U.N. watchdog says Iran limiting nuclear monitoring access

FAN Editor

The United Nations’ atomic watchdog hasn’t been able to access data important to monitoring Iran’s nuclear program since late February when the Islamic Republic started restricting international inspections of its facilities, the agency said Monday.

In its May 31 report, obtained by CBS News, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that it has “not had access” to several key pieces of information since February 23. These include data on Iran’s stockpiles and production of heavy water, “the data and recordings collected” by equipment designed to monitor centrifuges and “the data from [the Agency’s] online enrichment monitors and electronic seals” as well as “the measurement recordings registered by its installed measurement devices.” 

Since February, although the IAEA had access to relevant buildings at Iran’s Fordow and Natanz nuclear sites, “it has not been able to perform daily access upon request,” the report said. The most troubling point in the report is that the international watchdog agency has been unable to verify what Iran is doing at some of the sites.

While the IAEA and Iran earlier acknowledged the restrictions limited access to surveillance cameras at Iranian facilities, Monday’s report indicated they went much further. The IAEA acknowledged it could only provide an estimate of Iran’s overall nuclear stockpile as it continues to enrich uranium at its highest level ever.

The watchdog agency was clear about why they were not receiving the information: “Since 23 February 2021, however, the Agency’s verification and monitoring activities have been affected as a result of Iran’s decision to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA [known as the Iran nuclear deal], including the Additional Protocol.”  

Iran started limiting inspections in a bid to put pressure on the government of U.S. President Biden to lift crippling sanctions reimposed after then President Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran unilaterally in 2018.

Under the deal, the IAEA placed around 2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment. Those seals communicated electronically to inspectors. Automated measuring devices also provided real-time data from the program.

Talks are currently underway in Vienna for the U.S. to rejoin the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Iran nuclear resume talks in Austria
Ambassador Kazem Gharibabadi, Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations (UN) Vienna Office, arrives to attend the Iran nuclear resume talks, at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria on April 06, 2021. Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Since the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, Iran has been steadily violating its various restrictions, including on the types of centrifuges it’s allowed to use, the amount of enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile, and the purity to which it is allowed to enrich.

In the IAEA report, the agency for the first time released estimates of Iran’s stockpile rather than precise figures, saying that as of May 22, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was 3,241 kilograms (7,145 pounds), up about 273 kilograms (600 pounds) from the last quarterly report.

That was down from an increase of nearly 525 kilograms (1,157 pounds) reported in the last quarterly report.

Though it wasn’t immediately clear what led to the decrease, it comes as an explosion in April at its underground Natanz nuclear facility affected centrifuges there. Iran has yet to offer a full accounting of what happened in an attack it described as “nuclear terrorism.” Israel, which is widely suspected of carrying out the assault, hasn’t commented publicly on it.

NATANZ FUEL ENRICHMENT PLANT, IRAN -- DECEMBER 24, 2013: Maxar satellite imagery of the Natanz hardened Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran.
Maxar satellite imagery of the Natanz hardened Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran. DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d

The nuclear deal signed in 2015 with the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia only permits Iran only to keep a total stockpile of 202.8 kilograms (447 pounds) of enriched uranium.

The agency said the current stockpile includes 62.8 kilograms (138.5 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 20% purity, and 2.4 kilograms enriched up to 60% purity — well above the 3.67% purity allowed under the JCPOA.

Despite Iran’s violations of the deal, the other nations involved have stressed that the agreement was still important as it allowed international inspectors to continue their surveillance of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped it monitor Tehran’s program to see if it is complying with the nuclear deal.

Iran’s hard-line parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories didn’t provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi was able to negotiate a last-minute deal in February, however, under which promised the IAEA it would hold onto footage shot by its surveillance cameras and would hand them over if diplomats reached a deal in Vienna to lift the sanctions it faces. Otherwise, Tehran said it would delete the images.

That deal has yet to come, but Grossi was able to negotiate a one-month extension last week.

That means his agency still can’t access the images taken by the cameras for the time being, but could regain access to the material if a deal is reached — a situation Grossi called an emergency measure that was “not ideal.”

The last-minute discussions further underscored the narrowing window for the U.S. and others to reach terms with Iran as it presses a tough stance with the international community over its atomic program.

Negotiations continue in Vienna to see if both the U.S. and Iran can reenter the deal, which limited Tehran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Iran and the U.S. aren’t directly negotiating, however.

Iran Nuclear
This file photo released November 5, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP

The U.S. isn’t at the table because it unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018 under Trump, who restored and augmented American sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure” to try and force Iran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions. Biden wants to rejoin the deal, however, and there is a U.S. delegation in Vienna taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.

The deal promises Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The reimposition of American sanctions has left the country’s economy reeling, and Tehran has reacted by steadily increasing its violations of the restrictions of the deal, such as increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to pressure the other countries to provide relief.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

The negotiations and tensions over the program come as Iran faces an upcoming June 18 presidential election to select the replacement for the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani, whose administration reach the 2015 nuclear deal. Analysts believe hard-liners have an edge going into the vote.

The IAEA also said that after many months it was still awaiting answers from Iran on three sites where inspections had revealed traces of uranium of man-made origin.

Pamela Falk contributed to this report.

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