from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Iran’s Nuclear Program and the IAEA

November 09, 2011

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Iran’s Head of Atomic Energy Organization Abbasi-Davani speaks at the 55th IAEA General Conference in Vienna on September 19, 2011 (Herwig Prammer/Courtesy Reuters).
Iran's Head of Atomic Energy Organization Abbasi-Davani speaks at the 55th IAEA General Conference in Vienna on September 19, 2011 (Herwig Prammer/Courtesy Reuters).

For those who regularly read the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports from the Director General to the Board of Governors on Iran’s nuclear program, the report leaked yesterday was remarkable in scope and detail of its findings. In particular, the annex, “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” listed every step required to make a highly enriched uranium nuclear explosive device and ballistic missile delivery system. An anonymous Obama administration official correctly stated: “It’s a very telltale sign of nuclear weapons work.”

Yet, like the previous thirty-four IAEA Iran reports, this one does not answer the essential question of whether Iranian decision-makers have opted to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. That is an issue of intent, which is a judgment call that the Statute of the IAEA does not authorize the agency to attempt. The relevant statute authorizes the IAEA:

“To establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information made available by the Agency or at its request or under its supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.”

In the recent discussions over whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and how the international community could respond, some history and perspective might be useful.

Iran signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968. Under the NPT, Iran agreed that it was a non-nuclear weapon State Party to the Treaty, which prohibits Iran from receiving, manufacturing, or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. Furthermore, like most other non-nuclear weapons State Parties to the Treaty, Iran was required to enter into a NPT Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, which it did in May 1974. (As of June, fifteen non-nuclear weapons State Parties have not yet signed such a safeguard agreement with the IAEA.)

The May 1974 NPT Safeguards Agreement has ninety-eight articles, which lay out in detail the rights and responsibilities between the IAEA and Iran as a signatory to the NPT. Articles I and II of that Safeguards Agreement are worth recreating in whole, because they are the crux of the ongoing eight-year dispute between Tehran and Vienna over whether Iran is living up to its NPT obligations:

Article 1

The Government of Iran undertakes, pursuant to paragraph 1 of Article III of the [NPT] Treaty, 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, under its jurisdiction or carried out under its control anywhere, for the exclusive purpose of verifying that such material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

Article 2

The Agency shall have the right and the obligation to ensure that safeguards will be applied, in accordance with the terms of this Agreement, on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of Iran, under its jurisdiction or carried out under its control anywhere, for the exclusive purpose of verifying.

To strengthen the authority and effectiveness of the IAEA at verifying that non-nuclear weapon State Parties—such as Iran—are not using their permitted civilian nuclear programs for prohibited military purposes, Tehran also signed an Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA in December 2003.

Despite the headline-grabbing findings in the IAEA report’s annex, the crucial issue for the international community is found in one sentence:

“As Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Therefore, the issue of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons activities is a function of whether a technical agency—classified as an "autonomous international organization” under an arrangement between the UN and the IAEA—can verify that a member state is complying with a thirty-seven year old mutual agreement. Since Iran first acknowledged in 2002 that it has pursued a covert uranium enrichment program since the mid-1980s, the answer has been no. The IAEA is mandated to continue working with Iran to assure that it complies with the non-proliferation agreements that they endorse.

Again, this does not mean Iran’s decision-makers have decided to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, which many U.S. policymakers have assumed since at least January 1994, when then-Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis stated: “Iran’s actions leave little doubt that Tehran is intent upon developing a nuclear weapons capability. They are inconsistent with any rational civil nuclear program." Unfortunately, rationality is rarely the sole driving factor behind whether a government decides to become a nuclear weapons power.

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