Mark Fitzpatrick calls for fair assessments of Iran’s nuclear activity, and argues that critics must consider context and perspective in their analyses.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas

On 12 June, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano told the quarterly meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors that the agency is verifying and monitoring Iran’s implementation of ‘all its nuclear-related commitments’ under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He did not say Iran is in compliance, because judging this is not the IAEA’s role, but the report he presented earlier in the month showed no deviations from Iran’s obligations.

Governments are free to make their own JCPOA compliance determinations. The US did so in an 18 April letter from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Congress, which said that Iran had been in compliance up to that date. Legislation concerning the JCPOA requires such a certification every three months. Other parties to the JCPOA do not have similar legislative requirements, but all – with the exception of Iran, which criticizes US compliance with sanctions relief provisions – have spoken positively about the implementation of the deal (such as in a statement by EU Foreign Policy Chief to the UN on 9 May). 

Some critics of the Iran deal see it differently. In a 5 June analysis, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has contributed greatly over the years to public understanding of the Iranian nuclear programme, claimed ‘persistent violations’ by Iran. In fact, the only clear breaches that have been documented were two times last year when Iran briefly exceeded the 130-tonne limit on heavy water stockpiles. (Contrary to claims by some pro-deal advocates, the JCPOA did impose a 130t limit, albeit written in a roundabout way.) 

As critics note, these instances show a worrisome effort by Iran to press the envelope on what is allowed. But critics often omit context and perspective. The amount of heavy water was limited under the deal as an extra precaution against Iran being able to produce plutonium in heavy-water moderated research reactors. With the disabling of the Arak reactor in January 2016, Iran possesses no such reactors. We can be reasonably certain about this because construction of new research reactors is hard to conceal from preying intelligence agencies. Therefore, Iran’s heavy water is of little current proliferation concern. 

IAEA reports on Iran are less detailed than they were before the JCPOA. The main reason is that Iran is no longer considered by the IAEA to be in non-compliance with its safeguards agreement. This does not necessarily preclude more fulsome reporting, and as a private researcher, I too wish I had more current details about Iran’s nuclear programme. To claim that the IAEA is ‘withholding’ information, however, is an exaggeration.

Governments have access to many more details than are included in reports that have unlimited circulation. The US and the other major powers who negotiated the JCPOA talk to IAEA officials every day. In addition, before every board meeting, the IAEA Secretariat provides detailed technical briefings to all member states. On 6 June, for example, the Secretariat briefed members about Iran’s most recent shipment to Oman of 20t of heavy water for holding while a buyer is sought. The JCPOA limit specifically applies to heavy water ‘in Iran’ so such transfers are not a violation, although the practice ought to be stopped because of the arguments it sparks.

The 6 June technical briefing also covered most of the issues which the ISIS analysis characterised as ‘compliance controversies’ that the IAEA report skirted. There was a debate among parties to the JCPOA, for example over how many advanced IR-6 centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate in a cascade for R&D purposes. Does ‘roughly ten’ mean ten plus/minus one or up to 13? It’s been settled at 11, though a smaller issue remains concerning whether more than two IR-6 centrifuges can be run individually for mechanical testing. Without excusing Iran’s pushing the envelope, it is helpful to keep a perspective on the difference between ten and 13 centrifuges as a contribution to Iran’s knowledge about how the centrifuges work. Iranian production rates for rotor tubes and centrifuge bellows is another matter under discussion. It should be kept in mind that production rates are not the same as stockpiles, since much of what is made is unusable. In fact, Iran’s stockpile of advanced centrifuge rotors has dropped by triple digits since the JCPOA implementation day in January 2016 because so many had to be discarded.

Perspective is also useful in examining claims about Iran’s re-enrichment of depleted uranium. The ISIS analysis summary gives a misleading impression when it says that Iran has ‘exploited a loophole in the JCPOA and enriched a considerable amount of natural uranium using its existing stocks of depleted uranium.’ Later the report correctly explains that Iran enriched depleted uranium to bring it back to the level of natural uranium (which is not the same as ‘enriching natural uranium’). The analysis does not explain why this should be a significant proliferation concern, since Iran already has ample amounts of natural uranium gas and the re-enrichment adds only a fraction to its stockpile. 

In earlier posts (here and here), I explained why low enriched uranium (LEU) in sludge and other waste material is not counted against the 300kg stockpile limit for Iran. The ISIS continues to complain about the Joint Commission’s decision to exclude such material from the limit, calling it ‘fuzzy math’, but it does not explain why hard-to-recover uranium in waste products should be a significant proliferation concern. If Iran ever were to try the herculean task of recovering it, the IAEA would know, because the waste sites are monitored and there are easier ways for Iran to produce LEU.   

Among the many important technical points in the ISIS analysis and in a 5 April Congressional testimony by ISIS President David Albright, is the highlighting of the IAEA’s comment that it is continuing to verify and monitor the nuclear weaponisation ban in Section T of the JCPOA – over Russian objections, it seems. 

I agree it would be good to know how the monitoring is being done. Apparently the IAEA has not visited any military sites – any such visit surely would have been the subject of a news leak. It is wrong for a precedent to be set about not visiting military sites, though some such visits eventually will have to be allowed for the agency to ever reach a ‘broader conclusion’ under the Additional Protocol that all nuclear activity in Iran has remained in peaceful activities.

In the meantime, monitoring the Section T commitments involves a range of activities besides on-site inspection. The IAEA gleams a great deal of information from open sources and from intelligence briefings by member states. If such information points to anomalies, the IAEA then makes queries which, if not satisfactorily answered, can spark a request for a site visit. Rather than seeking broad access to Iranian military sites, which Tehran would never allow and which would be unlikely to turn up any violations anyway, the IAEA should reserve its site visit requests to specific instances when it has actionable information and for which it would have the strong support of the Board of Governors.   

One other important point that the IAEA should address in upcoming reports is its ability to monitor Iran’s enrichment R&D activity. IAEA cameras should be able to continuously observe the advanced centrifuge cascades, to ensure that the number does not exceed ‘roughly ten’. It is not certain that they can do so today.

As the US Congress considers legislation that would apply new sanctions on Iran, it is useful for analysts to provide sound and fair assessments of Iran’s nuclear activity. Having consulted with experts in three capitals, without having received funding from any organisation for this purpose, and without insisting that I am infallible, I am contributing this post as an effort to provide balance to the public debate.

Back to content list

Politics and Strategy Homepage

The Survival Editors' Blog

Ideas and commentary from Survival editors and contributors

Latest Posts