By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The International Atomic Energy Agency has struck another temporary deal with Iran and the international community remains stubbornly resistant to acknowledging just how inadequate such agreement is. The deal comes after a last-minute trip to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, ahead of a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors in which Western powers were expected to discuss a formal censure for the Iranian regime. Analysts and media outlets generally believe that the chance of that censure has greatly declined in the wake of Grossi’s efforts, even though the new agreement does not really resolve anything.
The IAEA director credited the agreement with addressing the “most urgent issue” related to the monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities. However, different observers may have different assessments of urgency, and even Grossi’s own prior remarks suggest that other issues may be substantially more important, even if the associated problems seem less imminent. During his trip to Iran, Grossi reportedly remained focused on the idea of retaining the IAEA’s potential ability to examine current data from Iranian nuclear facilities at some point in the future. Toward that end, he secured a commitment from Tehran to allow IAEA personnel to perform overdue maintenance on equipment that is supposed to be collecting that data.
The agreement is being widely praised in the media for preventing a censure that many viewed as a potential complication to the diplomatic process and even a possible spark for the Iranian regime’s withdrawal from negotiations that have been stalled in Geneva since June. But such praise downplays a range of outstanding issues and overstates the potential for a breakthrough, even assuming that the Geneva talks do resume.
Many analysts have predicted that the new administration in Iran can be expected to escalate a number of the regime’s malign activities, including activities in the nuclear field.
Such predictions were reinforced by Raisi’s appointment of Mohammad Eslami as the new head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Eslami has been involved in weaponization aspects of the Iranian nuclear project since the start. In the 1980s, he held meetings with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and in 2008 he was sanctioned by the United Nations for ongoing efforts to acquire equipment and know-how that has clear applications to nuclear weapons development.
Eslami’s emerging role should make the international community extremely skeptical about Iran’s nuclear strategy under the Raisi administration. Eslami replaces an AEOI head who openly boasted to Iranian state media about deceiving the IAEA and creating “countermeasures” to avoid long-term compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
Rafael Grossi’s agreement with the regime appears to reflect an uncritical embrace of the ongoing efforts to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But this is surprising in light of the fact that he acknowledged in May that it would be inadequate to simply restore the existing deal. “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges and has accumulated material,” he told reporters ahead of the release of the IAEA’s previous quarterly report. This, he explained, is grounds for an alternative or supplemental agreement other than the JCPOA. Yet now, following the release of the agency’s latest quarterly report, he seems to have fallen back on an embrace of Western signatories’ minimalist fixation on reviving the 2015 deal.
There can be little question that Grossi and the entire IAEA recognize that that revival is inadequate. This was true while the Rouhani administration was still in power and it is even truer now that the Raisi administration has taken over. Iran was not fully complying with the terms of the JCPOA prior to the American withdrawal in 2018 and more recent violations underscore that fact by demonstrating that Iran was able to quickly restore and exceed its prior peaks of nuclear activity in a timeframe that should have been rendered impossible by the restrictions that were imposed on its uranium enrichment and related activities.
Now, the Iranian regime has begun stockpiling uranium enriched to the 60 percent level, only a very short technical step away from weapons grade. The size of that stockpile has rapidly grown to 10 kg, according to the latest IAEA report, which also highlights the regime’s ongoing production of uranium metal, a substance with virtually no role other than as a key component in a nuclear warhead. Of course, the Iranian regime continues to deny that it has any intention to develop a nuclear weapon, but those denials become less plausible at every turn.
It’s not just the regime’s known activities that belie these denials; it’s also the past activities that it refuses to come clean about. This is an issue that Grossi highlighted just days before his Tehran trip, in reference to a parallel IAEA report that describes the ongoing lack of satisfactory answers about three undeclared sites where traces of nuclear material were found after the JCPOA went into effect. The regime’s obstructionism prevents the international community from having a proper baseline understanding of how close the regime has come to nuclear weapons capability. This, much like the AEOI’s “countermeasures,” fundamentally defeats the purpose of the JCPOA.
When policymakers finish reveling over the latest supposed diplomatic breakthrough between the IAEA and Iran, they will need to seriously consider the true implications of that development, especially if its sole purpose was to prevent Tehran from walking away from a nuclear agreement it was never taken seriously in the first place. An honest assessment of the situation will surely reveal that there is a greater risk from not censuring Iran than there is from doing so. It would be better if the regime walked away than to carry on with a renewed sense of impunity in the wake of countless provocations.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)