Iran’s nuclear program in focus as US and allies seek options

With the dust still settling after the US and Israeli elections, next week could usher in a new phase of controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.

The November 24-26 meeting of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of trustees will likely see a new resolution censure Tehran over restricted access to agency inspectors. Reports emerged on Friday that the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom were circulating a draft resolution to the council’s 35 member states calling it “essential and urgent” that Iran respond to the agency malaise.

The IAEA’s concerns are twofold. First, as the resolution points out, Tehran has failed to satisfy the IAEA over traces of uranium found at sites used for nuclear work prior to 2003. There is little expectation of a breakthrough in meetings with Iranian officials scheduled for later this month.

Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department, on Thursday accused Iran of “dragging its feet”. Tehran has demanded that the IAEA drop uranium trace questions to help talks, currently frozen, to reinstate Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the United States has left in 2018.

Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department

The agency’s second main area of ​​concern is Iran’s reduction since February 2021 of the IAEA’s general access to the nuclear program, which is now largely in line with the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rather than reinforced by the JCPOA.

This downgraded access, coupled with the issue of uranium traces, has led the agency’s managing director, Rafael Mariano Grossi, to warn he may no longer be able to verify the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. A report distributed to IAEA member states on Thursday noted that the longer the current situation persists the greater this uncertainty becomes.

The agency monitors Iran’s uranium stockpile, which it currently reports at 3,674 kg, well above the JCPOA’s 267 kg cap, including 62 kg enriched to 60%, nearly 90% of ” military quality. But Iran’s withdrawal of surveillance equipment from factories where it makes centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium, has hampered the agency’s ability to judge the entire program. Although access to these factories is not required under Iran’s NPT commitments, knowing the number and type of centrifuges Iran has ready and on standby is crucial in assessing how quickly the program can develop.

While Price said Thursday that the United States was consulting with its “European partners,” options for effective action appear limited. The IAEA board passed a resolution in June censuring Iran over uranium traces, and it’s far from clear what a new resolution could accomplish. The draft text, as reported by Reuters on Friday, says Iran should “act to fulfill its legal obligations and…without delay…provide all information, documentation and responses” required by the IAEA. , as well as “access to premises and equipment”. …[and the] taking samples…”

Unlike 2006, where the IAEA referred Iran to the United Nations Security Council on its atomic program, Russia and China would no longer support this decision. Both hold UNSC vetoes and see the United States as primarily responsible for the demise of the JCPOA.

Even though decisions regarding the restoration of the JCPOA rest with President Joe Biden, critics of the JCPOA in the United States may feel emboldened by the walk away from the democrats during the legislative elections on November 8, even if the control of the House of Representatives and the Senate remains unclear.

“Act with judgment”

Another complication is the impending return to power in Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu after the November 1 Knesset elections. Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid has developed a good relationship with the Biden administration, although he is critical of efforts to revive the JCPOA, while Netanyahu previously identified with President Donald Trump. Outgoing Minister of Defense Benny Gantz on Wednesday spoke about the work done by the outgoing administration in preparing military strikes against Iran, suggesting that Netanyahu would now “act with judgment”.

While the Ukraine crisis, the wave of internal protests in Iran and Tehran’s growing ties with Moscow have all brought the United States closer to the three European signatories of the JCPOA – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the alternatives of Biden seem limited.

Given “the dangerous proliferation of weapons systems from Iran to Russia,” Price said Thursday that the United States “will continue to vigorously enforce all U.S. sanctions on the Russian and Iranian arms trade.” He conceded that while Washington was “looking into all the appropriate tools” to deal with Iran, it was already “very heavily sanctioned, to say the least…for the full range of their activities. harmful”.

Ryan H. Bowman