In a recent interview, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said in no uncertain terms that Iranian authorities must come clean about past nuclear work that they failed to disclose prior to the 2016 implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That seven-party agreement was meant to close the file on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear research and development, but in the rush to conclude negotiations that had also stretched beyond multiple deadlines, the issue was effectively swept under the rug and it was assumed that new restrictions would moot the unanswered questions.
The obvious problem with this thinking was that there was no way for the international community to be sure that those restrictions were sufficient if there had not been a full account of the activities that needed to be subject to limits. The problem was compounded by the weak inspections regime that was put into place by the JCPOA. Whereas the initial demand from Tehran’s most serious critics was that the IAEA should be given unrestricted access to all sites that come under suspicion of involvement in nuclear work, the actual agreement granted advance access only to the sites that Iran had declared. If any other sites came under suspicion, it would initiate a new process of negotiation, during which time Iran would be free to stall and cover up any incriminating evidence at the site.
It was not long before the flaws in this arrangement were laid bare. Mere months after the JCPOA went into effect, the IAEA announced that it had found traces of enriched uranium at Iran’s Parchin military base. Satellite images and other intelligence suggested that much more substantial evidence might have been obtained from that site if not for the fact that authorities had completely destroyed buildings and removed a thick layer of topsoil from the entire area. Despite such clear signs that the regime had something highly significant to hide, international inspectors waited patiently to be granted access while Iran no doubt continued efforts to control what they would see.
The IAEA and the Western signatories to the nuclear deal should have immediately learned a lesson from this, but instead they have largely permitted the Iranian regime to continue its obstructionist behavior right up to the present day. Tehran has never really provided complete or credible answers about the nature of its work at Parchin. And since then, at least two other sites have been revealed as having been locations for undisclosed nuclear work, which may very well have had military applications.
What’s more, at least one of these sites was subject to precisely the same kind of sanitization efforts as had been carried out at Parchin. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) presented its own intelligence at the beginning of March regarding the site in Fars Province called Abadeh. The report explained that in July 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) razed all the buildings at the site and then began removing old soil and bringing in new ground cover as part of an apparent effort to hide trace elements. At the same time, Tehran continued to oppose the IAEA’s efforts to access the site, and it was not until more than a year later – in August 2020, that the monitoring agency finally investigated this and another suspect site.
Despite all the regime’s efforts at concealment, the IAEA confirmed in February that it had found higher-than-normal levels of uranium contamination in both areas, strongly suggesting the regime had been engaged in even more clandestine nuclear activities than previously suspected. Once again, authorities have responded to these revelations by remaining tight-lipped in the face of all demands for additional information. At the same time, some officials have become increasingly bold with their commentary on the subject, threatening the West with potential nuclear weapons capability and openly boasting about the tactics they’d used to obtain sanctions relief from the JCPOA without permanently impeding their progress in that area.
In January 2019, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran spoke to a state television network about the Arak heavy water facility, the core of which the regime was supposed to deactivate in accordance with the JCPOA, so as to cut off a plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon. “The Arak reactor has a large hole… [with] calandria tubes leading into it where the fuel passes through. We had purchased similar tubes, but I could not announce it at the time,” Ali Akbar Salehi explained. He then added that based on input from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the AEOI “needed to establish paths for a quick return if necessary. There were some tubes, with a diameter of two to three centimeters and three to four meters long. We had purchased the same number of similar tubes. They said fill those tubes with cement. And we did.”
Later, in November 2019, Salehi described a similar commitment to deception with regard to the more familiar uranium pathway to a nuclear weapon. “They thought that they won the negotiation,” he said of Western negotiating partners. “But we had a countermeasure, and while we proceeded with the case, they didn’t achieve what they planned for, and we did not become trapped in the enrichment deadlock.”
The effects of this “countermeasure” soon became abundantly clear. In January 2020, the regime formally abandoned its compliance with all the limitations put in place by the JCPOA. It has already made a series of specific violations including the start of uranium enrichment at slightly higher than permitted levels, but almost immediately after the provisions were abandoned, that level of fissile purity for Iran’s uranium shot up from about 4.5 percent to at least 20 percent. The speed of the regime’s violations came as a surprise to many defenders of the JCPOA, and it raised serious questions about the value that agreement had presented in the first place.
The stated purpose of the nuclear deal was to lengthen Iran’s “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon, but if the regime could instantly reverse its restrictions and rebound to the levels it had achieved before the deal went into effect, then surely it can’t be said that the timeframe had ever really been extended. In other words, the success of the JCPOA always relied on the assumption that Iran was sincerely committed to upholding it over the long term. But if that had ever been the case, then surely the regime would not have started out by concealing information that, according to IAEA head Rafael Grossi, is “interconnected” with every aspect of the JCPOA.
In reality, every sign of compliance from the Iranian regime has been conditional upon the regime’s personal benefit. Now that those benefits are not forthcoming, the regime is using persistent violations and concern over undisclosed sites in an effort to coerce the US and Europe into providing new concessions. This strategy was made plain last month by Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi when he contradicted years of propaganda by explicitly warning of a potential Iranian nuclear weapon.
#Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security Mahmoud Alavi frankly threatens the international community about the proliferation of #NuclearWeapons.
"We do not pursue nuclear weapons, but if foreigners pushed us, this is their fault," he said in an interview with state-run TV. pic.twitter.com/qFEZgKWKNW
— Iran News Update (@IranNewsUpdate1) February 9, 2021
After citing a fatwa from the regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei that supposedly bans Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, Alavi immediately acknowledged that the edict was not binding and could be reversed as easily as it was issued. “If they push Iran in those directions,” he said of recent US-led pressures, “it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.”