The relationship between Iran and the IAEA has soured in recent weeks and was further exacerbated over the latest board meeting. Not only is a quick resolution unlikely, the survival of the JCPOA may soon be impossible. One of Iran’s demands for returning to the JCPOA is that the IAEA close its ongoing probe into Iran’s clandestine nuclear program, which seemed realistic a few months ago. In March, Iran and the IAEA agreed to a 3-month timeline that would resolve the outstanding investigation into Iran’s undisclosed nuclear activities. However, this week marked not only the expiration of Iran’s agreed-upon timeline, but also the latest IAEA board of governors meetings which met June 6th  to 10th.

The IAEA and Iran have had a long and tumultuous relationship dating back to the early 2000s. In 2009, the IAEA voted to censure Iran over the development of a secret uranium enrichment facility; in 2011, the IAEA first publicly outlined its concerns with Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. As early as 2011, the IAEA publicly concluded that Iran had made efforts to develop undeclared pathways for producing nuclear material, acquired information related to the development of a nuclear bomb and had worked on the indigenous design of a nuclear weapon.

This ultimately led to the Joint Framework for Cooperation in 2013 between Iran and the IAEA. In this new agreement, Iran agreed to hand over information related to its nuclear program and allow IAEA access to its research reactors and production plants. Then in 2015, alongside the JCPOA, Iran and the IAEA entered into the Road-map for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme. This new agreement supplemented the JCPOA and mandated that Iran provide information on all of the IAEA’s original concerns highlighted in its 2011 report.

In the beginning, Iran appeared to comply and granted the IAEAs initial requests, handed over information related to their previous nuclear work and responded to follow up questions. Based on this information, the IAEA released its report in December 2015 and concluded that Iran had pursued nuclear weapons prior to 2003 and some work had continued at least until 2009. More importantly, the IAEA appeared to be happy with Iran’s compliance and said there was no evidence that undeclared nuclear activities had taken place since 2009. The investigation into Iran’s past activities was then closed by the board.

However, this nascent period of cooperation and compliance was short lived. In 2018, the Israeli Mossad carried out a daring operation inside Iran that saw the successful extraction of thousands of pages of documents related to Iran’s nuclear program. This document stash, known as the Atomic Archive, caused the IAEA to reevaluate its position and open up additional investigations into Iran’s clandestine nuclear work.

A new report by the WSJ this month revealed that some of the documents uncovered in the Atomic Archive were confidential IAEA documents stolen by Iran. Iran used these documents to understand what the IAEA knew internally about Iran’s clandestine nuclear program and then provided government and military officials with plausible cover stories as the IAEA conducted its investigation. One of the documents with Farsi notes on it read: “Sooner or later they (IAEA) will ask us and we’ll need to have a comprehensive cover story for them.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet confirmed the accuracy of the report stating it was “additional proof of Iranian efforts to advance toward achieving nuclear weapons” and that “the exposure of Iran’s systematic program to deceive the IAEA – which was based around documents that Iran stole from the IAEA – is a wake-up call to the world.”

The fact that Iran has purposefully misled the IAEA and impeded its is unsurprising. However, it should remind those negotiating a return to the JCPOA that the Regime cannot be trusted. If Iran cannot be expected to meet simple deadlines with the IAEA and comply with its investigation, how can it be expected to adhere to the entirety of a return to the JCPOA?

As new information comes to light and Iran continues to advance its nuclear program, its relationship with the IAEA is deteriorating quickly and appears to be at a breaking point. On the leadup to the June 6th board meeting, the IAEA sent a report to its members with an updated status of Iran’s nuclear program. According to the report, Iran continues to increase its stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU), now possesses enough enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon, and continues to stonewall the IAEA investigation.

This week, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano publicly admitted that Iran is so close to crossing the nuclear enrichment threshold that it can no longer be avoided.

When news broke last week that a draft resolution condemning Iran was circulating among IAEA board members and would be submitted at Monday’s meeting, Iran increased its aggressive rhetoric and publicly threatened that “any political action by the United States and the three European countries in the agency (IAEA) will undoubtedly be met with a proportionate, effective and immediate response from Iran.” Iran doubled down on its overt threats last Sunday stating again that “those who push for anti-Iran resolution at IAEA will be responsible for all the consequences.”

This Monday, the US, Britain, Germany, and France indeed submitted a resolution to the IAEA board to censor Iran over its nuclear advances and failure to comply with the investigation. In an apparent response, Iran turned off IAEA cameras currently used as safeguards in Iran’s nuclear facilities and has now threatened to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

On Wednesday evening the resolution censoring Iran easily passed, with only Russia and China opposing. In an apparent response, Iran informed the IAEA of its plans to dismantle 27 IAEA cameras used to verify the state of Iran’s nuclear activities. This escalating action would cripple the Agency’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program and could have severe implications for the JCPOA. On Thursday Grossi said as much publicly, stating that if the cameras were not reinstalled within the next few weeks, it would be impossible for the IAEA to estimate the status of Iran’s nuclear program, which could be a “fatal blow” to the JCPOA.

The current deteriorating relationship between Iran and the IAEA may foreshadow a collapse of the JCPOA and a scramble for a plan B. It has been well over a year since indirect negotiations began and three months since Iran refused to return to the negotiating table after its demands were not met.

The current state of negotiations cannot survive much longer, especially as Iran continues to push forward with its nuclear program and refuse to return to Vienna. It does appear that an end, at least to the current chapter, is fast approaching.

About the Author

Gabe Toole

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