How the UN’s atomic agency says it’s keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program
One year since the US withdrew from Iran nuclear deal

How the UN’s atomic agency says it’s keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program

A look at the IAEA’s work in monitoring implementation of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the deal, which Trump quit and Netanyahu opposes, aimed at keeping Tehran from nukes

Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)
Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

VIENNA, Austria — Wednesday marks a year to the day since US President Donald Trump dramatically withdrew from the 2015 agreement between Tehran and world powers on Iran’s nuclear program.

Announcing that the US was withdrawing, Trump cast the landmark agreement forged under his predecessor Barack Obama as “defective” and unable to rein in Iranian behavior or halt the Islamic Republic’s quest to develop nuclear weapons.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned assiduously to discredit the deal, and has presented documents Israel secreted away from Tehran by the Mossad that he says proved “Iran lied” about its nuclear program.

It is the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has had the task of verifying the deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on an archive brought out of Iran by the Mossad that documents Iran’s nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)

In each of its quarterly reports on Iran, the IAEA has so far said Tehran is adhering to the terms of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, under which Iran agreed to dismantle the weapons-capable aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of biting sanctions.

What role does the IAEA have in Iran?

Set up in 1957, the IAEA has 171 member states and employs some 2,500 experts.

Its Board of Governors, comprising 35 states, meets five times a year.

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Yukiya Amano of Japan, waits for the start of the IAEA board of governors meeting at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, November 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The IAEA promotes peaceful uses of atomic energy while at the same time overseeing efforts to detect and prevent possible nuclear weapons proliferation.

Because of previous international concern over its nuclear program, Iran agreed in 2003 to allow snap IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.

However, cooperation broke down in 2006. The IAEA referred Iran to the UN Security Council, which went on to impose sanctions, and Iran halted enhanced IAEA inspections.

A renewed diplomatic push eventually led to the JCPOA in 2015, under which the IAEA is charged with regular inspections of declared facilities in Iran such as uranium mines and centrifuge workshops for up to 25 years.

The aim is to ensure that Iran is not holding undeclared stocks of nuclear material and is not enriching uranium past a certain level.

The deal also included an “Additional Protocol,” which allows inspectors “to conduct complementary access to any location in Iran.”

In its most recent reports on the JCPOA, the agency has taken to reminding Iran that “timely and proactive co-operation” in providing access to locations it wishes to inspect would “enhance confidence.”

How do IAEA inspections work?

The IAEA insists the inspection regime put in place by the JCPOA is the world’s toughest.

The agency says that its inspection work has doubled since 2013.

A tower of Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility is seen just outside the city of Isfahan, south of the capital Tehran, August 8, 2005. (Mehdi Ghasemi, ISNA/AP)

IAEA Secretary General Yukiya Amano says the agency’s inspectors spend 3,000 calendar days per year on the ground in Iran.

He has also highlighted the some 2,000 tamper-proof seals attached to nuclear material and equipment and the “hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by our sophisticated surveillance cameras,” the number of which has almost doubled since 2013.

Amano has called the JCPOA “a significant gain for verification” and said its failure “would be a great loss for nuclear verification and for multilateralism.”

Agency under pressure

In addition to the US withdrawing from the deal, Israel — Iran’s regional arch-foe — has also been highly critical of the JCPOA.

In August 2017, Washington’s envoy to the UN Nikki Haley urged the IAEA to widen its inspections, including to military sites.

A year later in an address to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu claimed Iran had a “secret atomic warehouse” as part of a clandestine nuclear program and called on the IAEA to inspect the site immediately.

In January, Amano rejected pressure on the agency, saying: “If our credibility is thrown into question, and, in particular, if attempts are made to micro-manage or put pressure on the Agency in nuclear verification, that is counter-productive and extremely harmful.”

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