The Iran nuclear imbroglio has fallen into the lap of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) again at a delicate moment when a new Director General, Ambassador Rafael Grossi of Argentina is about to take over on Dec 3. Earlier, the IAEA had tackled the Iran issue from 2002 to 2015 and then left it for the parties to the Iran Nuclear deal to tackle it.
The second half of my term as a member of the Governing Board of the IAEA (2002-04) was dominated by the Iran nuclear issue as details of an Iranian nuclear programme were revealed by Iranian dissidents in Europe. Iran has always insisted that its nuclear programme was peaceful and also cooperated with the IAEA to prove their peaceful intentions. But it became a cat and mouse game as new information came to the IAEA after every inspection. Finally, since the IAEA could not establish that the programme was not entirely peaceful and based on the suspicion that it was being used as a cover to develop a nuclear bomb prompted the UN Security Council, US and EU to impose crippling sanctions from 2010.
In 2015, Iran reached a deal with six powers - the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany - that saw it limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. The deal restricted Iran's enrichment of uranium, which is used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear weapons. It was also required to redesign a heavy-water reactor being built, whose spent fuel would contain plutonium suitable for a bomb, and allow international inspections.
President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in May 2018 and reinstated US sanctions. He wanted a new deal that would also curb Iran's ballistic missile programme and its involvement in regional conflicts. The very fact that all restrictions on Iran would be lifted after 15 years, permitting Iran to start full scale nuclear activities was particularly objectionable. The suspicion that Iran was developing a parallel programme without any IAEA inspection was another concern. Iran refused any dilution of JCPOA and saw the value of its currency plummet and its inflation rate soar as the sanctions took effect. When the sanctions were tightened this May, Iran stopped abiding by some commitments in the deal.
As the watchdog of non-proliferation, the IAEA stepped in to monitor Iran’s compliance with the deal and on 1 July, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had exceeded the 300kg limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium imposed by the deal. Six days later, Iran began enriching uranium to 4.5% concentration so it could make fuel for its Bushehr power plant - beyond the 3.67% cap enshrined in the deal. On 4 September, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would also lift "all limitations" imposed on its development of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.
The latest developments do not strictly relate to the Iran nuclear deal, but to alleged violations of Iran’s safeguards agreement with the Agency. The tensions between Tehran and the IAEA came into the open when the Agency held special briefings with member states to discuss two alleged violations by Iran of its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the Agency. A temporary detention by Iran of a female IAEA inspector and the nondisclosure of uranium processed before 2004, traces of which were detected last year at a disused warehouse were confirmed by the IAEA. Israel had reported the warehouse earlier, but the IAEA delayed the announcement uptil now, when the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) is about to collapse. The blame for the delay was attributed to the previous DG of the IAEA, who passed away.
The new DG will inherit an Agency negotiating a tough relationship with Iran like in the years prior to the imposition of sanctions. The detention of the inspector was called “an outrageous and unwarranted act of intimidation” by the Americans. During a press briefing in Vienna, Iran’s Ambassador Gharib Abadi said that the inspector triggered alarms during a routine screening on Oct. 28 at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility. The IAEA said that it “does not agree with Iran’s characterization of the situation” and added that the detention “is not acceptable and should not occur.”
This week the US and Israel both issued statements calling for more detailed information, possibly hoping to gain enough hard facts to build a solid case for pushing through a board resolution declaring Iran in violation of its safeguards agreement with the Agency.
The incident is clearly not helpful to Iran, particularly when it comes to the question of how the EU, which has not yet abandoned the JCPOA will react. The EU has criticised the detention and the disclosure. The issue of the undisclosed uranium saw countries divide along familiar lines, with Israel and the US demanding an escalation of the matter and Iran and allies such as Russia arguing that it was effectively ancient history.
The IAEA was told by Iran that “the warehouse was leased to a tenant to be used as a junkyard,” and the uranium particles “probably came from the tenant’s scrap.” Such an argument was made years earlier when some traces of enriched uranium was found in Iran, as though uranium laced scrap is lying around unattended.
In the meantime, the JCPOA is on its last legs, with Iran announcing various violations of the deal and the US tightening the sanctions. The EU is slowly losing faith in renegotiating the JOPOA. If the situation returns to the pre-2015 chaos, the IAEA will have its hands full with Iranian uranium. Violations of the NPT will be more serious than JCPOA. If the Board of Governors report NPT violations to the UN Security Council, severe sanctions binding on all would be imposed against Iran. But Iran appears ready to wage a battle in the IAEA, claiming that it has no intention to develop nuclear weapons. It may also be waiting to see whether they can get a reprieve if the Democrats come to power. But Iran will be devastated again if UN sanctions are imposed. Iran will continue to play the Tom and Jerry game to gain time.
The return of the Iran issue to the IAEA will bring back India’s dilemma to the fore. We have consistently maintained that Iran must carry out its obligations as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even if it has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran will not forget the positive vote that India cast in favour of referring the issue to the Security Council at the time India was engaged in negotiating its own nuclear deal with the United States. It was suspected at that time that India had acted under pressure from the United States. India will have to walk the tightrope to protect our interests vis-a vis the US and Iran if the IAEA-Iran tussle intensifies under the Argentinian Director General.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.