Blog Post - Iran Matters

Belfer Experts Comment on New IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program

IAEA DG Yukiya Amano

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano briefs members of the media at a press conference held during the 1412th Board of Governors meeting on Iran. IAEA Headquarters, Vienna, Austria, 25 August 2015. (IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency released its “final assessment” yesterday of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Seven members of the Belfer Center’s Iran Working Group -- Graham Allison, Matthew Bunn, Martin Malin, Richard Nephew, Gary Samore, Will Tobey, and Trevor Findlay  -- commented on their reactions to the IAEA report and how it will impact the nuclear deal with Iran.

A Meager Report

Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center:

I commend the IAEA for confirming what American intelligence has long insisted: namely, that, before 2003, Iran conducted activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” The IAEA’s report is also direct in calling out Iran for obstructing the investigation into these activities. Nonetheless, the report is disappointing in the Agency’s failure to extract more specifics from Iran in the course of its review.                      

Compare the specific advances in transparency and inspection achieved by the American negotiating team in the Iran nuclear deal, on the one hand, with the inability of the IAEA to achieve anything similar with respect to Iran’s past activities, on the other. In the agreement, Iran conceded in allowing eyes on its entire nuclear program from cradle to grave, including 24/7 video monitoring of its nuclear facilities and a unique mechanism for quickly accessing any suspect site in the country.                                                    

In contrast, in conducting the investigation for its report, the IAEA accepted recycled Iranian denials, acquiesced to Iranian-conducted environmental sampling at the Parchin facility, and tolerated an Iranian claim that some of the most sensitive nuclear weapons-related calculations were conducted by a doctoral student writing a dissertation. The report also left unstated whether the IAEA was permitted to interview top Iranian scientists, though press reportingindicates that Iran refused.

The question remains: How much does the IAEA’s performance matter?

For the purpose of stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, the US intelligence community was not expecting the report to add anything it didn’t already know, and on that count the report did not disappoint. As US and Israeli intelligence has repeatedly asserted, they know all they need to know – from their own sources, not from the IAEA.

For those of us who hoped the Agency’s report would strengthen its position as the international watchdog tracking compliance with NPT commitments and the nonproliferation regime, the results took a step backwards.                                                           

In sum, the contrast between the meager results of the IAEA report and the unprecedented, intrusive verification and inspections embodied in the nuclear agreement give us yet another reason to be proud of what the Kerry-Sherman-Moniz tag team accomplished.


Reconfirming the Need for the JCPOA

Matthew Bunn, Professor of Practice at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Co-Principal Investigator of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center:

The IAEA has forthrightly confirmed what was already widely known: “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003.”  While the new report offers some interesting details that were not previously publicly known, it does not change the overall picture of the Iranian nuclear challenge.  If anything, the evidence in the report of a past nuclear weapons effort reconfirms the importance of the JCPOA’s stringent limits on Iran’s nuclear material production capabilities, its requirements for expanded verification (going well beyond the Additional Protocol, at the least for its first decade), and its unprecedented prohibitions on weaponization-related work.  The focus now should be on implementing the JCPOA effectively, and making use of the 10-15 years of its most stringent restraints to build understandings, agreements, and arrangements that will reduce the risks to U.S. and international security when those restraints expire.

With this report completed, the Board of Governors should adopt a resolution calling for full implementation of the JCPOA, and calling on the Agency to carry out all of its inspection rights and obligations under Iran’s traditional safeguards agreement, the Additional Protocol Iran will be implementing (initially provisionally), and the JCPOA.  While the IAEA titled the report its “final assessment” of the past military dimensions of Iran’s program, the IAEA will have to continue to seek to understand whether any military-related nuclear activities continue to exist in Iran as it works to verify that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful use, as it has both the right and the obligation to do.  If new information arises that might be relevant to Iran’s compliance with its obligations, the IAEA will be obligated to pursue it, and the Board resolution should make that clear.

In particular, the Agency will have to do its best to verify Iran’s compliance with its new obligations in the JCPOA — many of which last indefinitely — not to undertake a range of potentially weaponization-related activities, from modeling of nuclear explosive designs to work with explosively driven neutron sources.  Hence, while this report represents the close of one phase of this issue, it cannot be the end of the question.  When the IAEA is seeking to reach the broader conclusion that all of Iran’s nuclear material has been verified and is in peaceful use, it will inevitably have to consider the disturbing facts that Iran had a nuclear weapons R&D effort in the past, that it has not been forthright about that effort, and that it has taken actions that “seriously undermined” the IAEA’s ability to verify some elements of what occurred.


