On November 17, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution urging Iran “to cooperate fully and in a timely manner” with the agency’s investigation into unexplained uranium traces. The IAEA visited three undeclared locations in Marivan, Varamin and Turquzabad in 2019-2020, and found traces of nuclear material.
Iran called the IAEA resolution “politically motivated,” saying the nuclear watchdog's 35-nation Board of Governors had adopted the resolution following pressure from the United States and other Western allies.
“The resolution was issued while Iran has the most transparent peaceful nuclear program compared to the number of IAEA-supervised facilities in the world and has enjoyed the most inspections and verifications,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said on November 21.
Iran’s boast of transparency compared to other countries is misleading.
At a time when questions linger about the presence of unexplained uranium particles found at different sites, Iran announced it is enriching Uranium to 60% — technically not far from weapons-grade 90% — at its secretive, underground Fordow nuclear plant.
Iran’s announcement was a direct response to the IAEA resolution, the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s latest attempt to get Iran to cooperate with its years-long investigation into the unexplained uranium particles.
Iranian officials have not only claimed they can now make a nuclear bomb but, in late July, released a propaganda video threatening to attack New York City. That video has been linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The IAEA, which checks compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has different frameworks for different countries, based on numerous factors, including the size of their nuclear energy programs, and past compliance.
The Islamic Republic has been subject to more extensive inspection and verification efforts, precisely because the IAEA previously found the Islamic Republic had engaged in uranium enrichment-related activities that violated the comprehensive safeguards agreements (CSA) it made under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
In 2011, the IAEA expressed concerns about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA now warns Iran may have enough uranium for a nuclear bomb.
While the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program has been decades in the making, the current standoff can be traced back to February 2019, when IAEA inspectors visited a warehouse in Tehran’s Turquzabad district, which Iran had claimed was a carpet cleaning facility.
The IAEA took samples from the site, which revealed traces of processed uranium.
“Based on subsequent information provided by Iran, the Agency took environmental samples at two declared nuclear facilities in Iran,” the IAEA said.
The other two sites are Varamin, also called the Tehran Plant, located near the village of Mobarakiyeh southeast of Tehran, and the Marivan site, near Abadeh. Both those sites are connected to the AMAD Project, under which Iran allegedly spent decades attempting to build a nuclear bomb (and reportedly stopped in 2003).
After those visits, the IAEA said “there were a number of other findings” for which Iran needed to provide “further clarifications and information.”
The IAEA was granted access to Varamin and Marivan following the issuance of a joint statement on August 26, 2020, although complementary access had been requested in January 2020 to carry out “location specific environmental sampling.”
The IAEA noted that Iran initially “denied such access.”
In October 2020, Iran provided the IAEA with “additional information and explanations” related to the uranium traces found in Turquzabad district.
The IAEA said Iran’s response was “unsatisfactory because it was not technically credible.”
For example, the IAEA noted that there were indications that when buildings at the Varamin site were being dismantled, containers were moved from there to Turquzabad.
“However, the nuclear activities assessed by the Agency to have been carried out at Varamin do not explain the presence of the isotonically altered particles found at Turauzabad. Those isotonically altered particles must have come from another unknown location,” a May 2022 IAEA report stated.
In June, the IAEA censured Iran for failing to provide a credible explanation for how the uranium traces ended up at the three sites.
Iran responded by removing 27 IAEA cameras monitoring its nuclear activity. It added that it would keep them turned off until the moribund Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (JCPOA), the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015, is restored.
In August, IAEA Chief Rafael Grossi warned that Iran’s nuclear program was growing “in ambition and in capacity,” and “needs to be verified in the appropriate way.”
"When it comes to nuclear, good words will not do it. What you need to do is to be transparent and compliant and work with us,” Grossi said.
Around the same time, Iranian officials openly began boasting about their ability to make a nuclear weapon.
A video published on July 30 by the @sepah_pasdaran Telegram channel, affiliated with the IRGC, talked up Iran’s underground nuclear facility in Fordow, and warned that Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles could “turn New York into a heap of rubble from hell.”
An IAEA report published in early September said Iran was on the cusp of having enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
The unfolding nuclear drama comes against the backdrop of the JCPOA deal, under which Iran agreed to curtail much of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The deal slashed Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 97%; banned Iran from possessing weapons grade uranium; limited Iran’s Uranium enrichment to 3.67%; and allowed for expansive (and intrusive) IAEA inspections.
In announcing the implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016, then U.S. President Barack Obama said that by reducing Iran’s uranium stockpile and centrifuges needed to create highly enriched uranium, Iran’s pathway to a nuclear bomb would be “blocked” without the use of military force.
The JCPOA took a serious hit in May 2018, when then U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from deal, claiming it was “horribly one-sided.”
However, issues cited by Trump — ballistic missile development, the funding of malign actors in the region, and sunset provisions on specific nuclear restrictions — were not related to Iran’s actual compliance with the JCPOA.
U.S. sanctions came back into effect in November 2018.
According to the Washington D.C.-based Arms Control Association, “Iran began to breach limits under the accord” one year after Trump withdrew from the 2015 deal.
For example, the nuclear deal forbids Iran from enriching uranium at its Fordow site.
Then, in January 2020, after the U.S. killed the commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, Iran said it would no longer abide by JCPOA restrictions.
The IAEA has continued its compliance efforts, but the attempts to get Iran to come back to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal are effectively underwater.
Iran views the current investigation into uranium traces at the three undisclosed sites as a stumbling block to reviving the deal.
The current political climate also does not lend itself to negotiations.
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. would not “waste time” reviving the 2015 nuclear deal amid Iran’s crackdown on mass protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.
U.S. officials say all options, a veiled reference to military action, are on the table to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.