worded resolution on Iran's nuclear program without a vote. This resolution primarily welcomes Iran's voluntary decision "to continue and extend its suspension of all enrichment related and reprocessing activities," and requests that the Director-General continue verifying the maintenance of the suspension. The Director-General is also asked to notify the Board in the event that Iran either fails to suspend the specified activities, or prevents the verification of this suspension by the Agency. While the resolution does include a minor critique of Iran's undeclared activities prior to 2003 by reaffirming "its strong concern that Iran's policy of concealment up to October 2003 has resulted in many breaches of Iran's obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement," it quickly qualifies this criticism by acknowledging Iran's efforts to correct these concerns. The terms of the resolution are a far cry from U.S. desires to refer the Iranian case to the Security Council, a move which would open the door for economic sanctions on the regime. However, the resolution also does not bring the case to a close, which was a hope expressed both by Iran, which wished to be cleared of suspicions, and Director-General ElBaradei, who declared in June that a finalization of the matter "is essential for the credibility and integrity of the inspection process."[1]

The November resolution follows a trend of IAEA resolutions on Iran containing progressively weaker language. In the September resolution, the Board stated that it "deeply regrets" the fact that Iran's suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities "fell significantly short of the Agency's understandings of those commitments..." The June and March resolutions deplored Iran's failure to fully cooperate with the Agency, and to report its possession of P-2 centrifuge designs, respectively. Finally, the resolution adopted in November of 2003 strongly deplored Iran's past breaches of its safeguards obligations. In the weakest language thus far, the new resolution merely welcomes Iran's voluntary efforts both to suspend enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, and to adhere to the Additional Protocol, making no assessment of Iran's obligated cooperation with the Agency. Moreover, unlike all previous resolutions in which the Board stated that it would "remain seized with the matter," the new resolution simply requests the Director-General to report to the Board "as appropriate," rather than prior to the next Board meeting. This language suggests that the issue of Iran will not automatically be placed on the agenda of the next Board meeting in February, and that the Board will only review the implementation of Safeguards in Iran once clarification on the outstanding issues has been reached, or in the event that Iran discontinues its suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities. Once again, Iran has made enough concessions to avoid being referred to the Security Council. It seems that the international community has deferred to the suspension agreement to determine whether or not Iran's claim to only seek nuclear power for peaceful purposes is sincere. Will Iran this time abide by this suspension to provide the international community with the assurances that it has been seeking? More importantly, will it do so in good faith? Or is Iran simply testing how long it can entertain the international community while secretly pursuing nuclear weapons?

The terms of the new IAEA resolution are largely based on an agreement (known as the Paris accord) between the EU-3 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom) and Iran, and as usual, the report of the Director-General. The previous resolution suggested that this meeting would bring the matter to a close by considering "a full account of past and present Iranian cooperation with the Agency." However, the agreement with the EU-3 and Iran to renew Iran's suspension of its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities requires that the IAEA provide verification of Iran's suspension. Furthermore, the Director-General's report notes that two outstanding issues remain regarding the verification of Iran's nuclear activities, as well as the correction of a number of prior breaches of Iran's Safeguards Agreement.

The Paris Accord: Iran's Last Chance?

The Paris accord was concluded on November 15th after months of negotiations between Iran and the EU-3. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran pledged to temporarily suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, and to allow the IAEA to verify this suspension. The freeze began on November 22nd, and is intended to last until a long term agreement between the two parties has been finalized. In return for suspending these activities, the EU-3 committed to support both the IAEA Director General's invitation to Iran to join the Expert Group of Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, and the opening of Iranian accession negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The agreement also stated that once suspension has been verified, the negotiations with the EU-3 on a Trade and Cooperation Agreement will resume.

The terms of the Paris accord are nothing new. They essentially reiterate an agreement made between the same parties in October of last year, known as the Tehran agreed statement, in which Iran pledged to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities and sign the Additional Protocol in exchange for "easier access to modern technology and supplies in a range of areas." Just as the Paris accord led to the conciliatory terms of the latest resolution, the 2003 suspension agreement was one of the key factors preventing Iran's case from being referred to the Security Council in November of last year. This original agreement however, fell apart when Iran announced its intention to produce uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a compound used in the uranium enrichment process, at its Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Isfahan. The IAEA claimed that such an activity violated Iran's pledge to suspend all enrichment related activities, while Iran claimed that the production of UF6 was not explicitly prohibited under the terms of the agreement, and reserved the right to do so. As the IAEA and the EU-3 viewed Iran as reneging on the agreement, the EU-3 considered the bargain null and void. The EU-3's determination that the agreement was no longer valid led Iran to claim that it was the EU-3, in fact, that had violated the agreement, and proceeded to publicly question whether it could trust the EU-3 to negotiate in good faith.

