UN watchdog closes probe into Iran nukes, drawing Israeli ire

After report finds Tehran stopped most work by 2003, IAEA paves way for implementation of nuclear deal in early 2016; Jerusalem accuses body of acting out of political motivations

The IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Austria, December 15, 2015. (Dean Calma/IAEA)
The IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Austria, December 15, 2015. (Dean Calma/IAEA)

VIENNA, Austria — The UN atomic watchdog’s board Tuesday closed a long-running probe into Iran’s past efforts to develop nuclear weapons, removing an important obstacle to implementing July’s landmark deal with big powers, diplomats said.

A resolution approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of governors said the investigation was “implemented in accordance with the agreed schedule” and that this “closes the board’s consideration of the matter.”

Iran had warned that unless this happened, it would not implement key parts of July’s accord with six major powers to scale down its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday welcomed the decision by the UN atomic watchdog’s board to end a long-running probe into Tehran’s past efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

“This resolution goes far beyond closing the issue of so-called PMD (possible military dimensions) and cancels the 12 previous resolutions of the Council of Governors of the IAEA which seriously restricted our country’s nuclear program,” Iranian media quoted Zarif as saying.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, March 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, March 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz criticized the decision to close the investigation, saying it was politically motivated.

“The IAEA decision does not correspond to the report by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who said Tehran continued partial development of a bomb until 2009. It seems, therefore, that the decision made today was political and not practical, and for this reason it sends a wrong message to the Iranians, that the international community is willing to look the other way,” he said, according to the Ynet news website.

The IAEA keeps close tabs on Iran’s nuclear program, and its inspections role is set to grow under July’s hard-fought deal, which defused a standoff dating back to 2002.

But the Vienna-based watchdog has also long sought to clear up allegations that until 2003, and possibly since, Iran also secretly sought to develop an actual nuclear weapon.

After stalling for many years, Iran agreed in July to cooperate with the IAEA to address the claims, which it has always rejected, allowing inspectors to visit sites and providing additional information.

As a result the IAEA on December 2 released a “final assessment” — even though it did not receive all the information it sought — concluding that some of the allegations were indeed accurate.

It said Iran conducted “a range of activities relevant to the development” of a nuclear bomb before the end of 2003 in a “coordinated effort,” and that some activities continued until 2009.

It stressed though that these “did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies” and that there was no evidence that Iran diverted nuclear material such as uranium or plutonium to these efforts.

However, a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem earlier this month said that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report “exposed the techniques of deception and obfuscation that Iran employed regarding its nuclear program.”

The most blatant example of Iranian mendacity is “its conduct around the Parchin facility, where the Iranians tried to cover up evidence of their illegal activity,” the statement said.

“Israel expects the international community to continue its investigation through the IAEA on these issues and to use all means at its disposal to ensure that Iran cannot secretly build a nuclear weapon,” the statement added. “Without completing this investigation, the world will not know how far Iran went in its secret program, and what its current status is.”

Continued scrutiny

But despite the findings, the six major powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, who co-authored the IAEA resolution — have decided to move on.

Despite Iran’s “long history of concealment, denial and deception,” the July deal is “forward-looking,” the US ambassador to the IAEA, Henry Ensher, said Tuesday.

The powers stress that Iran will remain under close IAEA scrutiny to ensure that it does not contravene the July deal or again secretly engage in more research on getting the bomb.

Nor is Iran completely out of the woods with the IAEA, with the agency’s “broader conclusion” that all Iran’s activities are exclusively peaceful still to come.

This could take several more years, and Tuesday’s resolution stated that the board will “remain seized” on the matter for another 10 years, or until the “broader conclusion,” whichever is sooner.

Implementation Day

The IAEA will also have to confirm that Iran has enacted all its commitments under the July deal on a day to be dubbed “Implementation Day,” which is expected to happen in early 2016.

Under the deal Iran has pledged to slash the number of centrifuges — which “enrich” uranium for peaceful uses but also for a bomb — from around 19,000 to 6,104, of which 5,060 will still enrich.

Iran also has to change the design of a new nuclear reactor being built at Arak so that it produces substantially less plutonium, the alternative to uranium in a nuclear weapon.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector disconnects the connections between the twin cascades for 20% uranium production at Natanz nuclear power plant south of Tehran on January, 20, 2014 (Photo credit: Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP)
An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector disconnects the connections between the twin cascades for 20% uranium production at Natanz nuclear power plant south of Tehran on January, 20, 2014 (Photo credit: Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP)

By “Implementation Day” the Arak reactor core has to have been made inoperable by filling the openings with concrete.

Plus, Iran must reduce its stock of low-enriched uranium from several tonnes to just 300 kilos. Iran is expected to ship this material to Russia.

The last IAEA update on November 18 said that Iran had removed some 4,500 centrifuges. However, there was no progress at Arak or on the uranium stock.

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