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The IAEA Nuclear Impasse: Five Questions Tehran Needs to Answer

October 21, 2021
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi has said he plans to visit Tehran "soon" to discuss the Iranian regime's nuclear activities
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi has said he plans to visit Tehran "soon" to discuss the Iranian regime's nuclear activities
In mostly-unpublished reports to the IAEA board of directors since 2019, Grossi has warned of repeated violations by Iran
In mostly-unpublished reports to the IAEA board of directors since 2019, Grossi has warned of repeated violations by Iran
The Islamic Republic has failed to explain the presence of radioactive and nuclear material at four separate sites in the country
The Islamic Republic has failed to explain the presence of radioactive and nuclear material at four separate sites in the country

This week the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss nuclear safeguarding activities, as well as a possible return to the JCPOA. He also said he planned to visit Tehran “soon”, though a trip has yet to be formally scheduled.

In the aftermath of meetings, US Republican Senator Jim Risch said in a statement: “Iran continues to steadily advance its nuclear program, while violating its international obligations and preventing the IAEA from fulfilling its monitoring responsibilities.

“Its failure to provide credible answers to the IAEA’s questions regarding its undeclared nuclear sites is unacceptable. Today, I thanked Director General Grossi for his strong leadership in pursuing the IAEA’s investigation into these sites, and urged him to continue to press Iran until it provides all required information.“  

In 2019 Iran again restricted IAEA inspectors’ access to its nuclear facilities, hindering the IAEA’s ability to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. Since then Grossi has laid out a number of pressing questions the Islamic Republic has yet to answer, in periodic reports to the IAEA. This article is a review of the outstanding issues.

1. The origin of enriched uranium particles in Iran

The IAEA is still deeply concerned because Iran has not explained the presence of uranium particles at three separate sites in the country. This points to either nuclear material or contaminated equipment having been at those locations.

This issue was first raised by Grossi with the IAEA’s board of directors in November 2019, after Israeli authorities said they had obtained documents showing Iran continued nuclear enrichment after the JCPOA was signed in 2015.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also claimed the regime had a “secret nuclear warehouse” in Torghuzabad, Tehran. It was described by Iranian officials as a carpet washing facility but uranium particles were discovered after sampling took place on IAEA inspectors’ insistence. The location of the other two sites  has not been disclosed, but one is understood to be around Isfahan.

2. Isotope particles

Agency inspectors also found radioactive isotope particles at a fourth, undisclosed location in Iran. After this was reported to the IAEA board, the Islamic Republic failed to explain the particles’ presence to the Agency. In one of his reports, Grossi observed Iranian officials had provided “contradictory” information on the matter in their IAEA questionnaires, reinforcing the suspicion of some kind of violation.

3. Non-disclosure of four nuclear activity sites to the IAEA

According to agreements signed by the Islamic Republic and the IAEA, Iran is obligated to notify the Agency in writing if it has any plans to build new nuclear facilities, as well as any planned transfer of radioactive materials from one location to another. As such, the IAEA is still waiting for an explanation from Iran as to why it did not flag up the four locations mentioned above, before they were discovered by third parties.

4. “Lost” uranium metal

For more than a year now, the IAEA has stated that the Islamic Republic has not informed inspectors of the fate of a seemingly missing uranium metal disk, of the type that could be used in a bomb. Inspectors believe the missing natural uranium was used in a illicit explosives test which, if correct, Iran would also not have informed the IAEA about.

This issue was raised before, during the IAEA’s investigation into “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program, which was shelved before the JCPOA was signed with the help of the late top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The Islamic Republic's continued refusal to comment on the uranium disk’s disappearance could yet see the PMDs case reopened.

5. Impounded IAEA surveillance cameras

After Iran suspended the implementation of the Additional Protocol, an agreement was reached with the IAEA to keep its surveillance cameras on Iranian nuclear facilities active for a short period. Iranian authorities said the information recorded would be given to the IAEA only if US sanctions were lifted in a timely manner. The Iranian ultimatum has long since passed.

One of the cameras, installed at an Iran Centrifuge Technology Company facility in Karaj, has now reportedly been destroyed while another is severely damaged. Officials say the former was due to a drone attack that the IAEA ought to condemn. But Grossi has insisted the Islamic Republic formally report the reasons, which the Agency will then review.

No-One is in Control

All signs indicate that the Islamic Republic is working to delay fresh negotiations to revive the JCPOA. Recently the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said the Biden administration should show goodwill – and prove its difference in stance from the Trump administration – by freeing up some of Iran’s blocked assets before coming back to the table.

This apparent stalling has been articulated as a matter of concern by both the Director-General of the IAEA and the European Union's foreign policy chief. Iranian officials recently claimed a meeting on the nuclear issue was due to take place with representatives of the EU in Brussels on October 21, but the EU holds that no date has yet been set.

In a phone call with Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, under whose auspices the IAEA falls, Amir-Abdollahian also said Iran wanted to separate the nuclear talks from "humanitarian" dialogue on prisoner exchanges. Previously Iranian officials said they would release US and dual-national prisoners in exchange for the release of $7bn in frozen funds. The US flatly refused.

The impasse over Iran’s nuclear program is now 20 years old. What is rapidly becoming clear is that no party – not the P5 + 1, not the EU, not the IAEA, certainly not the Islamic Republic – has full control over the talks’ future trajectory. In the meantime, as Grossi has warned, Iran is still enriching uranium to military-grade levels. What will end up breaking the stalemate this time is not yet clear.

Related coverage:

IAEA Accuses Iran of Stonewalling its Investigations

Nuclear Acceleration and Rocket Attacks: The Uncertain Future of the JCPOA

Uncertain Future for Nuclear Deal as Rouhani’s Presidency Comes to an End

What Do We Know About the Nuclear Watchdog’s Cameras in Iran?

US Envoy for Iran: Tehran May Never Come Back to the JCPOA

What Will 60 Percent Nuclear Enrichment Do to Iran’s Future?

Zarif's Book, Part IV: The Behind-Closed-Doors Nuclear Shouting Match

Zarif's Book, Part III: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's Role in the Nuclear Talks Revealed



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