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IAEA: Negotiating Extended Iran Inspection Deal

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran are likely to extend an expiring three-month agreement designed to undergird the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as talks to restore it continue, Energy Intelligence understands. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has been negotiating with the government in Tehran to extend the deal, which expires today, May 21, but the timing for announcing any deal, if one is reached, remains uncertain. "It could be announced at five minutes to midnight on Friday," one diplomat told Energy Intelligence. The agency is "expecting an extension but not announcing it yet." Earlier this week an agency spokesperson refused to comment on the matter but on Thursday, May 20, confirmed by email that the IAEA and Iran "are currently in consultations regarding the implementation of the existing understanding. The director general will provide an update to the board of governors in the coming days." The "understanding" initially struck on Feb. 21 is critical to keeping the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) alive in the face of an Iranian law passed in December that mandated a drastic curtailment of IAEA inspection activities (NIW Feb.26'21). The agency deal allows IAEA monitoring equipment, including cameras, to continue collecting data required under the JCPOA -- but for only three months and without allowing the IAEA access to that data. Iranian cooperation under its comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the agency also continues, but under the deal Iran no longer adheres to the Additional Protocol that it had implemented on a voluntary basis. This temporary agreement is widely seen as a stop-gap mechanism for retaining some transparency on Iran's nuclear program while talks continue in an effort to restore the JCPOA. But there is little clarity on just how much transparency the agency has, and with data from online remote monitoring equipment off-limits to inspectors there are questions as to whether the agency can with confidence meet the "timely warning" criteria established under its CSA with Iran. This aims to allow the agency the tools it needs for "timely detection" of the unreported removal of a significant quantity of enriched uranium in enough time to prevent its conversion into nuclear weapons. In April and May, the agency released three brief information circulars to member states alerting them to new Iranian enrichment activities, including enrichment "up to 60%," and relating detailed operational information provided by Iran on different cascade configurations for achieving higher enrichment levels (NIW Apr.16'21; NIW May13'21). But the cascades in question are described as for "research and development" purposes and the circulars contained no information on quantities of enriched materials produced or their enrichment levels. Is Timely Warning Assured? Inspectors remain on the ground in Iran but their access to the enrichment plants at Fordow and Natanz is limited. Meanwhile, the agency may be blindfolded when it comes to reading information from its Online Enrichment Monitor (Olem), which "provides continuous measurement" of both quantities and levels of enriched UF6, according to a 2016 agency press release showcasing the new equipment. "The device is tamper indicating and is connected to a computer contained in a central cabinet on the site, which is also tamper indicating and under the IAEA’s seal. The computer performs calculations, stores results and transmits encrypted data." This encrypted data is understood to be off-limits to the agency under the Feb. 21 understanding, with the proviso that in the event the JCPOA is fully brought back into force the agency would be allowed to see it. However, if the opposite happens, the information could be wiped clean. To boot, there are questions as to whether Olem is installed at Fordow since the JCPOA stipulated that plant could no longer enrich UF6, and it's doubtful that separate monitors are installed on the PFEP's R&D lines enriching to higher levels. The lack of clarity on these issues has raised questions about Iranian compliance, even with its basic CSA, because it's unclear whether Olem is specific to JCPOA implementation measures or whether it could be considered part of the agency's toolkit for assessing CSA compliance. "People should be reminded that if Iran does not let the IAEA retrieve data after three months it is a violation of its safeguards obligations," former IAEA head of safeguards Olli Heinonen, now with the Stimson Center, told Energy Intelligence in an email. "Similarly would be a deletion of any data without the IAEA consent." But Tariq Rauf, a former head of verification policy coordination at the IAEA, said that "even without Olem the agency will know the quantities and levels" under its conventional safeguards arrangements. "Olem is a tool -- even if it goes it doesn't mean the agency is blind." He also points out that Grossi hasn't been shy in the past about raising issues related to Iranian compliance with its safeguards agreement (NIW Aug.28'20). Both agree, however, that a better indication of how the stop-gap measure is working in practice should come in the next quarterly JCPOA verification and monitoring report, expected ahead of the next board meeting which begins Jun. 7. This quarterly report should include data on stockpile numbers that Iran is required to submit under its CSA, regardless of the 2021 understanding with the agency. "We should wait for this report which is going to come out in a week," said Rauf. "Is the agency reporting the way it should, or cutting corners? Is the agency on top of what’s happening? They haven't reported quantities. This should come in this report." Stephanie Cooke, Washington

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