Iran has somewhat complied with its nuclear deal

In renegotiating, it makes little sense to lay out what Iran 'will never accept' before it meets its full commitments
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano at a press conference during the Board of Governors Meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, June 10, 2019. (Dean Calma/IAEA)
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano at a press conference during the Board of Governors Meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, June 10, 2019. (Dean Calma/IAEA)

In the midst of the current rise in US-Iran tensions in the Gulf, and the various calls to “save the JCPOA,” a favorite talking point of staunch supporters of the JCPOA is to note that according to all the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since the deal went into effect, Iran has been entirely compliant with its commitments. These supporters attribute all of the tension of late between the US and Iran to President Trump’s decision to leave the deal in May 2018.

A recent official statement to this effect was delivered by EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who in a press conference following a meeting of the Europeans on how to keep the JCPOA alive – after pronouncing that Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA regarding its uranium enrichment stockpile and level of enrichment are “not significant” – noted that “Iran has stayed fully compliant with its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA for 14 months after the US decided to withdraw from the agreement.” 

But how compliant has Iran really been? As far as the issues that the IAEA covers – mainly Iran’s level of enrichment and measurement of stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water – Iran has indeed been more or less compliant. But additional evidence shows that Iran has hardly been fully compliant with regard to other potentially more serious nuclear-related issues, nor has it been cooperative with the international community – or become any less aggressive in the region – since the deal was achieved.

The issues with nuclear implications that raise concern include the following:

  • A recent report of the ISIS (a think tank in Washington, DC headed by David Albright) that has concluded that the underground and heavily fortified uranium enrichment facility Fordow has not been reconfigured as stipulated by the JCPOA. Contrary to the US commitment ahead of the negotiations to insist on the closure of Fordow, the deal had allowed Iran to keep the facility open, with 1000 centrifuges that were meant to be used for research purposes that did not involve uranium enrichment. But as the facility has not been reconfigured in this vein, the centrifuges could conceivably be now used by Iran to enrich uranium – to 20 percent or higher. 
  • Reports that the IAEA found traces of radioactive material from soil samples that were taken from the nuclear warehouse in Tehran in April 2019. This warehouse was revealed in the nuclear archive and thereafter exposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his September 2018 speech to the UN. At the time, Iran vehemently denied that the warehouse had any connection to nuclear issues, and accused Netanyahu of fabrications. But incriminating evidence of radioactive material being stored there up until 2018 is clearly a post-JCPOA violation. Oddly enough, the IAEA has not yet released an official statement on this finding, nor did the agency include reference to it in its June 2019 report.
  • Several reports from German intelligence services over the past few years regarding Iran’s continued efforts to procure equipment/materials that can be used in a nuclear weapons program. The efforts were thwarted, but it is not clear why these ongoing Iranian efforts – including using front companies to hide the identity of the end user, Iran – are not garnering more international attention.
  • Iran has admitted to lying about the facility at Arak. The Arak heavy water reactor was supposed to be rendered inoperable according to the terms of the JCPOA, by pouring cement into its core. In the end, cement was poured only into the surrounding piping. More alarming is the fact that several months ago the Iranians admitted to having lied about Arak by not informing the P5+1 that they had already purchased new piping before the JCPOA – piping that they can now install. Iran is threatening to reactivate the reactor in a very short timeline.
  • Iran has installed 33 advanced IR6 centrifuges, which is more than it should at year four of the deal. This issue exposes another difficulty with the JCPOA – language that is not entirely precise such that it is not clear if this is a violation of the deal or not, although it is surely not in line with the spirit of the deal. 
  • The Iranian nuclear archive — which includes a vast amount of information regarding facilities, scientists and equipment used in Iran’s military nuclear program (that was not known in 2015), with the aim of producing five nuclear bombs. This information needs to be checked by the IAEA, and the agency must confront and question Iran as soon as possible. A robust interrogation could lead to the conclusion that some activities related to the weapons program continue until today.
  • Finally, because Iran refused to include its missile program in the negotiations, its ballistic missile development is not covered by the deal, and Iran also insisted on watered-down language regarding its missile program in UNSC resolution 2231, as compared to resolution 1929 of June 2010. Iran is now only “called upon” not to work on missiles “design to carry nuclear weapons.” As such, Iran has continued working almost unhindered on more and more advanced missiles, the delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons.

And what about the situation with regard to IAEA inspections since the JCPOA went into effect? Not the inspections at Iran’s declared nuclear facilities – that were quite adequate under the terms of the NPT – but rather at other non-nuclear/military facilities, where Iran had for decades been advancing its military nuclear program, especially at a military facility called Parchin. Iran was not obliged to allow IAEA inspectors into these facilities according to the terms of its safeguard agreement with the agency per the NPT, which was a dangerous loophole that the JCPOA was meant to close.

Indeed, for the duration of the negotiation in 2014-15, the Obama administration promised that it would settle for nothing less than “any time, any place” inspections in Iran. In other words, wherever a suspicion arose, the IAEA was to be granted immediate access. But when the deal was announced, it became apparent that this was not achieved, and the relevant provisions were both weak and ambiguous. Unfortunately we know very little about what the IAEA has actually achieved as far as inspections at nonnuclear sites due to the confidentiality in its dealings with the IAEA that Iran was granted under the terms of the JCPOA. The IAEA quarterly reports on Iran – that in the pre-JCPOA era entailed full information on all of Iran’s activities and IAEA inspections – no longer contain this information. Granting a known violator of the NPT such rights of confidentiality is one of the many flaws in the deal. On the basis of sporadic reports in the media, the sense is that Iran’s cooperation has been partial at best. It has been reported that IAEA director general Amano may well have refrained from demanding inspections in some cases due to his anticipation that Iran would refuse, and his desire to avoid a confrontation.

In addition, the IAEA has been extremely slow in its review of the material in the nuclear archive and has yet to begin questioning the Iranians regarding the new information contained in these documents. The sense that the agency is dragging its feet is strengthened by its apparent unwillingness to even report on the finding regarding traces of radioactive material at the nuclear warehouse, which it only knew about thanks to the archive.

The picture of Iran as the innocent party complying with the JCPOA, while the US is in breach, is thus clearly inaccurate. The current tensions are not due to the Trump administration leaving the deal, but rather to the serious flaws in the deal that led the US to withdraw, as well as Iran’s non-cooperative and bad faith behavior that has continued since that time. 

Ahead of a possible renegotiation of the nuclear deal with Iran, it makes little sense to lay out in advance what Iran “will never accept,” when clearly there is much that Iran must accept in order to improve the agreement. And rather than praising Iran’s current “maximum pressure campaign,” as a logical response to the Trump administration’s approach, it is important to recognize and emphasize Iran’s continued bad faith behavior — despite the JCPOA — some of which is rooted in the flaws of the deal that clearly work in Iran’s favor.

About the Author
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation'
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