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IAEA: Deteriorating Relations With Iran

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Relations between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) appear to be at their lowest ebb since the onset of special inspections under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. With just two weeks remaining to Iran's Jun. 18 elections and uncertainty over talks aimed at restoring US and Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agency on May 31 released two verification reports on Iran's nuclear program widely considered the most critical since the agency began supplying such reports (related). A censure motion or even a critical resolution at next week's quarterly board meeting is considered highly unlikely but that doesn't erase the implications of the compliance reports -- one on Iran's bilateral safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the other on the JCPOA -- or the tensions underlying them. Added to this is the fact that in its latest Safeguards Implementation Report for 2020, to be presented at next week's board meeting, the agency no longer lists Iran among the countries for which it has concluded there is no evidence of a diversion of nuclear material. Finally, recent critical comments of Iran's nuclear program by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi have added to a general sense of extreme frustration within the agency toward Iran, likely exacerbated by Iran's refusal to extend the February "understanding" on inspections with the agency past Jun. 24, and not doing so until after the previous agreement expired May 21 (NIW May21'21). The "understanding" initially struck on Feb. 21 is critical to maintaining some transparency on Iran's nuclear program after Iran's Parliament passed a law in December mandating a drastic curtailment of IAEA inspection activities (NIW Feb.26'21). If no agreement on the JCPOA is made by the latest June deadline, and no further extension is granted, Iran may erase all the electronic data collected since Feb. 23 -- to which the agency has not been given access -- and "continuity of knowledge" considered vital to the JCPOA's viability will be lost. Some believe that may have already happened. These concerns surfaced amid a fifth round of JCPOA talks in Vienna. The talks ended Jun. 2 and a sixth round is scheduled for next week, but the parties appear to be deadlocked over sanctions and technology -- with the US unable to provide the full sanctions relief that Iran is demanding and Iran insisting that it be allowed to use more advanced centrifuge models in a revised agreement. But both sides are still hoping for a deal, and this may explain the lack of any official response to the IAEA reports. Agency member states, and the US in particular, have in the past pushed for resolutions condemning Iran for noncompliance. The JCPOA only required quarterly compliance reports on JCPOA-specific obligations but in early 2020, the US, under former President Donald Trump, pushed for separate safeguards noncompliance reports. It hoped these reports, and subsequent critical board resolutions, would build its case for a snapback of UN sanctions against Iran. It succeeded in getting such reports presented both at the March and June 2020 IAEA board meetings, although it ultimately failed in its push for snapback (NIW Jun.26'20). This time around, with the administration of President Joe Biden keen to revive the JCPOA, there were no such US machinations. However, since the noncompliance issues have been raised the agency continues to pursue questions regarding Iranian activities dating back to 2003, or earlier, and is obligated to get answers. "The problem is once they open a safeguards issue they have to close it," says a former senior IAEA official. Last week, in an interview with the UK's FT, Grossi said that it was "very concerning" that Iran's nuclear program had become more sophisticated in the two years since the US left the JCPOA, and that "a country enriching at [60%] is a very serious thing -- only countries making bombs are reaching this level." While few would dispute such observations the fact they came from DG raised more than a few eyebrows in Vienna, where decorum dictates that the head of an agency that self-describes as purely technical should not veer toward the political. Lost Knowledge? The latest IAEA reports catalogued in detail the impact on agency verification of Iran curtailing additional JCPOA inspection measures, and Iran's failure to satisfactorily answer safeguards-related questions related "to four undeclared locations in Iran" (NIW Aug.28'20). Since Feb. 23, "the Agency's verification and monitoring activities in relation to the JCPOA have been affected as a result of Iran's decision to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA, including the Additional Protocol," said the JCPOA verification report. Among 15 items listed in an annex to the report were the inability to "monitor or verify Iranian production and inventory of heavy water" or of uranium concentrates and UF6. However, the agency is still able to estimate enriched uranium stockpile numbers under its comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) arrangements, although without the same degree of precision provided by online monitoring data to which the agency no longer has access. But the two reports also underscored a messy problem for the agency itself -- namely the blurring of lines between commitments under the JCPOA and Iran's CSA with the agency. Most notable is the "modified code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements" to Iran's CSA. It requires a member state to inform the agency of plans for a new nuclear facility once a political decision has been made to build one, and not after the facility has been built as was previously the case. Although it's in the CSA subsidiary arrangements, it was also swept into Iran's JCPOA commitments, and then included in the February list of JCPOA commitments with which Iran said it would no longer comply. Grossi has long insisted that because that code is part of an international agreement -- Iran's CSA -- it cannot be unilaterally modified. The JCPOA reports are "becoming the be-all and end-all and we've sort of lost track of safeguards," says the former IAEA official. Wording is also an issue. For example, the JCPOA report ends with a statement that "the agreement of [May 24,] 2021 is to enable the Agency to recover and re-establish the necessary continuity of knowledge." The former official argues that the meaning of the sentence is difficult to discern because the language is imprecise but that he doesn't read much into it. However a knowledgeable diplomat says he read it as a "hint that they've already lost continuity of knowledge." Stephanie Cooke, Washington

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