by Mark Fitzpatrick
Overshadowed by other Iran-related tensions, there was a noteworthy development last week about nuclear-related material that Iran has sought to conceal. Israeli media reported that environmental sampling conducted earlier this year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at a warehouse in the Turquzabad district of Tehran found traces of what Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu last September said was 15kg of radioactive material that had been stored there along with tonnes of equipment and moved elsewhere last summer. The Israeli government apparently leaked the findings out of disappointment that the IAEA did not report on it in the mid-June Board of Governors meeting.
It is a serious matter. Netanyahu’s characterisation of ‘radioactive’ material had previously led me to think that it might not rise to the level of a reporting violation, as many kinds of radioactive material, such as the americium in smoke detectors and the cobalt-60 used for medical radiotherapy, do not fall under IAEA safeguards. It is now my understanding, however, that it was material that Iran was obliged to report to the IAEA.
The positive sampling results are being characterised as yet another example of Iranian nuclear deception. It is not necessarily a new example, however, as the material in question is probably from a clandestine project that was first discovered in 2005 and reported by the IAEA the next year. The project was nicknamed the ‘green salt’ project, because, among other aspects, it involved production of uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), which has the appearance of green-ish salt. If the material was from that time period, it would be a safeguards violation but not a violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which regulates nuclear activity from 2016. The green salt project was halted in 2004, and while all the documentation was carefully preserved (until an Israeli intelligence hoist in January 2018) there has been no indication of it having been resumed.
The IAEA Process Is Working
If there is a small sliver of opportunity here, it is that the IAEA investigative process is working. After determining that Israel’s claims were broadly credible, the IAEA sought to visit the Turquzabad warehouse site, and over the winter Iran agreed. The inspectors were also allowed to take environmental samples. Though Iran’s cooperation may have been slow, Tehran deserves credit for allowing this access in light of the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA. The procedures were playing out as designed. The politics between Iran and the IAEA, which have often been frayed in the past, were also relatively smooth.
As a technical matter, as well, the sampling worked. Naysayers doubted that visiting a site months after material was removed would turn up anything. But as I explained in April, radioactive material leaves traces that last for years and are very difficult to erase. I predicted that environmental sampling would likely be able to detect traces, whether the sampling took place days or months after the material was moved. Potential proliferators should take heed that they cannot hide from the agency.
The IAEA secretariat has not yet reported what the sampling found, perhaps because it is still seeking answers from Iran and asking to see the containers that were moved from the warehouse. If the cooperation that ensued over the winter were to continue, such access would be allowed and the matter would be closer to resolution. In the storm now raging between Iran and the US, such cooperation may be wishful thinking. The IAEA is still hopeful, however. It should be given time to try to sort it out in a way that will not sharpen the confrontation.
A Cooperative Approach
In some other cases when states were found to have engaged in unreported nuclear work, a cooperative approach succeeded in clarifying the matter. Consider, for example, South Korea’s acknowledgment in 2004 that it had engaged in enrichment and plutonium experiments and Egypt’s admission the same year that it had done unreported work with uranium. Both were allowed to apologise, in effect, for having neglected to report the experiments and both states have had clean records since. While it leaves a bad taste, ascribing reporting failure to ‘forgetfulness’ is a tried-and-true diplomatic ruse to enable errors to be admitted without loss of face.
Iran’s case is far more egregious, of course. It is a repeat offender and its nuclear hedging strategy went much further toward a nuclear weapons capability. Its deceptions over the years have been manifold. Yet if the cooperative approach painstakingly negotiated in the JCPOA had been allowed to run its course, it would be far easier to resolve issues such as the reported warehousing of nuclear-related equipment and material at Turquzabad. US withdrawal from the agreement and its escalating sanctions make such cooperation far more difficult, even though Iran is obliged to do so under both the JCPOA and its safeguards agreement. While US President Donald Trump’s economic warfare is supposedly intended to force Iran to capitulate, it is having the opposite – and predictable – effect of sparking defiance.
The IAEA needs greater access to suspect sites in Iran. It needs to see the containers and equipment that were stored at Turquzabad. It needs to follow up the leads in the trove of documents about past nuclear-weapons development work purloined and revealed by Israel last year. The inspectors have the right to visit, but persuading Iran to honour that right will take diplomatic tact. The IAEA understands this. Those who want a peaceful resolution rather than confrontation should let the careful investigative work of the IAEA continue.
Mark Fitzpatrick is an associate fellow and former executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies–Americas. Reprinted, with permission, from the IISS blog.