Iran: The IAEA's Shrinking Visibility in Iran

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

As Iran continues to ramp up enrichment activities, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said this week it is losing visibility on the Iranian program. This includes the inability to monitor or verify the production or possible purchase of natural uranium and of centrifuge equipment manufacturing, or to accurately calculate Iran's enriched uranium stockpile. Beyond that, the agency's latest quarterly report on Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal suggests that IAEA equipment may have been destroyed or damaged in a drone attack on Jun. 23.

The lack of visibility on key aspects of the program, which was afforded by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will complicate any return to the agreement because the agency will lack "continuity of knowledge" essential to establishing a baseline for future monitoring, according to the report released Tuesday, Sep. 7, ahead of next week's IAEA board meeting. It suggests that a loss of continuity occurred "around" Aug. 24, which marked the end of a three-month window in which inspectors needed to access monitoring and surveillance equipment to replace "storage media" necessary for data collection to continue. Iran's new hard-line government is refusing to extend a technical "understanding" first reached with the agency in February, aimed at allowing continued monitoring, while preventing agency access to collected data until a new agreement is reached. Despite multiple requests for access to its equipment, Iran "has failed to engage with the Agency at all on this matter for a number of months," thus "preventing the Agency from servicing the equipment and replacing the storage media," the report said.

The agency's JCPOA compliance report provides a window on the muddled results of the May 2018 US withdrawal from the JCPOA, and Israel's years-long campaign to sink Iran's program via assassinations, attacks and the theft of thousands of documents detailing its history. A second IAEA report, also released Sep. 7, criticized the "correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations" at four sites. That report said that IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi "indicated that he was available to travel to Iran to meet members of the new administration."

Iran's ambassador to the Vienna-based IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, argued that all of Iran's nuclear activities, including enrichment, have been fully compliant with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the country's commitments under the JCPOA and its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. His comments came after President Ebrahim Raisi said on Saturday that Iran was ready to return to the Vienna talks -- and would seek the complete lifting of sanctions -- but would not negotiate "under pressure" from the West. Robert Malley, the US envoy to Iran, is visiting Moscow and Paris this week to consult on the nuclear negotiations, the results of which may feed into a resolution at next week's board meeting responding to the agency's latest reports. The wording will likely be "conservative", according to one source in Vienna, because the talks are at such a "delicate" stage.

'Destroyed' and 'Damaged' Cameras

Iran initially insisted that the reported June attack on the Iran Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) facility at Karaj, attributed to Israel, did no damage, and later downplayed the impact saying there was no damage to equipment. Yet according to the agency's latest JCPOA compliance report, Iran removed four cameras from the TESA plant "following an incident at that location" on Jun. 23. The agency requested access to the cameras on Jul. 9 and having had no reply reiterated its request on Aug. 12 explaining "it was essential that Agency surveillance cameras were reinstalled and operational before the manufacturing of centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows resumed at that location." It's unclear whether, or when, such manufacturing might have resumed, but the report implies that it came to a halt after the June attack.

When agency inspectors were finally allowed in to see the cameras on Sep. 4 they "observed that one of the cameras had been destroyed, one of the cameras had been severely damaged and the other two cameras appeared intact." Data storage media was recovered from three of the cameras and placed under agency seal, although inspectors were not allowed to access the data. "As of today, the Agency is not in a position to recover continuity of knowledge over the activities recorded by these cameras" and has been unable to install replacement cameras at the complex. The report doesn't say whether the cameras were removed with or without agency permission; nor does it suggest that the agency requested information from Iran as to the cause of damage to the cameras.

However, satellite photos showed the centrifuge manufacturing and assembly facility was heavily damaged, and a former senior agency official told Energy Intelligence that he does "not recall any previous incident in Iran when Agency equipment was destroyed or damaged in Iran as a result of sabotage."

The agency's diminishing visibility in Iran, coupled with the country's enrichment advances, are clearly worsening the chances of a JCPOA revival. Asked about this at a press conference in Germany Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, "I'm not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved because as time goes on and as Iran continues to make advances in its nuclear program, including spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, enriching more material, learning more, there is a point at which it would be very difficult to regain all of the benefits of the JCPOA by returning to strict compliance with the JCPOA. We're not at that point yet, but it’s getting closer."

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