Five takeaways from the IAEA’s report on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program

Martin Malin, Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center:

The International Atomic Energy Agency drew several important conclusions in the report it released this week on the weapons-related elements of Iran’s past nuclear activities. First, the IAEA concluded Iran indeed had a nuclear weapons program, and that “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003.” The world can now drop the word “possible” when talking about the military dimensions of some of Iran’s past nuclear activities. The cumulative evidence is persuasive. Iran developed detonators, experimented with explosives technology, engaged in computer modeling of a nuclear explosive, and set up dedicated organizations—all of which the IAEA found to be weapons-related.

Second, and also important, the report concludes that the weapons program never advanced beyond an exploratory stage. It finds no evidence of weapons-related activity after 2009, and resolves a few weapons-related questions in Iran’s favor. The IAEA finds no indications, for example, that there was an undeclared fuel cycle in Iran, or that Iran held significant amounts of undeclared uranium.

Third, the report points out that, unfortunately, Iran has taken steps that make it more difficult for the country to put the past behind it. Indeed, the burden on Iran has been increased by its own actions. The IAEA found that Iran’s efforts to demolish, remove, and refurbish facilities believed to be related to testing nuclear weapons components “seriously undermined the agency’s ability to conduct effective verification."

Fourth, the report indicates that some of the explanations Iran provided in recent months were unconvincing. For example, the IAEA did not buy Iran’s story that the particular site the agency visited at Parchin was used for chemical storage, and it cited satellite imagery and sampling as evidence to reject Iran’s explanation. Iran alleged that its work on explosive bridgewire (EBW) detonators was aimed at improving the safety of certain conventional explosives. It also linked their development to its aerospace industry. And later it suggested that its oil and gas industry had a need for EBW detonators. The Agency found these explanations inconsistent or unrelated to the questions it had posed to Iran and concluded that the detonators had “characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device.” But it acknowledged EBW technology might have civilian or conventional military uses.

Fifth, on several issues, Iran provided no new information, despite the agency’s requests. Did Iran undertake illicit procurements in support of its weapons program? Did Iran conduct tests of components of a nuclear explosive device? Did it work on a fuzing, arming, and firing system for nuclear-tipped missiles? The IAEA had indications prior to 2011 of Iranian activity in each of these areas. But absent additional information, and in the face of Iranian denials, the IAEA simply reported that it had no new information on which to draw a conclusion, leaving the matters unresolved.

Iranians may say the IAEA came to wrong conclusions on several points. Just because some of what the Iranian government did was “relevant” to work on nuclear weapons doesn’t mean that the work actually was aimed at making them. But now that the IAEA has made its assessment, the justification for extra vigilance and continuing concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions should be clear to all. This report does not amount to an acquittal of Iran. The IAEA Board of Governors should receive the report and support implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as agreed by six world powers and Iran, but should also note that in light of the assessment that Iran did carry out activities relevant to nuclear weapons development, the Agency should continue to pursue answers to the questions that to date it has been unable to resolve.


Iran's tepid cooperation means past remain open even without PMD

Richard Nephew, Program Director and Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy in the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs:

The IAEA report meets its expectations, offering a conclusive assessment that Iran did pursue nuclear weapons prior to 2003, may have engaged in uncoordinated work with nuclear weapons utility after 2003, but that there is no evidence of nuclear weapons work after 2009.  The IAEA was given some additional information by Iran but, ultimately, has made its conclusion on the basis of the information available to it as of November 2011.  Iran's cooperation with the IAEA's probe in the last four months was sufficient so as to meet the terms of the IAEA-Iran Roadmap, signed coincident with the JCPOA in July, but did not cross any of Iran's redlines in that the Iranian government did not itself confirm past nuclear weapons-related work.The report is therefore neither a whitewash of what happened in the past, nor is it an exhaustive technical appraisal of what Iran did.  As such, there will continue to be questions about what Iran knows and can do in the production of nuclear weapons, forcing the United States and its partners to operate on a worst-case assessment.

