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Iran’s Latest Nuclear Violation Should Be the Last Straw for Western Policymakers


By Alejo Vidal-Quadras 

In a move that should come as no surprise to anyone who is reasonably familiar with its historical behavior, the Iranian regime has failed to comply with a recently-brokered agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agreement was the latest in a series of stop-gap efforts to prevent the complete collapse of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In each case, it has become clear after the fact that the agreement was not as effective as advertised and that Tehran was still exploiting Western powers’ needless obsession with preserving the JCPOA.

The latest instance of non-compliance involves the maintenance of equipment used to collect data at various sites that were subject to IAEA monitoring while the nuclear deal was in full force. Earlier in September, the IAEA announced that it had reached an agreement with the Iranian regime to allow inspectors access to those sites so they could replace hard drives and perform routine maintenance to assure that the equipment continued collecting data. However, that announcement came about two weeks after the deadline for such routine maintenance, meaning that there may be a new permanent gap in the international community’s knowledge of Iran’s recent nuclear activities.

This gap is by no means unique, least of all if one considers it to be in the same category as those other gaps in knowledge that are ostensibly temporary, but may never be filled in. Shortly after the JCPOA’s implementation, the IAEA began working to obtain answers from the Iranian regime regarding suspected nuclear sites that authorities had never declared. Tehran stonewalled the IAEA for months over the issue of access, all while taking measures to dismantle and sanitize those sites. Nevertheless, traces of nuclear material were eventually found in soil samples from three, while a fourth remains under suspicion without having been inspected.

The IAEA’s latest quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities emphasized that questions regarding these sites remain unanswered. The traces in question represent raw nuclear material that is unaccounted for and therefore could be contributing to clandestine and illicit military projects to this very day. The report also described ongoing advancements in Iran’s publicly acknowledged nuclear activity. Its findings show that the Iranian regime increased its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium by more than 30 percent since the previous quarterly report and that it had acquired upwards of 10 kg of uranium enriched to 60 percent, placing it a very short technical step away from weapons-grade.

Perhaps most damningly, the IAEA’s report revealed that a prior agreement with Iranian authorities had provided far less of a safeguard against further advancements than originally thought. In February, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi brokered a deal that prevent Iran from kicking international inspectors out of the country altogether, as previously planned. The deal did not, however, prevent Iran from dramatically limiting the IAEA’s role and as it turns out, those limits included the revocation of inspectors’ access to the full range of monitoring equipment that was essential to its work.

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Prior to the latest quarterly report, it had been widely assumed that the IAEA would still be able to record vital data and would merely be barred from video monitoring of nuclear sites. Tehran promised to retain the footage collected by the surveillance cameras and release it to the IAEA in the event that all signatories resumed full implementation of the JCPOA. In fact, this promise applied to all monitoring equipment and the IAEA was left to rely primarily on estimates in making its latest determinations about scale of Iran’s activities. The actual size of its stockpiles could ultimately prove to be much larger than reported or flawed estimates could go uncorrected for the foreseeable future if Tehran continues to withhold the relevant data.

All of these data now sits comfortably on the list of things that the international community does not know about the Iranian regime’s nuclear activities and may never know, depending on whether the situation continues along its current path. That path has so far been defined by the nuclear deal’s defenders overestimating the value of the Iranian regime’s agreements with the IAEA, then allowing the regime to take advantage of the JCPOA’s signatories by preserving the deal in the absence of any meaningful transparency measures by Iranian authorities.

The latest example of this pattern came when the IAEA reported that even after vowing to allow maintenance on all the equipment mentioned in the prior agreement, the Iranian regime still barred inspectors from a complex in Karaj where components of nuclear enrichment centrifuges are manufactured. The facility previously made headlines when it was reported that a surveillance camera there had been destroyed during the period when Iran was supposed to be collecting its own data and had never been replaced.

Tehran alleges that that destruction was a result of sabotage by a foreign power. But it is just as likely that Iran was engaged in illicit activities aimed at accelerating its rate of nuclear enrichment, resulting in an accident that destroyed the camera. In any event, the regime is by all accounts refusing to allow the IAEA to replace it, as well as refusing to provide an explanation of the incident directly to the agency.

In the wake of all of the previous reports, this latest development should move Iran’s credibility to an all-time low and should prompt the JCPOA’s Western signatories to seriously reconsider their approach to the nuclear issue. Since June, the European Union, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all been waiting for Iran to resume negotiations in Vienna that were supposed to restore the sabotage by a foreign power. The Iranian regime, meanwhile, has been pushing off that issue, providing vague timetables and conditions for the next round of talks and generally signaling a commitment to the same brinksmanship that Tehran’s critics have come to expect.

It’s increasingly difficult to see what sort of resolution the Western powers are expecting. Tehran is withholding essential data and refusing to honor private agreements with the IAEA, all while stretching out the negotiating process indefinitely and testing the limits of the international community’s patience. Unfortunately, many Western policymakers seem intent on sending the regime the message that that patience is limitless.
Of course, some have explicitly stated that Iran is risking the collapse of the JCPOA and the re-imposition of all EU and UN sanctions.

However, the Iranian regime cannot be expected to take those warnings very seriously if the statements in question are not backed up by action. While the EU has taken no meaningful steps in any direction, Iran has steadily accelerated its JCPOA violations and its overall provocative behavior. It is long past time for the regime to begin experiencing consequences for those actions, whether in the form of new sanctions, greater diplomatic isolation, or expanded pressure on its proxies, allies, and supporters.
Whatever the details may be, Western powers absolutely must assume a more assertive posture toward the Iranian regime. If the JCPOA is ever to be restored or the nuclear issues are to be resolved in any other way, it will only be in the face of such pressure. Tehran has made that clear with every new provocative move.

Dr. Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is currently president of the Brussels-based International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ)