Coronavirus and the IAEA reports: From maximum pressure to humanitarian détente with Iran

By Robert J. Goldston | April 6, 2020

Rafael Mariano Grossi Rafael Mariano Grossi, speaking at the March 2020 IAEA Board of Governors meeting. Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

On March 3, 2020, the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, released two important reports. The first was the IAEA’s regular quarterly report on Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially called the Iran nuclear deal. That report details the rapid growth of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium over the last several months. After respecting the constraints of the JCPOA for three years, with at first little economic benefit and then greatly increased sanctions, Iran is now violating the deal’s constraints on uranium enrichment. Importantly, however, it has continued to allow the IAEA the same unprecedented access for verification and monitoring that was defined in the deal.

The second report, not associated with the JCPOA, discusses Iran’s compliance with its safeguards agreements under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This second report indicates that Iran has not complied with requests for information about, and access to, sites where Iran may have engaged in undeclared nuclear activities nearly 20 years ago. Iran claims that the JCPOA closed the file on its earlier activities, and so these requests are illegitimate. In fact, however, the JCPOA closed the file on the then-existing evidence of earlier activities, but not on new evidence that might become available to the IAEA.

The United States could use these reports as casus belli at a time when Iran is weakened by a severe outbreak of COVID-19. A much wiser course of action, however, would be to pursue a policy of humanitarian détente, offering Iran the opportunity to sell oil on the international market in order to purchase medical and other supplies needed to fend off the virulent epidemic. This approach is needed because Iran has indicated that it does not trust the United States to provide the needed supplies directly. Such a step could help assure that Iran continues to allow the IAEA enhanced access for verification and monitoring and could encourage Iran to comply fully with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It could also build confidence to help start negotiations toward a renewed agreement with Iran.

The regular quarterly report. Grossi begins his quarterly director general’s report with some context about the 2015 nuclear deal. He notes that on May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement and that one year later, on May 8, 2019, Iran issued a statement that it would begin reducing its compliance with the agreement. On January 5, 2020, Iran announced that it would no longer be subject to any restrictions whatsoever on its enrichment operations, but that it would continue to cooperate with the IAEA’s program of enhanced verification and monitoring, as defined by the JCPOA.

The report makes clear that Iran’s enrichment program has far exceeded the limits originally imposed by the nuclear deal. Major press outlets were quick to seize on this information, noting that Iran had amassed a quantity of low-enriched uranium that, were it to be enriched further, would be enough for a single nuclear weapon.

The table below recounts Iran’s stockpile as detailed in the report. The first two columns indicate the maximum reported levels of enrichment of Iran’s stockpile and the quantities it has accumulated up to each level. The final column indicates the optimized Separative Work Units (SWUs) required to bring each batch of low-enriched uranium up to 90 percent enrichment, while also producing a total of one “significant quantity” of highly enriched uranium. The SWU is an idealized measure of the number of centrifuge-hours, multiplied by their enrichment capability, that are required to produce a specified material. A significant quantity is defined by the IAEA as “the approximate amount of nuclear material for which the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device cannot be excluded. Significant quantities take into account unavoidable losses due to conversion and manufacturing processes.”

Enrichment level U-235 / Total U Feb 19, 2020 Stockpile (kgU) SWUs to reach a total of 1 SQ of 90% enriched U
≤ 2% 268.5 ≥ 134.7
≤ 3.67% 214.6 ≥ 249.6
≤ 4.5% 537.8 ≥ 746.2
90% 1 SQ = 27.8 kg ≥ 1,130.5

The implication of this table is that—for this idealized calculation and for the upper limit of enrichment reported by the IAEA—only 1,130.5 SWUs of additional separative work would be required to reach 1 Significant Quantity (27.8 kg) of 90 percent enriched uranium, starting from the existing stockpile.

According to the IAEA’s previous report, on November 3, 2019, Iran’s stockpile of ≤ 4.5 percent enriched uranium was 159.7 kg, implying that 378.1 kg was produced during the period between reports. Further, the March report states that all of the ≤ 2 percent enriched uranium was also produced during this period. Together these correspond to an average rate of 804 SWUs per month, assuming that the waste product from enrichment was de-enriched to 0.3 percent.

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The idealized calculation here therefore suggests that the “breakout time” for Iran to produce one significant quantity of weapons-grade uranium could in theory be as little as 1.5 months from February 19, 2020. However, such an idealized estimate neglects the fact that Iran would need to reconfigure its cascades of centrifuges to produce weapons-grade enrichment from each of the three existing batches. Without such reconfiguration, there would be substantial losses in efficiency, both in the use of feed material and in SWUs produced, and there could be efficiency losses even with reconfiguration. The time it would take Iran to perform the reconfiguration and the real efficiency afterwards are uncertain. Reports have estimated 3.5 to 4 months as the total breakout time from early March. These estimates are consistent with the fact that Iran began to violate the JCPOA limits on July 8, 2019, and at that time the breakout time was estimated at one year.

It is important to recognize that Iran would require considerable time beyond the “breakout time” to produce a working nuclear weapon. However, if it were to go that route, it would likely spirit away the highly enriched uranium to a secret workplace, which could be very hard to locate. It could even take the existing stockpile of enriched uranium to a clandestine enrichment facility, if one existed, and complete the enrichment there.

To allow the world to assess the risks associated with Iran’s progress in enrichment, and in particular to quickly detect any enrichment beyond 4.5 percent or the removal of enriched uranium, IAEA inspectors must continue to have frequent access to Iran’s declared enrichment facilities and its uranium stockpiles, despite the severe COVID-19 crisis in Iran and stringent isolation measures being taken in Austria, where IAEA headquarters are located. While the online enrichment monitors in Iran make continuous measurements of uranium enrichment levels, the data they provide can only be accessed by IAEA inspectors on site. The IAEA reports that as of March 30, “all safeguards objectives are being met,” but going forward the United States should offer to provide the biosecurity technology required to ensure that IAEA inspectors can travel to Iran, conduct their work, and return home safely.

