Will a Reassuring IAEA Picture Influence US-Iran Negotiations?

by Peter Jenkins

The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued on May 23, suggests a determined and so far impressive effort by Iran to dispel suspicion of its nuclear intentions.

Tehran is complying fully with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards obligations — both de facto and, with one small exception, de jure. It is implementing fully the “voluntary measures” it undertook in the context of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) Iran signed November 24, 2013 with the US and five other powers in Geneva. It has also implemented thirteen “practical measures” pursuant to its November 11, 2013 Cooperation Framework agreement with the IAEA. (Five additional practical measures were announced on May 21, 2014.)

The IAEA continues to certify that all the nuclear material declared to it by Iran is in peaceful use. The Agency mentions no evidence for Iranian possession of undeclared nuclear material, but cannot yet say with confidence that there is no undeclared nuclear material in Iran. That is a logical consequence of the incomplete nature of the IAEA’s information of Iran’s nuclear program; the November 11, 2013 agreement will help the IAEA round out its knowledge.

Since 2008, the stoking of suspicion as to Iran’s nuclear intentions has relied heavily on fragmentary indicators of what the IAEA refers to, more or less interchangeably, as “a possible military dimension” (PMD) or “nuclear-related activities”. So, arguably, the most interesting paragraph in the latest report is paragraph 56. There the IAEA states that Iran has “shown” the Agency that simultaneous test firings of Explosive Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators (one of the above indicators) took place for a civilian (and not a nuclear weapon) application.

This explanation is credible. There is widespread use of EBW technology in the mining industry, for example. But paragraph 57 makes clear that we must not expect the Agency to pronounce the explanation credible until they have obtained clarifications in relation to the other fragmentary indicators in their possession.

What the Agency says in paragraph 57 is that it needs to be able to conduct a “system assessment” of the outstanding [PMD] issues. That suggests a comprehensive but protracted process.

Also of particular interest is Iranian submission of preliminary design information for a 10MW reactor that will burn low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. The reactor is to be situated near the city of Shiraz. It seems likely that it is the first of four medical isotope-producing reactors of which the President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, has spoken.

A 10 MW LEU reactor will probably be of less concern to Western counter-proliferation experts than the 40 MW natural uranium reactor under construction at Arak, since the plutonium content of spent LEU fuel is smaller and lends itself less to weaponization purposes. Indeed, one of the options under negotiation pursuant to the JPOA involves modernizing the Arak design to lower the reactor’s output and allow it to burn LEU.

Furthermore, the fuel needs of the newly announced reactor (and of a modernized Arak reactor) can provide Iran with a “practical needs” justification for retaining a limited LEU production capacity at its Natanz enrichment plant. Fuelling indigenously designed research reactors is a far more credible need than the oft-asserted need to fuel Russian-designed power reactors, since Russia will want to supply fuel for the latter throughout their operating lives, and since there could be proprietary data obstacles to Iran’s fabricating fuel for them.

Finally, the latest report confirms that, in fulfilling its JPOA commitments, Iran ceased producing 20% U235 UF6 on January 20 and has reduced its 20% UF6 stockpile to 8% of total production up to that date. Iran is now far from being in a position to use 20% U235 material as feed in the “break-out” scenario that some people, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assume Iran’s leaders are secretly conceiving.

The IAEA’s next report will be due in late August. Between now and then falls the deadline for the conclusion of negotiations pursuant to the JPOA. It would be nice if the reassuring picture of Iran’s nuclear program in this latest IAEA report were to influence downwards the demands made of Iran by US negotiators.

In reality, the reassuring picture is more likely to be discounted, cynically, as an indicator that Iran is making a show of cooperation to obtain better terms — and US demands are more likely to be influenced by unshakeable mistrust, and fear of Israeli displeasure, despite all the indicators that Iran’s leaders do not want nuclear weapons and believe NPT-compliance to be in Iran’s interest.

Photo: IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (left) and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi shake hands October 28, 2013 at IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Credit: Veysel Kuecuektas/IAEA

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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Rest assured that the Israeli lobby in the US will do their best to prevent an agreement with Iran. They won’t stop or rest in trying to do thwart better relations between the US and Iran. Israel insists that only it can have nuclear weapons in the region. Israel won’t even consider a nuclear free zone in the middle east. They have one standard for themselves, and one for others. The Israel lobby usually always prevails on the US government because in the US political system, money controls our Congresspeople.

  2. Good post. Every time I see Netanyahoos name regarding Iran, I think of that old saying: “the pot calling the kettle black”. I might also add, who is the one giving out all the bluster between Israel/Iran, as well as who continually says one thing then does the opposite? After all the speeches, warnings, I have come to the opinion that Israel is projecting its own attitude, because they Israel is as much if not more secretive in their Nuclear WMD ability, which makes them a potential danger to the world.

  3. There is a time for pointing fingers and there is a time to project a vision for the future and have the courage to form and make that vision into a reality. A lot of people think the time for those with a vision to take the helm may have arrived. A peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear file will open up a venue towards a better world via a more solid and viable regional foundation. Allowing the collapse of this initiative adversely will set the entire region into another period of tensions, isolation and mistrust, it will thwart progress towards regional and world peace, is that what we want?

  4. If we want the negotiations to succeed, then stop the Israel and their US Lobby from doing all they can to prevent it. Get organized politically and demand that our congress people put US and world interests ahead of what the Israel Firsters want, which is no deal and continued enmity between the US and Iran.

    Israel knows it has the US congress in their pocket. that’s what we have to change.

  5. Hi guys! I’m beginning to think we are the only ones that read this blog. lol. Well, can’t let you have the territory to yourselves now can we, especially when you seem intent on ignoring Iran’s myriad of problems. I think any rational person stumbling upon these comment pages would assume that everything in Iran is hunky dory. I would challenge them to simply Google “Iran” and “human rights” and you would get a deluge of problems the current regime faces. Which goes a long way to explaining why even if the IAEA were to give Iran a blank check (which it won’t), Western nations would still have pause in allowing Iran to move forward since it has proven itself so untrustworthy in the management of human rights amongst its own people and with its neighbors such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Yemen. These actions don’t breed trust, which is why these negotiations have stalled and will likely fail.

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