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Undeclared Nuclear Sites Are A Sign Of Inadequate Pressure Over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

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Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently stated that Iran must come clean about its past nuclear work if there is to be the hope of salvaging the 2016 nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was originally intended to close the file on that issue, but soon after it was implemented, it became clear that the regime was still actively hiding its history of nuclear work at, at least one site, even after the deal was implemented. More recently, the IAEA has identified unexplained uranium particles in soil samples from at least two more locations, thereby broadening the possible military dimensions of the regime’s activities.
Weeks before Grossi made his latest statement on the lack of Iranian transparency, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a press conference to share additional details about one of the two newly-identified nuclear sites. The information was collected by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), which was also the entity responsible for exposing the first key details of the regime’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, including the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment site and the Arak heavy water plant.

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The NCRI’s press conference drew explicit comparisons between the new information about a site at Abadeh and the now-established information about the Parchin military base, which came under suspicion of nuclear activity in 2012 but was not accessed by the IAEA until 2017, well after the nuclear deal went into effect. The NCRI found that in each case, the site was subject to similar sanitization methods led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the case of Abadeh, all buildings on the site were reportedly destroyed in 2019 after it became clear that their existence and purpose had been exposed. Afterward, IRGC contractors attempted to remove and replace a thick layer of soil in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to eliminate traces of nuclear material.


The same process had been observed at Parchin, with satellite images confirming that the entire area had been razed and overhauled. Despite this clear evidence of tampering, Tehran continued obstructing the IAEA’s access to the site for months. Unfortunately, the JCPOA’s weak provisions concerning undisclosed sites and especially military sites made this fairly easy.
Since the withdrawal of the US from the deal, the overarching focus of European leaders has been to salvage that agreement by any means necessary. So it goes without saying that the problems of insufficient IAEA access have never been addressed. Quite to the contrary, they have been exacerbated by Iran’s efforts to retaliate against the re-imposition of US sanctions – efforts that have been aimed at Europe at least as much as at America but have received little to no coordinated response from Western powers.
In February, in accordance with a law that was passed late last year, Iran ceased compliance with the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and effectively revoked the IAEA’s already-limited rights of access to the country. Although the regime stopped short of kicking international inspectors out altogether, it has explicitly threatened to do exactly that if its adversaries don’t capitulate to the pressure, remove sanctions, and provide new concessions in order to buy Iran’s continued recognition of the JCPOA.
Neither Europe nor the US can allow themselves to be blackmailed in this fashion. The nations of Europe must thoroughly revise their approach to the issue in the wake of the IAEA’s latest findings regarding undeclared nuclear sites. If Tehran is not subjected to additional pressure, the mullahs will no doubt conclude that both their deception and their threats have paid off and will continue to do so.
This is an especially dangerous proposition when those threats have become so blatant, and that deception has become a recognizable source of pride for Iranian officials. On February 9, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi highlighted one of Tehran’s main defenses of its “peaceful” nuclear program but did so in a way that plainly discredited it. “The fatwa forbids the production of nuclear weapons,” he said, referring to a religious edict from the regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei that says such weapons are contrary to Islam, “but if they push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.”

This statement was arguably the highest-level public recognition of the regime’s potential nuclear weapons capability, and it should have sparked an immediate reassessment of the issue by anyone who has ever doubted the conclusion that Tehran is intent on obtaining nuclear weapons.
If Alavi’s tacit admission was not enough of a motivator for any given Western policymaker, they should only need to look at some of the comments that Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has made since the beginning of 2019. In interviews with state media, he has openly boasted about deceiving the international community over a range of JCPOA provisions. Based on those remarks, it appears that Iran’s plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons capability has remained open via the Arak heavy water plant, while reductions in uranium enrichment were implemented in such a way as to be rendered almost meaningless.
“They thought that they won the negotiation,” Salehi said of Western participants in JCPOA negotiations. “…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… So, when you enter negotiations, you may accept something, but you have countermeasures. But you can’t reveal your cards, and afterward, your opponent, who thought you were trapped, suddenly sees you are continuing your enrichment.”

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Although Tehran is certainly prone to overreaching rhetoric, this statement was already proven not to be empty by the time it was made. By the end of 2019, Iran had already ramped up the size of its nuclear stockpiles and the level of its uranium enrichment to the degree that was shocking to many supporters of the JCPOA. Since then, the regime has seemingly expanded its nuclear activities to the point of actually exceeding what it had accomplished prior to the start of negotiations in 2015.
If the JCPOA had represented adequate pressure over this issue, such a rapid resumption of nuclear activity should never have been possible. But of course, no amount of pressure could be adequate if it did not result in the regime adopting full transparency about the scale and detail of its prior nuclear activities or their military dimensions. So, whether the international community pushes for the initial reimplementation of the existing deal or chooses instead to start from scratch at this moment, it should be clear that the previous deal did not restrict the regime, and the regime was able to go back promptly to the point where it singed the deal.