Two specks of uranium might determine whether or not the Iran nuclear deal succeeds or fails.
“The Obama administration has concluded that uranium particles discovered last year at a secretive Iranian military base likely were tied to the country’s past, covert nuclear weapons program,” the Wall Street Journal reported last month. The International Atomic Energy Agency first disclosed the discovery in a footnote to a key report last December.
The IAEA dismissed the matter, saying that the number of particles was too small to prove a connection to illicit activities. The U.S. government, however, has capabilities that may exceed those of the IAEA. As U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said last year, when the White House was pushing for the Iran deal, “We have plenty of evidence of exquisite environmental sampling that will reveal traces of nuclear work.” If President Barack Obama and his administration — which has repeatedly downplayed the importance of past Iranian nuclear weapons activities — is revealing its suspicions, there is probably something to them.
So why should two mites of uranium matter? There are three reasons.
First, the particles of anthropogenic uranium are prima facie evidence of nuclear material without safeguards in Iran. A larger quantity of uranium left them behind. IAEA verification rests on a complete and correct declaration of all relevant nuclear materials and activities, followed by inspection of those materials and activities by the agency to ensure that they are solely for peaceful purposes. Iran denied rather than disclosed any nuclear activity at Parchin. So the uranium never should have been there. The particles support the IAEA’s charge that Iran exploded a device using unenriched uranium to test manufacturing capabilities and weapons design. The agency, however, does not know how much uranium was used, whether or not it was part of a larger undisclosed stock, where it came from, or what has become of it. These are important gaps in the agency’s ability to verify Iran’s compliance, not only with its past obligations, but also with the current deal.
Second, the dispute over the particles undermines the Obama administration’s defense of a 24-day (or more) delay for access to suspect sites. Moniz justified the failure to secure anytime-anywhere inspections with a straw man: “There have been various analogies to throwing things down toilets etc. This is not so simple with nuclear materials.” He then referenced “exquisite” sampling capabilities.
In other words, never mind that the Iranians will have weeks to clean up a covert site before inspectors are admitted, because sampling and analysis will catch illicit activity anyway. Yet in the very first test case, in a place where the IAEA concluded that Iran’s concealment activities “seriously undermined the agency’s ability to conduct effective verification,” we are left with an ambiguous situation, in which Tehran contends that it did nothing wrong, the agency reports that the evidence is inconclusive, and the U.S. government sees weapons activity. For Iran’s purposes, cleanup does not have to be perfect, only good enough to create uncertainty.
Third, how this issue is resolved will determine how soon Tehran sheds some of the restrictions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under the deal, Iran will receive sanctions relief from the European Union and the United States, and all United Nations restrictions on ballistic missile or conventional military acquisitions will end after eight years, or when the IAEA reaches the so-called “broader conclusion” that all Iranian nuclear activities are peaceful and under safeguards. According to Olli Heinonen, the former former IAEA chief of safeguards, Tehran could actually use the broader conclusion to accelerate its nuclear weapons capabilities: “It will also stock up on key raw materials like carbon fiber and maraging steel, inventories of which will not be subject to continuous monitoring. Iran will then develop more advanced centrifuges and update its equipment manufacturing and testing capabilities, helping it more easily break out to nuclear-weapon capacity.”
What then should be done about the Parchin particles? First, the IAEA should take more samples at the site, and not under the unprecedented procedures during which Iranian officials were permitted to collect the swipes — an inspection selfie. It is unfathomable that the agency would not respond to ambiguity by collecting more data. Second, if the agency, like the U.S. government, concludes that the uranium particles are evidence of past weapons activity, it should attempt to locate and assess the size of any undeclared uranium stocks, and demand access to people, documents, equipment, and sites relevant to the investigation. The IAEA has an absolute obligation and authority to try to find unsafeguarded nuclear material, should the agency have reason to believe that such material exists. Third, until the IAEA is satisfied that Iran has made a complete and correct declaration of all of its nuclear materials and activities, the agency must refrain from reaching the broader conclusion that Tehran’s nuclear activities are peaceful.
The U.S. government and the IAEA must not let the issue of the Parchin particles drop. In matters atomic, even minutiae can be critical.
Image credit: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images
Correction: Olli Heinonen’s last name was originally published incorrectly due to an editing error.