As a result of the EU-3's experience with the ambiguous provisions of the Tehran agreed statement, the terms of the Paris accord detailed a number of specific activities that Iran would agree to suspend. The suspended activities include: the manufacture and import of gas centrifuges and their components; the assembly, installation, testing or operation of gas centrifuges; work to undertake any plutonium separation, or to construct or operate any plutonium separation installation; and all tests or production at any uranium conversion installation. The purpose of such specificity of course, is to ensure that all parties involved, the EU-3, Iran, and the IAEA, have a common understanding of what are considered to be enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. While these terms were agreed to in advance of the November Board meeting, in what has become a common Iranian tactic of last-minute hedging, Iran notified the IAEA on the eve of the meeting that it intended to exempt up to 20 centrifuges from the suspension agreement. Iran claimed that the purpose of the exemption was to conduct research and development, asserting that the terms of the agreement did not prevent the use of centrifuges for R&D purposes. This stipulation threatened to railroad the agreement, and intense negotiations ensued during the weekend after the initial session of, what was intended to be, a two-day Board meeting. On Sunday, November 28th, Iran notified the IAEA Director-General that it would no longer seek to exempt the 20 centrifuges, thereby fulfilling the original terms of the agreement. In addition to this last-minute stipulation, reports suggested that Iran rushed through the conversion of 22 tons of uranium into UF6 just prior to the November 22nd deadline for the suspension to enter into force.[2] Both the attempted exemption and the rapid production of the enrichment feedstock suggest that Iran is once again testing the boundaries of its agreements. Given the fact that the agreement only provides details for the suspension of Iran's gas centrifuge program, there may be other avenues for Iran to proceed with its enrichment and reprocessing activities while claiming to adhere to the accord.

Regardless of how exhaustive the terms of the suspension agreement may be, perhaps the most important detail which has yet to be determined is the duration of the agreement. Iran continues to emphasize the fact that the suspension is non-binding, temporary, and voluntary, and that it can only endure forgoing its right to enrichment for so long. Chairman of the Iranian Expediency Council and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani recently suggested a six-month deadline on the suspension, stating, "I do not think the ceiling of this period should be more than six months to prove to them that Iran is not seeking military applications."[3] As noted by the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Hasan Rowhani, "The duration of the suspension will only be for the duration of the negotiations. And as I said before, when we say the duration of the negotiations, we are talking about a few months. There is no talk of years."[4] What has left to be seen is whether negotiations on a long-term agreement can be conducted in this timeframe. Furthermore, Iran asserts that this temporary and voluntary nature of the suspension implicitly recognizes its right to enrichment technology. According to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, "The Islamic Republic of Iran will definitely not abandon its nuclear activities, and this is our redline." The diplomatic efforts and talks with the Europeans and the International Atomic Energy Agency were conducted by observing this redline."[5] The agreement therefore, can only serve as a stop-gap to prevent Iran from producing fissile material for nuclear weapons for the time being, allowing negotiations on a long-term resolution to proceed without increasing the stakes, and granting inspectors time to resolve the remaining issues.

Board Report: Questions Still Unanswered

The latest report on the implementation of safeguards in Iran, which was issued on November 15th by IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei, suggests the need for continued investigation to clarify unresolved concerns. This comprehensive report includes, in response to the Board's request in September 2004, information on Iran's implementation of the September 18 resolution, Iran's response to the requests made by the Board in previous resolutions, and a recapitulation of the Agency's findings on the Iranian nuclear program since September 2002.

The report points out that, since the 1980's, Iran has been seriously pursuing the mastery of an independent nuclear fuel cycle. It has devoted efforts to develop the know-how of almost every aspect thereof, including: uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, heavy water production, and associated R&D facilities. Iran has also conducted laboratory-scale experiments involving the reprocessing of irradiated fuel, as well as R&D regarding radioactive waste.