 Ultimately, this may prove to be more dangerous for Iran than a complete admission would have been, particularly if the IAEA's conclusion that Iran's work never went beyond feasibility and scientific studies.  Had Iranian cooperation substantiated this claim, then Iran would be able to argue credibly in the future that its knowledge base is not sufficient for nuclear weapons.  Now, Iran's many skeptics in the United States, the Middle East, and in Europe have ammunition to use against Iran in the event that further ambiguous information is revealed about Iran's nuclear program.  At the same time, this report also undermines the case that Iran is close to a nuclear weapons capability: should the U.S. be alone in the future in trying to halt an expansion of Iran's nuclear capabilities, countries may point to this report and argue that -- in the final analysis -- the threat from Iran is minimal.  This conclusion deepens my own concern that, by pressing for a resolution of the case, those who sought to use PMD against Iran may find it less than helpful in managing Iran's nuclear ambitions in the future.

 The IAEA Board of Governors should adopt a resolution that closes the PMD file and acknowledges its central conclusion that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons as part of a coordinated, national effort, but underscores that — as a part of the IAEA's normal safeguards work and implementation of the Broader Conclusion — the IAEA will need to work with Iran to complete its understanding of the Iranian nuclear program.  The Board should stress that, absent a Broader Conclusion, the IAEA will not be in a position to provide assurance as the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program.  The Board should note that Iran has said it will do what is needed to demonstrate that to the world and urge Iran to cooperate as a result.


Reaction to PMD Report

Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center:

The number one political imperative for IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was to deliver a technically competent and credible assessment of Iran’s past activities to develop nuclear weapons.  The report meets that test.  Despite Iran’s lies, obfuscations, and threats, the report concludes that, “The Agency assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003.”  The IAEA’s conclusion is also consistent with the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that the Iranian program reflected an effort to develop a nuclear weapons option, rather than a political decision to actually build nuclear weapons.  According to the IAEA report, “The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.”   Finally, the IAEA report says that, “The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009”, which means either that all such activities have been halted or they are no longer being detected by the IAEA or relevant intelligence agencies.

With the IAEA having performed its primary mission, the action now shifts to the IAEA Board of Governors.  According to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the P5+1 (U.S., UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) – in their capacities as members of the Board of Governors – will submit a resolution to the entire 35-member Board by December 15 for the purpose of “taking necessary action, with a view to closing the [PMD] issue.”  The IAEA Board of Governors resolution should include three essential elements.  First, the resolution should accept the IAEA report as ending the PMD investigation for the time being, while making clear that the investigation can be reopened if additional information on Iran’s past weaponization program becomes available, including any additional information provided by Iran.  Second, the resolution should state that Iran’s failure to genuinely cooperate with the PMD investigation will affect the IAEA’s ability to reach its so-called “Broader Conclusion” that all nuclear materials in Iran are in peaceful uses.  Under the JCPOA, nuclear-related sanctions are not terminated until the IAEA makes its Broader Conclusion or eight years after Adoption Day (i.e. October 18, 2015), whichever comes first.  Third, the resolution should authorize the IAEA to continue to monitor any effort by Iran to resume nuclear weapons-related activities, including the activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device that are specified in the JCPOA.

Diplomats from the P5+1 will haggle over the precise wording of the Board resolution, but they are likely to reach agreement on a consensus resolution by the December 15 deadline.  Whatever its misgivings, Iran is likely to put the best face on the PMD report and the Board of Governors resolution and complete the nuclear-related steps required for Implementation Day, at which point sanctions relief will take place.


Iran: Pretending to Comply, While We Pretend to Believe

WilliamTobey, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center:

Tehran pursued an organized nuclear weapons effort through 2003, and some activities continued until 2009; so says International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Moreover, Tehran’s cover-up activities “seriously undermined the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification” at the Parchin site, where Iran is suspected of hydrodynamic testing of implosion devices.  Claims that this was all a misunderstanding or a fabrication—made in Iran and often echoed in the United States—are now discredited. 

The Iran deal and its side agreement between the IAEA and Tehran, did not condition sanctions relief on substantive resolution of the IAEA’s concerns about Iran’s covert nuclear weapons work—the so-called “possible military dimensions” issue.  Rather, they simply set a timeline for additional information, questions, discussions, and finally an IAEA report.  Unsurprisingly, Tehran’s stonewall continued, and the IAEA now reports that it was unable to resolve its detailed and documented concerns.

