The United Nations atomic agency expressed “serious concern” Friday about Iran’s failure to cooperate with its probe into undeclared nuclear material in the country, adding to calls from opponents of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran to kill off that agreement.
In two reports sent to member states by the International Atomic Energy Agency, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, the Vienna-based organization said Iran had failed to give its inspectors access to two sites the agency wanted to visit. The agency also said Iran didn’t answer questions about the use of possible undeclared nuclear material in the early 2000s and what had happened to it since.
The agency recorded another big jump in Iran’s nuclear-fuel stockpile, far above the levels permitted under the 2015 pact. Iran has reduced its compliance with the nuclear deal in response to sweeping U.S. sanctions. The Trump administration has called for its European allies—Britain, France and Germany—to exit from the agreement and work with Washington on a new tougher accord with Tehran.
In Friday’s reports, IAEA for the first time provided significant detail on the questions it was asking Iran and the sites it wanted to visit. Taken together, the information suggests Tehran had been working seriously on a nuclear test or nuclear device in the early 2000s and failed to declare material related to that work. There is no evidence it is currently doing so.
Western officials have long suspected that Tehran had an active nuclear-weapons program in the early 2000s. The IAEA said in a 2015 report that Iran likely had such a program up until 2003. However, experts have said evidence has since emerged—including in information provided by Iran’s rival, Israel—to suggest that the weapons program was more advanced than previously thought. Last year, following an Israeli tip, the agency found undeclared nuclear material at a site in the outskirts of Tehran.
“The Agency notes with serious concern that, for over four months, Iran has denied access to the Agency…to two locations and, for almost a year, has not engaged in substantive discussions to clarify Agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities in Iran,” one of the reports said.
The U.S. has demanded Iran clarify questions about its past nuclear work. American and Israeli officials have argued that Tehran’s failure to open up about its past activities, as well as its hoarding of a nuclear archive and material, is intended to help the country develop nuclear weapons in future, once the restrictions in the 2015 nuclear deal start to expire.
“We now have confirmation that Iran is hiding undeclared nuclear sites and materials, which have been deliberately concealed from the world despite a nuclear deal built on the promise of full disclosure of nuclear activities. All responsible nations must hold Iran accountable,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington-based think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates for a tougher stance toward Iran, and until recently a White House official.
A State Department spokesman declined to address the contents of the reports, as they haven’t yet been made public.
The U.S. government is “deeply concerned about Iran’s ongoing refusal to cooperate with the IAEA regarding possible undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran,” he said.
If Iran fails to answer the IAEA’s questions, the issue could be sent up to the U.N. Security Council, which has previously imposed sanctions on Iran. However, permanent members of the security council Russia and China have publicly played down the significance of Iran’s past nuclear work.
The agency said it has been stonewalled by on three sets of issues. One is the possible presence of an undeclared metal disk made of natural uranium between 2002-3 at a location that was later largely destroyed, and the question of where it is now. The agency also wanted answers about the possible use and storage of undeclared nuclear material, where explosives testing might have taken place in 2003 in relation to neutron detectors. The agency noted Iran appeared to start cleansing the site in July 2019.
The suspected work on a uranium metal disk, which could be used as a nuclear weapon component, and on neutrons—which are used to trigger a nuclear implosion—point to Iranian work on a neutron initiator for a nuclear weapons test or nuclear weapons device, two diplomats said.
Iran also had provided no answers on questions related to the possible use and storage of undeclared nuclear material at a location in the early 2000s related to processing or converting uranium ore. The diplomats said this might have been related to Iran’s search for uranium that it could use in an undeclared enrichment program at the time.
The IAEA also reported that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has grown by around 50% since February to 1,572 kilograms. That puts Iran’s stockpile of the nuclear fuel far above the limit of 202.8 kilograms stipulated in the 2015 nuclear accord. The material hasn’t been enriched beyond 4.5%, however, making it far below weapons grade.
Nuclear experts say that with 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, Iran would likely have enough material to fuel a single bomb once the material is further enriched, a process some experts believe could take as little as three months.
The agency also reported Iran informed it of a new breach of the 2015 accord on June 1. That involves the setting up of a new cascade of centrifuges—machines to enrich uranium—at the so-called Pilot project at Iran’s Natanz facility. That would allow Iran to further speed its uranium production.
Photo: The IAEA says it hasn’t received clarification about Tehran’s possible past work in the early 2000s on uranium material. – LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS