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June 5 2024

Policy Briefs

UN Nuclear Agency Board Censures Islamic Republic

Andrew Ghalili

SENIOR POLICY ANALYST

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors has issued a resolution censuring the Islamic Republic of Iran and demanding its cooperation, including the readmittance of inspectors and the restoration of camera surveillance at nuclear sites. This resolution emerges amidst concerns about Iran's advancing nuclear program and follows a contentious period marked by reported U.S. hesitance to support censure, fearing aggressive retaliation from Iran. Despite this, Britain, France, and Germany, driven by an imperative to address Iran's non-compliance, championed the resolution. The United States ultimately joined the European allies in endorsing the resolution after reports that it hindered European efforts. Tehran’s response, articulated by its atomic energy chief, underscores the escalating tensions as the regime vows retaliatory measures. This development highlights the ongoing challenges and the critical need for robust international oversight to address the potential threat posed by Iran's nuclear advancements. 


THE BOTTOM LINE

  • The IAEA Board of Governors (BoG) resolution demands that Iran cooperate with the IAEA, readmit inspectors, and restore camera surveillance at nuclear sites. 
  • Reports suggested that the United States was against the censure, fearing that it would cause Iran to respond aggressively.
    • Britain, France, and Germany pushed for the censure nonetheless, circulating a draft on June 3 when the BoG first convened.
    • The United States joined the E3 in voting for the resolution and denied that it has hampered the European efforts to censure Iran.
  • The Islamic Republic has already vowed to respond, with its atomic energy chief saying, "In case of issuing a resolution against Iran in the board of governors and political pressure from the parties, Iran will respond according to the announcement it made to them.” Tehran has previously responded to censures by augmenting its nuclear activity and further obstructing oversight.

Iran's Nuclear Progress

  • Iran’s nuclear program has continued to advance despite international pressure. The country’s enrichment of uranium to 60% purity, combined with its growing stockpile, suggests a strategic move towards achieving nuclear weapons capability. Public statements by officials have further fueled concerns about a shift in Iran’s nuclear doctrine.
  • Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 % has grown by 20.6 kg since the last IAEA report in February, now totaling 142.1 kg. This enrichment level is a short technical step from weapons-grade uranium (90%).
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Senator Jim Risch has emphasized the need for a strong censure, stating, “Tehran continues to develop its nuclear weapons completely unchecked and must be stopped.”

Past IAEA BoG Censures

  • The BoG last censured the Islamic Republic twice in 2022. 
    • Both 2022 resolutions focused on Iran’s subversion of IAEA procedures and policies, including failing to cooperate with the years-long investigation and a rapid increase in Iran’s 60% enriched stockpile.
      • In response to the November 2022 censure, Iranian Atomic Energy Organization chair Mohammad Eslami said that Iran would respond firmly and united. Shortly after, Eslami announced that Tehran had begun enrichment of uranium to 60 percent uranium-235 at Fordow.
  • Despite the Islamic Republic kicking IAEA inspectors out of Iran and continuing to not fulfill its commitments, the BoG neglected to censure Iran in 2023. 
  • U.S. opposition to censuring Iran at the IAEA is not a new phenomenon under the Biden administration. In 2021, European states were persuaded to withdraw a draft resolution censuring the Islamic Republic that they had previously circulated.
    • Reports suggested the United States “played a role in convincing the Europeans to withdraw their proposed resolution” in 2021.

More Context

  • In March, Iran managed to avoid censure at the IAEA BoG meeting despite failing to cooperate with a years-long investigation into undeclared nuclear activities. The U.S. and the E3 nations (Britain, France, and Germany) indicated that they would push for action at the June meeting if Iran did not improve its cooperation. The regime has continued its non-compliance, leading to the current censure.
    • U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate told the BoG in March that the United States continues to have “serious concerns” about Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium, saying Tehran’s actions “are counter to the behavior of all other non-nuclear weapons states party to the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty” and that “Iran should downblend all, not just some, of its 60 percent stockpile, and stop all production of uranium enriched to 60 percent entirely.”
  • IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has repeatedly expressed concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities, highlighting the lack of oversight and Iran’s statements about its nuclear capabilities. Grossi emphasized the need for Iran to provide credible explanations for uranium traces found at undeclared sites and to reverse its barring of IAEA inspectors.
    • In a joint statement on June 4, the E3 wrote, “the [IAEA] has lost continuity of knowledge in relation to the production and inventory of centrifuges [and more]. The IAEA does not know, for example, how many centrifuges Iran has and where they are located.”
  • The IAEA has reported a significant loss of oversight over Iran’s nuclear activities, with limited access to key facilities and data. This lack of transparency has heightened concerns about the true extent of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. Grossi’s calls for concrete measures and increased cooperation have so far been ignored by Tehran.
  • The June 2024 resolution underscores the international community’s frustration with Iran’s lack of transparency and compliance. It aims to pressure Iran into cooperating with the IAEA and adhering to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 
    • In a statement on June 4, the United States wrote, “Twice in 2022 viable deals were put on the table… On both occasions, Iran responded to these deals with unacceptable demands beyond the scope of the JCPOA… Iran refused a deal when it was possible, continued with activities that negated the chance for that deal, and now makes baseless statements to obfuscate the history.  It is a tired and transparent gambit.”
  • Tehran’s potential development of nuclear weapons poses a significant threat to regional and global security. The possibility of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic could trigger a regional arms race and destabilize the Middle East. It also undermines global non-proliferation efforts and sets a dangerous precedent for other countries.

The United States Needs to Lead

  • The United States should actively lead the calls to censure Iran rather than opposing them.
    • The options with regards to the IAEA are either A) diplomatically hold Iran accountable for violating its commitments to the agency or B) allow Iran to violate its commitments, thus degrading the agency’s credibility and better enabling Iran to advance its nuclear program to a point where it can build a nuclear weapon before the West can intervene.
  • While a censure was necessary, it has only a minor practical effect without a broader strategy behind it. The United States, with its European allies, must formulate a clear and decisive policy towards the Islamic Republic. Fear of retaliation should not prevent the U.S. from holding Iran accountable. Maintaining the status quo until the November elections is ineffective and dangerous.
  • The U.S. should consider reinstating and expanding sanctions on the Islamic Republic and working with international partners to isolate the regime diplomatically until it complies with nuclear non-proliferation agreements.