So what are the implications for the Iran deal and broader nonproliferation policy?

The bedrock of IAEA Safeguards work is complete and correct declaration of all nuclear activities, and Agency verification of the completeness and correctness, through access to sites, documents, people, and equipment.  The latest IAEA report makes clear that Tehran’s declaration is neither complete nor correct, but Iran will be given a pass, because the Iran deal created a giant loophole on this issue.

Some say this does not matter—that we already have “absolute knowledge” of Iran’s nuclear program, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it in June.  They also point to intelligence capabilities as the best means to detect Iranian cheating.  They further claim that these issues are of the past, while the agreement is about the future.  None of these arguments withstand scrutiny.

Intelligence information alone is subject to failure.  The massive intelligence debacle in Iraq was caused in part by the absence of inspectors starting in 1998.  Effective international monitoring and intelligence work are exponentially more powerful together than either is alone.  A baseline declaration is necessary for effective international monitoring.  Moreover, this issue is about the future.  Neither the Agency nor the United States can be confident that Iran’s nuclear weapons development work will not resume if all aspects of the past activities are not well understood.  Where, for example, is the explosive chamber that was used at Parchin, and to what purpose is it being put today?  Were other chambers fabricated and used?

The Iran deal will go forward.  Sanctions will be lifted.  The bedrock principle of Safeguards work—a complete and correct declaration followed by IAEA verification—will be fractured, with the United States complicit.  Why should future proliferators not invoke the Iran deal precedent, under which the Iranians pretend to comply with their obligations, and we pretend to believe them?  Why even should Tehran take seriously all the Administration’s huffing and puffing about the importance of compliance?


Mostly Standard IAEA Non-compliance Reporting Fare - but Read Between the Lines

TrevorFindlay, Associate of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center:

The IAEA’s Roadmap report is like standard IAEA compliance reports in its use of routine formulations. It records that the Agency has found no ‘evidence’ or ‘indications’ that a particular alleged activity has occurred. This of course does not mean the activity did not occur, just that the Agency has acquired no evidence to that effect. The report also speaks of the Agency’s inability to undertake the necessary verification in respect of alleged activities, notably at the Parchin military base. This again is a standard formulation. It does not say that Iran was in non-compliance, but rather that the Agency was unable to undertake the necessary verification to prove the case either way.

However, in other respects the report is extraordinary. It was not was geared towards assessing compliance with standard safeguards undertakings in a legally binding safeguards agreement, but rather with a Roadmap that is vague as to its status and imprecise as to its meaning. Moreover the Roadmap comprised a series of steps to be undertaken not just by the state concerned but by the IAEA itself, all of which were accomplished on schedule. Unlike standard non-compliance reports it does not therefore speak of non-compliance or of breaches or even ‘serious concerns’.

Most unusually of all, the PMD report does not indicate that the IAEA will continue to carry out verification activities in pursuit of any of the PMD issues. Normally IAEA non-compliance reports signal that the Director General will remain seized of the issue and that monitoring and verification will continue to that end. In this case the report leaves it entirely to the Board of Governors to decide how to proceed. Given the political sensitivity of such a decision this is right and proper. Yet in light of the clear indications in the report that the Agency has not been able to resolve all outstanding issues to its satisfaction the Board cannot simply note the report and invite the IAEA Secretariat to move on to verifying implementation of the JCPOA.

The saving grace, however, is that Iran will continue to be subject to Agency verification of compliance with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and its Additional Protocol, in addition to the JCPOA itself. Ultimately, if Iran wishes to obtain the so-called broader conclusion about its safeguards compliance―the gold standard that all states with an Additional Protocol aspire to―it must submit itself to intensive examination of its past nuclear activities until the Agency is satisfied that everything has been accounted for. Even in the case of serial compliers like Australia and Canada this has taken years. So if the Agency has, as its PMD report indicates, been unable to catch something ‘on the swings’, as it were, it may in future do so ‘on the roundabout’. The Board of Governors should ensure that its resolution in response to the PMD report reinforces this logical outcome of the way that the various elements of the Iran deal have been so artfully layered.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Matthew Bunn, Martin B. Malin, Gary Samore, William H. Tobey and Trevor Findlay.Belfer Experts Comment on New IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program.” Iran Matters, December 3, 2015,

The Authors

Graham Allison headshot

Gary Samore