How much monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities is enough?

By Ariane Tabatabai | January 14, 2015

As nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers head into a new phase, one of the key bones of contention will involve monitoring and safeguards—those measures designed to ensure that Tehran is complying with international obligations, declaring all of its nuclear activities, and refraining from weaponization. The foreign powers argue for more transparency, while Iran retorts that its nuclear program is already subject to the most intrusive inspection regime in the world and thus it should not have accept more.

So who is right? Are current inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) enough? Or should Iran allow its nuclear program to be subject to more monitoring?

The goal of safeguards. IAEA safeguards serve as an early warning mechanism, aimed at verifying that countries are abiding by their international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They are meant to reassure the international community that any non-nuclear-weapon state that is party to the NPT, and has or is developing a nuclear energy program, doesn't use its facilities or material for military purposes. Materials subject to safeguards include highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium, as well as thorium and depleted, natural, and low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The IAEA conducts verification in a number of ways, including monitoring facilities by installing surveillance cameras and tamper-indicating seals, taking environmental samples, and checking inventories of nuclear material. Before all this can happen, though, a state needs to have concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, as required under the NPT.These agreements typically entitle the IAEA to, at a minimum, the three most common kinds of access:  First, ad-hoc inspections to verify the state's initial declaration. These usually require one week’s notice, but in the case of trying to verify certain international transfers, the IAEA may provide only 24-hour notice. Second, routine inspections, as suggested by their name, provide the most frequent type of access. Depending on the type of facility, they are generally announced to the government in advance. Again, the notice period is usually one week, but in some cases the IAEA conducts them without advance notification. Third, there are special inspections. The IAEA may use special inspections if it believes that the state has failed to provide adequate information for it to perform its obligations under the agreement.

Under comprehensive safeguards agreements, if the IAEA is unable to verify that nuclear material isn’t being diverted, or the country is found to be in non-compliance—for instance, it is allowing nuclear material to be diverted for prohibited purposes, or failing to declare all material and facilities—the IAEA may report the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

Iran and the IAEA differ in their interpretation of the comprehensive safeguards agreement text. In a June 2014 communiqué to the IAEA, Tehran argued that the IAEA is only required to verify that no declared material is diverted. Its mandate doesn’t include verification of “the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a Member State." Likewise, the IAEA's access to open source information doesn't "authorize it to require a Member State to provide information or access beyond its safeguards agreement.” In other words, according to Tehran, the IAEA has to verify that the information provided by a state is “correct,” but not that it is “complete.” The IAEA argues that it is, in fact, authorized to verify completeness, citing text from Article 1 of the comprehensive safeguards agreements (including the one signed between Iran and the IAEA), which reads, “The Government of Iran undertakes … to accept safeguards, in accordance with the terms of this Agreement, on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within its territory.”

Where Iran stands. Iran was one of the original signatories of the NPT. It became a member of the IAEA in 1959 and concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement in 1974, which it has been implementing ever since. Tehran—and many others—say that the inspection regime in Iran is among the most intrusive in the world. That’s not necessarily true, though, as some of the most comprehensive safeguards are implemented in Japan. In particular, an IAEA inspector is on site at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant 24 hours a day. Iran claims that based on the number of days inspectors spend in the country, it is subject to the most intrusive inspections, but that reasoning is flawed, as time spent in-country is not a measure of intrusiveness. Much of the time the IAEA inspectors spend there is to monitor activities, and while this is important, it does not increase the international community’s knowledge about the content and scope of the nuclear program. In fact, despite having spent years in the country, the IAEA is still unable to verify the correctness and completeness of the information Tehran has provided.

In 2003, the IAEA began to release what has since become a regular report on the implementation of the safeguards agreement by Iran. Since Tehran and the world powers (China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States) concluded their Joint Plan of Action in November 2013, the IAEA's reports have also provided information on the status of Iran's compliance with its additional undertakings under the deal.

Many in Iran, but also elsewhere, view the comprehensiveness of the IAEA inspections in Iran as an indication of bias. But Tehran did legally bind itself to the NPT and its safeguards agreement and has sometimes fallen short of providing the necessary information for the IAEA to verify the "completeness and correctness" of its declaration. This in turn means that the Agency has not been able to verify Tehran's full compliance with its international obligations. As a result, Iran has been subject to an inspections regime more intrusive than those normally found in other states with comprehensive safeguards agreements.

Under Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, it is required to grant the IAEA access to its nuclear facilities and material. Currently, the IAEA has access to all of the declared Iranian facilities, including the most controversial and technologically sensitive ones, such as the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. In short, the IAEA has access to many nuclear activities undertaken in the country. Tehran also grants access to the IAEA to verify some of the measures it has taken under the interim deal, including the downblending of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) that had been enriched up to 20 percent. All these activities are monitored and detailed in the IAEA reports. (The IAEA would certainly want to verify downblending if it occurred in other countries; what is different with Iran is that it has promised to downblend.)