The United States should also refrain from any actions that take advantage of Iran’s weakness in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent press reports suggest that, following a rocket attack by a Shi’ite militia group against an American base in Iraq, some within President Trump’s cabinet advocated retaliating with a direct strike on Iran. Aggressive actions at this time might motivate Iran to exit the JCPOA, and so curtail the enhanced verification and monitoring procedures that give the outside world crucial visibility into Iran’s accumulating stockpile of enriched uranium.

The NPT safeguards agreement report. The second report, which deals with Iran’s compliance with its NPT safeguards agreements, is separate and distinct from the first. In it, Grossi recounts that the IAEA has requested Iran to provide clarifications on whether:

  1. “Natural uranium … had been used in particular activities at an unspecified location, and where any such material is currently located,”
  2. “Iran had used or stored nuclear material and/or conducted nuclear related activities … at a location specified by the Agency,” and
  3. “Iran had used or stored nuclear material materials at another location specified by the Agency … where activities had been observed by the Agency … from early July 2019 onwards, that were consistent with efforts to sanitize part of the location.”

Grossi was careful to specify that all safeguards-relevant information available to the IAEA, both with respect to Iran and other states, is “subject to an extensive and rigorous corroboration process,” underscoring the integrity of the IAEA’s processes and indicating that the IAEA itself stands by the credibility of the concerns raised.

He reported on repeated communications with Iran, including reminders, requests for access to the two identified locations, and a personal meeting with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. However, Iran’s position as quoted in the IAEA report remains that “taking into consideration Para14 (Section C) of the JCPOA … and also Resolution of the Board of Governors dated 15 December 2015 (GOV/2015/72), the Islamic Republic of Iran will not recognize any allegation on past activities and does not consider itself obliged to respond to such allegations.”

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Para14 (Section C) of the JCPOA, referenced by Iran, refers to the “‘Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues’ agreed with the IAEA, containing arrangements to address past and present issues of concern relating to [Iran’s] nuclear programme as raised in the annex to the IAEA report of 8 November 2011.” Unfortunately, this Roadmap was legally concluded despite the fact that Iran and the IAEA disagreed about Iran’s past activities. The IAEA presented strong evidence that Iran had a focused nuclear weapon development program prior to 2003, while Iran denied the allegation.

The IAEA Board of Governors Resolution of 15 December 2015 “notes the report of the Director General to the Board of Governors contained in GOV/2015/68, which, in line with the Road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, includes the final assessment of all past and present outstanding issues, as set out in the Director General’s report in November 2011.”

The language of the JCPOA and of the Board of Governors resolution makes clear that conclusion of the JCPOA-defined roadmap closed the file on past and then-present outstanding issues associated with the possible military dimensions of Iran’s program. However, it did not preclude future consideration of new issues, including ones associated with Iran’s past program. It is likely that the issues raised by Grossi in 2020 are not directly related to the issues raised in the Roadmap. Consistent with IAEA procedures, the report does not reveal its sources, but the information very likely comes from the “atomic archives” stolen from Iran by Israeli agents.

Grossi has presented the IAEA’s needs for information and access in order to verify Iran’s compliance with the NPT, and it is necessary for Iran to respond to the agency’s requests. If Iran does not have an ongoing nuclear program with military dimensions, it should be possible, if painful, for it to acknowledge that it had a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003. All the world already knows this, if only based on the IAEA’s final assessment in the JCPOA Roadmap document of late 2015. Furthermore, Iran’s religious fatwa against nuclear weapons was only promulgated in 2003, and prior to 2003 US policy makers were convinced that Iran’s arch enemy, Iraq, was developing nuclear weapons. Thus research and development on nuclear weapons by Iran would have been understandable, albeit in violation of its commitments under the NPT. The primary motivation for such research and development no longer exists.

Iran should not make the mistake that Saddam Hussein did, who bluffed about nuclear weapons to the point where US policy makers in effect believed him. And the United States should surely not again make the mistake of reading resistance to inspections as evidence of a nuclear weapons program, and so blunder into another disastrous war. Instead, the United States should positively incentivize Iran to be forthcoming on these issues. It should provide public assurance that Iran’s coming clean about its pre-2003 military nuclear program will improve, not worsen, relations. If this is a step too far for the present administration, at a minimum the United States should not attempt to escalate the dispute to the UN Security Council, risking Iran’s withdrawing from the NPT, as North Korea did in 2003.

What comes next? Both IAEA reports present challenges. Of immediate concern, the United States should avoid actions that could cause Iran to step away from the enhanced verification and monitoring procedures mandated by the 2015 nuclear deal, or even the NPT altogether. These procedures give the world crucial visibility into Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium. To facilitate inspections moving forward, the United States should offer to provide the needed biosecurity equipment to assure the safety of IAEA inspectors in Iran.

Ultimately the world needs the United States and Iran to return to the negotiating table. Out of the most minimal of humanitarian concerns, the Unites States should turn down the heat on maximum pressure and allow Iran to purchase medical and other needed supplies on the world market, using funds gained from limited oil sales. At the same time, Iran should continue to support the enhanced verification and monitoring prescribed under the JCPOA and commit to limiting enrichment to the current level of 4.5 percent. When given assurances that openness will be treated positively, Iran should provide the IAEA with the information and access required in its NPT safeguards agreement. Under a policy of humanitarian détente, the United States and Iran could return to the negotiating table, without preconditions, and begin the task of rebuilding the trust needed to forge a new agreement.

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