What's behind IAEA's change in reporting?

Article Summary
While critics complain that they are getting less information from the IAEA about Iran’s nuclear program after implementation of the JCPOA, a US official told Al-Monitor, “We get what we need.”

Since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its first report on Iranian compliance with the landmark nuclear deal, some US nuclear experts, including a former IAEA deputy director, have chafed at the minimal level of detail provided about Iran’s nuclear program.

Where in the past IAEA quarterly communications to its Board of Governors often contained a litany of questions about Iran’s activities, including statistics on every gram of enriched uranium and centrifuge rotor in Iran’s possession, the new report offers much less information and is a largely upbeat assessment of Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which went into full implementation on Jan. 16.

The minimal level of detail contained in the document, which was leaked on the day it was issued by Washington-based think tank the Institute for Science and International Security, does not mean that the signatories to the JCPOA are kept in the dark about any potential violation. Indeed, members of a joint commission set up to ensure proper implementation of the deal have timely access to information about any potential violations on either side.

Asked by Al-Monitor whether the US government gets all the information it needs, a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, replied, “Do we get what we need is a very emphatic yes.”

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Under the agreement, the IAEA monitors all declared Iranian nuclear sites 24/7 through onsite cameras and/or inspectors. The IAEA has estimated that it will spend an additional $10 million a year to implement the JCPOA and Iranian compliance with the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US government has asked Congress to appropriate more than $190 million in the 2017 fiscal year for the IAEA, which has safeguards agreements with scores of other countries beyond its Iran work.

In addition to the IAEA quarterly reports on Iran, interested governments also have access to their own intelligence agency reports.

Outside analysts, however, must largely make do with what the IAEA tells its 35-member Board of Governors.

Under an IAEA resolution adopted on Dec. 15, 2015, Director General Yukiya Amano is obliged to provide “written reports before each regular quarterly board meeting on Iran’s implementation of its commitments under the JCPOA and on matters relating to the verification and monitoring in Iran” under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which codified the JCPOA “for the full duration of those commitments, unless the Board decides otherwise.”

In the latest report, the IAEA notes that, in one instance, Iran went above an agreed stockpile for so-called heavy water, an essential component for a type of reactor that can produce plutonium. Iran has removed the core of its heavy water reactor, however, and the excess heavy water was shipped out of Iran to the United States, according to the nuclear watchdog agency.

Otherwise, the IAEA said, Iran kept to its pledge to have on hand no more than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67% and no more than 5,060 centrifuges producing that uranium at a facility at Natanz. Iran has 1044 rudimentary centrifuges at an underground site called Fordow but they are not enriching uranium, the IAEA said.

Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the IAEA who has been critical of the agency for closing an investigation into past nuclear weapons work by Iran, criticized the new report for failing to provide figures for the amount of excess enriched uranium Iran sent to Russia. The IAEA report, Heinonen added, also did not give numbers for centrifuge parts in Iran’s inventory.

“These components are essential in assessing breakout times, and reinstallation of previously removed advanced centrifuges or installation of new ones can directly affect the one-year breakout time that proponents of the JCPOA maintain it enforces,” Heinonen wrote. “An accounting of this inventory is also important as a baseline for further monitoring.”

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which publicizes the quarterly IAEA reports, said that by “failing to provide more information about the status of key technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and the implementation of its JCPOA commitments to date, the IAEA is withholding vital data about the status of Iran’s nuclear program. It risks undermining public transparency and confidence in the agreement.”

“As an analyst, I always want more detail and information, but I think the IAEA provides enough to demonstrate Iran’s compliance,” Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation programs for the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor. “Given the skepticism about past noncompliance, more detail would be helpful.”

Amano, queried about the low level of detail in the report at a press conference in Vienna on March 7, said, “Our role is to provide factual, objective reports including the details the agency considers necessary.”

Experts acknowledge that the tone as well as the length of the reports has changed as the IAEA has moved from a position of questioning what amounted to a suspected criminal — the agency’s attitude toward Iran since undeclared nuclear facilities were discovered in 2002 — to monitoring what amounts to that country’s nuclear probation.

“Amano is correct that the standards for reporting are different under the new UNSC resolution, but I believe he has more discretion about what they decide to put in the quarterly reports,” Daryl Kimball, who directs the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

Kimball said, “In general, the more detail there is, the less likely it is that questions arise about the IAEA's thoroughness. … There is nothing in the deal or in the UNSCR that limits public reporting on possible violations, but rather the current form of reporting may simply make it more difficult than before for outsiders to develop their own assessments.”

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Found in: uranium enrichment, nuclear weapons, jcpoa, iran nuclear program, international atomic energy agency, implementation day, iaea

Barbara Slavin is a columnist for Al-Monitor and director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. On Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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