WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – International nuclear inspectors and the United States accused Iran on Friday (June 19) of hiding suspected nuclear activity, the first time in more than eight years that Teheran has been accused of obstructing inspections, paving the way for a new confrontation with Western powers.
The accusation came in a resolution passed by the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN watchdog, after its new director-general, Mr Rafael Grossi, reported that Iranian officials had repeatedly blocked inspectors and “sanitised” a site they wanted to visit beginning last July.
It was the first time that the big European powers – Britain, France and Germany – had sided with the Trump administration on a major Iran issue since splitting with President Donald Trump on his decision more than two years ago to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the administration of former President Barack Obama.
The tersely worded resolution, running just over one page, noted “serious concern” that Iran had refused to allow inspectors into two locations and was unwilling to clearly answer questions about its “possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities.”
Russia and China both voted against the resolution in a vote in Vienna, leading Mr Christopher Ford, a top nuclear official in the State Department, to accuse the two countries of acting as “protector and enablers” of the Iranian effort to restart its nuclear programme.
“What is happening here is that while everyone was staring at the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), new safeguards problems have arisen in a very different lane,” Mr Ford told journalists in Washington on Friday, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal.
He added: “Whatever disagreements there may still be about the JCPOA – and I don’t doubt that there are some – the whole world has an interest in coming together now to protect the integrity of the global system of IAEA safeguards that everybody has relied upon to detect or prevent the diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes for generations, in countries all around the world.”
For Mr Trump, the announcement Friday provided cover should he choose to intensify pressure on Iran in the midst of the presidential election season. But with memories still strong of demands by former President George W. Bush that Iraq open up to inspections in 2002, only to later discover that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction under development, there would likely be strong domestic and international objections to any threats to compel access to the sites.
In this case, the US would have a difficult time proving that Iran is racing to build a bomb anytime soon.
Under the 2015 agreement, Iranian officials shipped 97 per cent of their existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country. And the nuclear agency’s latest assessment of Iran’s enrichment activities concludes that while it is violating the limits imposed in the 2015 accord, it would still take months to fashion its uranium stockpile into something that could be used to produce a single nuclear weapon. It also would take months or years more to produce the weapon.
The vote by the IAEA came as no surprise to the Iranians, who have been jousting with inspectors over whether they are required to provide access under its agreements for nuclear transparency.
Before the vote, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Thursday that a resolution by the international body would “ruin” prospects for what he described as an “agreeable solution.”
He also accused enemies of the nuclear deal of conspiring with international inspectors who had audited more Iranian nuclear sites “over the last five years than in IAEA history.” “We’ve nothing to hide,”Mr Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Mr Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran policy, called that claim laughable. “If only that were true,” he said.
Perhaps recalling the embarrassment of the Iraq experience, US officials have been careful to cite no evidence of their own, and simply to quote from the findings of the IAEA, which had refused to go along with the Bush administration’s assessments of Iraq in 2002 and 2003.
According to US officials, classified intelligence assessments produced by the US have been far less declarative about how close Iran might be to nuclear “breakout” – the time it would take to produce a single nuclear weapon.
Officials at the CIA, the State Department and the Energy Department all have agreed that the time period has dropped to under a year, although they have different estimates.
Keeping it at a year or more was the goal of the 2015 agreement, and the Iranians did not appear to have violated that until after Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reimposed devastating economic sanctions against Teheran.
Mr Ford said it was not clear exactly what nuclear materials Iran is believed to have hidden, nor their significance. “That’s what the world is waiting to find out,” he said. “If there really is nothing to conceal here, they need to come clean.”