Two May 30 reports on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) paint a dire picture. Iran has now produced over 43 kilograms of 60% highly enriched uranium (HEU). This is enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon if further enriched to 90%, a process that could take just a couple of weeks. Iran’s “breakout” time is thus below the margin of error for timely detection.
While it would take Iran several more months to fashion the HEU into a crude weapon, and perhaps two years to mount it on a missile, fissile material production is typically considered to be the long pole in making nuclear weapons — both the most visible and the most time-consuming step. For Iran, producing weapons-grade HEU is now the shortest pole.
Such a compression of the timeline is due to a fateful folly. The 2015 nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) set conditions designed to keep Iran’s breakout period to at least 12 months for about a dozen years, with the possibility of a negotiated extension. Former President Donald Trump and those who encouraged him to withdraw from the deal four years ago even though Iran was fully honoring its commitments bear the blame. Not to excuse Iran’s violation of its own commitments, but it was a predictable response to Trump’s deal-breaking.
Exacerbating the now minuscule breakout time is Iran’s reduced cooperation with IAEA inspections. Iran still allows IAEA access to its enrichment plants and other declared nuclear facilities as required by the standard safeguards agreement called for in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). No longer allowed, however, are any of the more intrusive and frequent inspections negotiated in the JCPOA.
Inspectors no longer can visit centrifuge production sites or have round-the-clock remote monitoring via cameras installed in the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. The monitoring equipment remains on site, but inspectors have no access to the data. They physically visit Natanz about once a week on average. Given the short breakout period, the timeliness of inspections is within the margin of error. It is easy to conceive of scenarios in which Iran would block one of the weekly inspections by claiming a health or other hazard, perhaps by attributing it to a sabotage attack such as the ones at Natanz in July 2020 and April. In this scenario, Iran could then dash to produce weapons-grade HEU and secret it away, while simultaneously resuming the weaponization work it put on the backburner in 2004.
Iran’s denial of having conducted weapons work is far from credible, and not just because Israel’s Mossad in January 2018 raided the warehouse in Tehran where documentation of the effort had been carefully curated. An IAEA report in December 2015 clarified the Agency’s conclusions that what it had diplomatically called nuclear activity of a “possible military dimension” was no longer questionable. Iran indeed had a nuclear weapons program.
Fingerprints from that weaponization work, which Iran had called the Ahmad project, continued to turn up thereafter. Most recently, the IAEA in 2018 discovered man-made uranium particles at three sites where Iran had never reported nuclear activity. IAEA efforts to learn what happened at these sites and where the nuclear material and associated equipment in question was taken have been met with obfuscation. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi made clear his frustration by reporting on May 30 that “unless and until Iran provides technically credible explanations …the Agency cannot confirm the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations. …”
Failure to report nuclear activity is prima facie grounds for a finding of safeguards noncompliance, similar to the IAEA finding in 2005 that set a milestone in the Iranian nuclear crisis that is now re-erupting. The IAEA and its member states cannot ignore such probable violations. Concerned states are thus preparing a statement of censure for the June 6-10 IAEA board meeting.
Ideally, the IAEA’s safeguards mission should be above politics, with findings of violation pursued independently of other considerations. Inevitably, however, the investigation of unreported nuclear activity has become intertwined with efforts to restore the JCPOA. Both issues originate, after all, in Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program. If talks in Vienna were going well, a case could be made for easing up on the investigation so as not to impede an imminent agreement. But with the diplomatic stalemate grinding on week after week, there is no reason for the IAEA Board not to reach a resolution of censure. It will not be a noncompliance finding that would then be reported to the UN Security Council for action. Given the incremental process of board bureaucracy, such a step is not likely until next year. In the interim, Iran will have time to provide exculpatory answers.
The honest path for Iran would be to admit to past weaponization work and foreswear it in the future, verified by the additional mechanisms of the JCPOA. This is highly unlikely since it would mean admitting to decades of lying. Short of a full confession, the best alternative is for Iran to agree to resume the JCPOA as written, and to separately negotiate over the extraneous issue of the terrorist designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is blocking an agreement in Vienna. A resolution of censure could then be postponed.
Restoring the JCPOA would not resolve the underlying issue of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work. It would, however, prevent Iran from being able to dash for a weapon now. Often, the best that diplomacy can achieve is to buy time, creating the potential for further progress later. In the Iran case, time has become an exceedingly crucial commodity. The negotiators need to buy it now.