Failures to report. Iran has agreed under its comprehensive safeguards agreement to provide design information relating to new facilities "as early as possible" and before any nuclear material is introduced. In 1993, it agreed to provide such information as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction of a facility is taken. The submission of design information has been a source of contention in the past. Some facilities, including those at Natanz and Arak, were first revealed to the world by dissident groups or Western sources, and only later declared by Tehran to the IAEA. Tehran also failed to report a couple of tons of uranium it received from China, its own uranium conversion activities, and the use of some of these materials in laser enrichment installations and centrifuge testing at the Kalaye Electric Company in the 1990s.

The Joint Plan of Action between Iran and its negotiating partners provides for some "enhanced monitoring" measures, which manifest themselves in more "frequent and intrusive inspections as well as expanded provision of information to the IAEA," in the US State Department’s understanding. Consequently, since the deal was signed in November, 2013, the IAEA and Iran have updated some monitoring procedures, permitting inspectors to review surveillance information on a daily basis, which would shorten detection time for any non-compliance. But this is only useful for activities that can be seen using surveillance cameras; anything else could go undetected. These facilities also remain subject to other additional measures, including daily inspection of the surveillance records for the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. (Natanz had previously been inspected biweekly and Fordow weekly.) The utility of these daily inspections has been questioned: While a continuous presence is important at a reprocessing plant, such as Rokkasho, it may not be necessary at enrichment facilities, where the quantity of material is not as significant. Daily inspections could, however, constitute a confidence-building measure.

The Joint Plan of Action also provides for managed access to the country's centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops, and storage facilities, as well as to uranium mines and mills. Additionally, Tehran has provided information about its plans for nuclear facilities (16 power plants, 10 enrichment facilities, and one light water reactor); all of the existing buildings on these sites; and the uranium mines (Gachine and Saghand) and mills (Ardakan). It has also provided design information that the IAEA had been seeking.

Possible military dimensions. All of the measures described above apply only to Iran’s declared nuclear activities, undertaken as part of its regular nuclear energy program. Tehran’s negotiating partners, the IAEA, and the world are also concerned about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. The evidence, they argue, suggests that Iran has carried out weaponization-related activities, some of which, the IAEA believes, may be ongoing. Trying to settle the question, the IAEA requested that it be permitted to visit the military site Parchin, not normally subject to the Agency’s authority.

Tehran granted access to inspectors in 2005. But the visit didn't satisfy the IAEA, which has been requesting a visit to areas of Parchin that its inspectors didn’t see before. Iran argues that the IAEA is not entitled to access the facility, given that it’s a conventional military complex where sensitive yet non-nuclear-related activities are carried out.

What Iran can do. There are several measures Iran could take to build confidence in its peaceful intentions. For instance, in 2003 it signed an additional protocol to the NPT safeguards agreement saying that it would provide the IAEA with an “expanded declaration” of its nuclear activities, as well as more access to its nuclear sites, but it only briefly implemented the protocol from 2003 to 2006. Undertaking more obligations while the talks are ongoing would be difficult for President Hassan Rouhani’s government. However, at least implementing the additional protocol, pending its entry into force—that is, voluntarily applying its measures—would further consolidate Iran's claims that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful. It would also help undermine arguments to the contrary.

Iran's relationship with the IAEA has had ups and downs in the past few decades. Some in Iran believe that the agency hasn't always acted within its mandate, that it has disclosed confidential information to other states, and has, at times, acted with bias, in the interest of other states. The IAEA for its part has said that it hasn't been able to verify that Iran's nuclear program is purely peaceful. Nevertheless, the country continues to implement its comprehensive safeguards agreement and additional measures under the Joint Plan of Action. With the talks between Iran and the world powers continuing over the next few months, Tehran's ability to work with the agency will be crucial to the continuation of the negotiating process and the possibility of reaching a comprehensive deal on its nuclear program. Ideally, Iran would ensure that the additional protocol enters into force. This would be a tough sell domestically in the current climate. Once a deal is reached, however, Iran should both implement the additional protocol and begin to provide more information on possible military-related issues to the IAEA.

Doing so will help launch a new chapter in the country’s nuclear program with a cleaner slate. It will be particularly helpful if the country plans to build an industrial-scale nuclear program with a number of reactors on its territory, as it has said it will. By voluntarily disclosing some military-related information, the country would restore trust in its nuclear ambitions and be able to proceed with fewer obstacles in the future. In other words, what critics in Iran may perceive as concessions could, in fact, be conducive to long-term gains, facilitating the development of its nuclear program.

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