Even though Iran is obligated by its safeguards agreement to provide information on its nuclear-related activities, Iran failed to declare many of these activities to the IAEA until October 2003. In particular, Iran neglected to report on its efforts regarding uranium enrichment, uranium conversion, and plutonium separation. The report summarizes the cases in which Iran concealed information from the Agency, and describes what progress has been made to correct these deficiencies.

According to the Director-General, there are two issues that remain outstanding which have been under investigation for several months. The first remaining issue is the clarification of the origin of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and highly enriched uranium (HEU) particle contamination found at various locations in Iran. The discovery of enriched uranium particles has been a cause for concern due to the fact that Iran originally asserted that all of its centrifuge components had been produced indigenously. After investigation into this contamination began, Iran admitted that it had imported centrifuge components, and the Agency has been working to verify that the contamination occurred prior to Iran's acquisition of the components. The Agency has recently requested permission to sample the centrifuges and centrifuge components from the State of origin to conduct independent analysis of the samples. According to the report, "Such independent sampling and analysis may enable the Agency to confirm the actual source of contamination and the correctness of statements made by Iran."

The second issue is the determination of the extent of Iran's efforts to import, manufacture, and use centrifuges of both the P-1 and P-2 designs. Iran's initial claim that it had only used P-1 type centrifuges was brought into question when evidence from Libya regarding Pakistani-supplied P-2 centrifuges suggested that Iran also used these more advanced centrifuges, which enrich uranium faster than the P-1. Iran then admitted that it had received P-2 design drawings from Pakistan in 1995, but stated that no work has been conducted on P-2 centrifuges prior to 2002. The report states that Iran's explanations for the time-delay between 1995 and 2002, "do not provide sufficient assurance that there were no related activities carried out during that period, particularly given that the contractor was able to make the modifications necessary for the composite cylinders within a short period after early 2002 when, according to Iran, he had seen the drawings for the first time." The Agency is conducting research on this issue from multiple fronts, including the tracking of a clandestine supply network for the procurement of centrifuge components.

The report concludes that all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, allowing the Agency to determine that such material is not diverted to prohibited activities. However, it cannot be inferred that undeclared nuclear materials and activities have been uncovered in Iran. The report emphasizes that reaching conclusions regarding Iran's nuclear activities, even with the Additional Protocol in place, would require more time in view of Iran's past patterns of concealment.

As a result of both the need to ensure Iran's agreement to suspend its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, and to gain Iran's support in resolving the outstanding issues regarding Iran's nuclear program, the latest resolution takes a conciliatory tone with Iran to encourage its continued cooperation. Iranian leaders have expressed satisfaction with the mild terms of the resolution. Prior to the vote on the resolution, chief Iranian negotiator Hossein Moussavian stated that the draft resolution "is without doubt the most positive one to be presented to the (IAEA) board of governors since the beginning of the Iranian nuclear crisis."[6]

The U.S. Response

The United States, which had been arguing for a referral of the Iran case to the Security Council, expressed mixed feelings about the results. Even though the resolution was adopted without a vote, the U.S. delegation in Vienna voiced its discontent with the outcome during the Board meeting, and afterwards. The head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Jackie Sanders, stated that the U.S. "still wonder(s) whether Iran ever worked with beryllium, which combined with Po-210 forms a neutron source that can be used for initiating a nuclear weapon." According to some U.S. and other diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Iran's work with beryllium was mentioned in an early draft of the IAEA's September report. They added that, due to Iranian objections, it was removed and never included in the final report.[7] Responding to this allegation, Director-General ElBaradei explained that issues in question, such as beryllium metal, are not included in reports until they are ready, and that the report had not been discussed with Iran prior to its release, with the exception of requests for information.[8] Once the resolution passed, Ambassador Sanders delivered a nine-page statement to a closed-door session[9] of the Board in which she launched a harsh attack on Iran, and accused the IAEA of irresponsibility. According to Ambassador Sanders, the Board had a "statutory obligation" to recommend consequences for Iran in the Security Council. Affirming that Iran has a clandestine nuclear weapons program that, "poses a growing threat to international peace and security," she declared that the United States could refer Iran to the Security Council unilaterally, as any other member of the UN could do in view of a situation that might endanger international peace and security. She stressed that the United States reserves all its options in this regard.[10]

