The United Nations nuclear watchdog and Iran are again on a collision course, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeks answers from Tehran on three sites in the country where undeclared nuclear weapons research is suspected to have occurred in recent decades. Soil samples taken recently by the IAEA at the sites have shown traces of man-made uranium, an indication that illicit atomic weapons research occurred at these locations.
This standoff presents both a challenge and an opportunity for President Joe Biden as he seeks to revive, strengthen, and expand the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that the Obama administration negotiated with Iran in 2015. Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the deal nearly three years ago and ushered in a policy of “maximum pressure,” which used economic sanctions and military strikes to try and isolate Tehran.
Iran over the past two years has steadfastly refused to cooperate fully with the IAEA to address the weaponization issue. The agency says Tehran has razed buildings and removed equipment in an effort to sanitize suspect sites. The IAEA’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, said Monday in Vienna that, “After 18 months, Iran has not provided the necessary, full and technically credible explanation for the presence of these particles.”
Tehran’s position, and refusal to provide a full accounting of its nuclear materials and equipment, has the potential to escalate into a full-blown crisis for the UN Security Council. Tehran informed the IAEA last month that it will curb even more the ability of its inspectors to visit suspect sites and facilities. And European powers—Germany, France, and the UK—mulled formally censuring Iran for non-compliance at the agency’s Board of Governors meeting this month.
But the Biden administration shouldn’t succumb to Tehran’s threats, nor should it pressure Grossi to paper over Iran’s deceit, which goes to the heart of whether the regime can be trusted with advanced nuclear capabilities. Instead, Washington should double down and demand answers in order to build a stronger foundation for a new JCPOA that it can sell to a skeptical Mideast region.
At the heart of the nuclear deal is a formula that seeks to keep Tehran a year away from producing a single atomic bomb. The uncertainty about the state of Iran’s weapons capabilities, as well as the IAEA’s growing questions about undeclared nuclear materials and equipment, makes the ability of the United States to accurately certify this one-year “breakout” time nearly impossible.
Iran’s regional rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, meanwhile, are also warning that they’ll seek to match any nuclear capabilities Iran possesses. The IAEA’s inability to state conclusively that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes could only spur these countries to try and acquire sensitive nuclear technologies.
The issue of Iran’s past weaponization work was supposed to be resolved in 2015 as part of the completion of the JCPOA negotiations. The United States and other world powers mandated the IAEA to write a final report on the military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran was called on to provide the agency with access to documents, scientists, and military sites believed to be related to covert weaponization work.
The IAEA concluded its report by stating it found no credible evidence of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program after 2009. But the agency’s staff acknowledged that Iranian officials largely stonewalled them. Iran denied the IAEA interviews with top nuclear scientists and claimed incriminating documents were forgeries. The IAEA actually found traces of man-made uranium in soil samples taken from the Parchin military base. But Iran said the materials came from conventional weapons, an answer the agency again said wasn’t credible.
The JCPOA went ahead anyways in 2015. The Obama administration claimed they already knew everything about Iran’s covert weapons work and that they didn’t expect Tehran to admit to its past sins. But the shortcomings of the IAEA’s investigation became clear in 2018 after Israel raided an Iranian government warehouse near Tehran. The operation unearthed 300 tons of secret documents that showed Iran’s weapons program was far larger and more advanced than U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies understood six years ago.
The files and CDs in the nuclear archive document a crash Iranian program in the early 2000s, called the AMAD Plan, to build five atomic bombs and place some of them on long-range missiles. Outside pressure on Tehran, including from the 2003 U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq, caused Iran to shelve the aggressive plan. But some of the nuclear research is believed to have continued, and the IAEA has found uranium traces at some of the sites pinpointed in the captured documents. The archive also indicated Iran produced components used in staging nuclear detonations.
President Biden’s diplomats, many of whom served in the Obama administration, could be tempted to again gloss over the weaponization issue as they pursue a new nuclear deal with Iran. They could resurrect the argument that preventing a future Iranian bomb trumps the need to address a weaponization program that reached its heights twenty years ago.
But this strategy is no longer feasible. At its core, the IAEA’s mission is to account for all nuclear materials and equipment possessed by member stakes. Allowing Iran to dissemble and whitewash its nuclear sites would set a terrible precedent for other nations who might be tempted to pursue a covert nuclear weapons program. A gaggle of Iran’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, all have expressed their desire in recent years to develop the ability to enrich uranium—a technology that inherently has military applications.
Also, the failure to reckon with the truth about Iran’s weaponization history will cripple efforts to improve the JCPOA. The initial deal allowed Iran to eventually have an industrial-scale enrichment program and stockpiles of nuclear materials. Not knowing the true state of Iran’s capabilities, and the location of all its nuclear fuel and equipment, would lead many in the Mideast to assume Tehran is just a turn-of-the-screw away from having an atomic bomb. They’ll act accordingly.
Jay Solomon is an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior director at APCO Worldwide. He is the author of The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @jaysolomon.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.