UN atomic agency passes resolution demanding Iranian cooperation on nuclear program

IAEA urges Iranians to reverse decision barring several expert monitors, comply with 2023 statement intended to resolve issues about nuclear program

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency flies in front of its headquarters during an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, on February 6, 2023. (Heinz-Peter Bader/AP)
The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency flies in front of its headquarters during an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, on February 6, 2023. (Heinz-Peter Bader/AP)

VIENNA — The United Nations nuclear watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors passed a resolution on Wednesday calling on Iran to step up cooperation with the monitor and reverse its recent barring of inspectors, despite concerns Tehran would respond with atomic escalation.

Twenty countries voted in favor and two against — Russia and China — with 12 abstentions, diplomats said. It follows up on the last resolution 18 months ago that ordered Iran to comply with a years-long International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into uranium traces found at undeclared sites.

While the number of sites under investigation has been narrowed to two from three, Iran still has yet to give the IAEA satisfactory answers on how the traces got there.

“The need for the Board to hold Iran accountable to its legal obligations is long overdue. Iran must urgently, fully and unambiguously co-operate with the Agency,” Britain, France and Germany said in a statement to the Board on the resolution they proposed.

Since the last resolution the list of problems the IAEA faces in Iran has grown, and the new text also called on Iran to address several of those issues.

Censure resolutions by the IAEA board are not legally binding but send a strong political and diplomatic message.

Inspectors have said two sites near Tehran bore traces of processed uranium. The IAEA has urged Iran to provide “technically credible” answers about the origin and current location of the nuclear material in order for it “to be in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”

Illustrative: Iran’s alleged atomic warehouse in Turquzabad, Tehran. (YouTube screenshot)

The IAEA has identified the sites as Turquzabad and Varamin. Turquzabad, a district of Tehran, was previously identified by Israel as an alleged site of secret atomic activity. The IAEA has said inspectors believe Iran used the Varamin site from 1999 until 2003 as a pilot project to process uranium ore and convert it into a gas form. The IAEA said buildings at the site had been demolished in 2004.

Turquzabad is where the IAEA believes Iran took some of the material at Varamin amid the demolition, though it has said that alone cannot “explain the presence of the multiple types of isotopically altered particles” found there.

The resolution comes just over a week after a report by the IAEA said Iran has further increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade levels, the latest in Tehran’s attempts to steadily exert pressure on the international community.

In September Iran barred many of the IAEA’s top enrichment experts on the inspection team, which IAEA chief Rafael Grossi called “disproportionate and unprecedented” and a “very serious blow” to the agency’s ability to do its job properly.

“(The Board) calls on Iran to reverse its withdrawal of the designations of several experienced Agency inspectors which is essential to fully allow the Agency to conduct its verification activities in Iran effectively,” the resolution said. Grossi met officials in Iran last month in the hope of breaking a deadlock on the particles probe and the inspectors but also to expand IAEA monitoring to parts of Iran’s nuclear program that were covered under a 2015 deal with major powers.

The deal, which traded restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities for sanctions relief, unravelled after then-president Donald Trump pulled the United States out of it in 2018.

Iran responded by abandoning the deal’s nuclear provisions, including IAEA monitoring of activities such as the production of parts for centrifuges — machines that enrich uranium. The agency now does not know how many Iran has or where.

Illustrative: International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors (2nd and 3rd left) and Iranian technicians at the Natanz nuclear power plant, south of Tehran, on January 20, 2014. (Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP/File)

The resolution called on Iran to implement a vaguely worded March 2023 joint statement that the IAEA took to be a sweeping pledge of cooperation, including on monitoring and the installation of surveillance cameras.

In that statement, Iran pledged to resolve issues surrounding sites where inspectors have questions about possible undeclared nuclear activity, and to allow the IAEA to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.”

Iran is now enriching uranium to up to 60% purity, close to the 90% needed for weapons grade, and has enough material, if enriched further, for three nuclear weapons, according to an IAEA yardstick.

Western powers say there is no credible civilian reason for that. Iran says its aims are entirely peaceful but officials have recently said it could change its “nuclear doctrine” if it is attacked or its existence threatened by arch-foe Israel. That has prompted alarm at the IAEA and in Western capitals.

“Iran, a country with a past nuclear weapons program and whose enrichment program started in secret, is amassing a growing stockpile of highly enriched uranium, and now boasts of being on the precipice of nuclear weapons capability,” the United States said in a statement to the Board of Governors.

The US statement also echoed concerns Washington expressed to its European allies before it finally backed the resolution.

“Iran has repeatedly responded to the resolutions adopted by this Board in recent years with escalation instead of cooperation, including by producing 60% enriched uranium at its heavily fortified, underground facility at Fordow,” it said.

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