The official reaction from the White House, on the other hand, expressed a conciliatory tone regarding the resolution. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the agreement was welcome and emphasized the critical importance of implementation and verification: "We will see over time if Iran is firmly committed to complying fully with its commitments."[11] Departing from Ambassador Sanders' claim that the United States may seek a referral of the issue to the Security Council on its own, McClellan added that, in the event of a violation, "the matter will be reported back to the IAEA members to consider additional action."[12]

Although the United States was not actively involved in the negotiations on the temporary suspension, any long-term agreement will necessitate the support of the United States. U.S. support is already important for some of the provisions of the Paris accord, such as the sharing of nuclear technology and an Iranian accession to the World Trade Organization. While the White House welcomed the agreement, President Bush expressed skepticism after the conclusion of the Paris accord, stating, "It looks like there is some progress, but to determine whether or not the progress is real there must be verification."[13] He then made reference to the fate of the previous suspension agreement, stating, "This is a situation we've been in before, where Iran has said that it would suspend, and then subsequently went on to renege on those commitments."[14] IAEA verification will therefore be vital both in ensuring that Iran fulfills its part of the bargain, and in providing confidence to the EU-3 and the United States that diplomatic efforts with Iran will yield results.

Recognizing NPT Rights, Enforcing NPT Conditions

Regardless of whether or not Iran verifiably adheres to the suspension agreement, the Paris accord does very little to alleviate the long-term concerns that Iran will not only develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons, but that it will make use of this capacity in defiance of its nonproliferation commitments. Although Iran may abide by this suspension as a confidence building measure, due to the temporary nature of the accord, the international community must avoid being lulled into a sense of false confidence. It is therefore necessary for the European Union and the United States to take steps to ensure that Iran does not follow in the footsteps of North Korea and withdraw from the NPT once it is satisfied with its nuclear capabilities. While Iran would unlikely accept an agreement requiring it to renounce its right to withdraw from the NPT, the long-term agreement can incorporate a number of stipulations on any future withdrawal. Such stipulations may include a number of provisions recently proposed by Germany to regulate the withdrawal procedure, including: requiring a state to conduct prior consultations with NPT State parties before exercising its right to withdraw, requiring the immediate restitution of all nuclear equipment and materials obtained while member to the NPT, and determining that a state cannot withdraw from the NPT while it is being investigated for non-compliance.[15] In addition, the long-term agreement may also link trade concessions to continued NPT membership. Due to the fact that Iran has essentially acquired a full nuclear fuel cycle, absent verifiable proof that Iran is in violation of its NPT Article II and III commitments, the international community will need to recognize Iran's right to nuclear energy while placing the burden on Iran to prove that it is not abusing this right.

RESOURCES

  • In Focus: IAEA and Iran, www.iaea.org.
  • Iran Country Profile, www.nti.org.
  • Special Weapons Guide, Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.

Sources:

[1] www.iaea.org
[2] www.usatoday.com
[3] www.aljazeera.com
[4] BBC Monitoring Iranian media roundup 23-30 Nov 04, November 30, 2004, www.intellisearchnow.com
[5] BBC Monitoring Iranian media roundup 23-30 Nov 04, November 30, 2004, www.intellisearchnow.com
[6] www.islamonline.net
[7] "Iran bought metal useable in atomic bombs-diplomats," Reuters, December 3, 2004.
[8] "UN nuclear chief angrily denies charges of collaboration with Iran," Agence France Presse-English, December 4, 2004.
[9] "UN action frustrates US on Iran, Elaine Sciolino," New York Times, November 30, 2004.
[10] "UN action frustrates US on Iran, Elaine Sciolino," New York Times, November 30, 2004.
[11] "Press Briefing by Scott McClellan," November 29, 2004, www.whitehouse.gov
[12] Ibid.
[13] http://washington.news.designerz.com
[14] Ibid.
[15] "Strengthening the NPT against withdrawal and non-compliance," Working paper submitted by Germany, NPT/CONF.2005/PC.III/WP.15.

December 1, 2004
About

After a weekend of last-minute negotiations, on Monday, November 29th, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors adopted a mildly-worded resolution on Iran's nuclear program without a vote.

Authors
Peter Crail

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Maria Lorenzo Sobrado

Center for Nonproliferation Studies