Before world powers meet with Iran for a second round of negotiations over the country’s nuclear activities in Baghdad on May 23, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sits down with Iran this week in Vienna. In a new Q&A, Mark Hibbs previews the IAEA talks and analyzes what it will take to end the Iran nuclear crisis and the role the IAEA needs to play. 


What’s at stake when the IAEA talks with Iran this week?

The IAEA will meet with Iran in Vienna on May 14-15 to address concerns that Iran has been working on nuclear weapons. Last November, the IAEA concluded after an eight-year investigation that Iran in a “structured program” involving Iran’s military organizations had “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

This week’s conclave follows upon two meetings held in Iran in January and February during which the IAEA raised the weapons allegations. Iran’s delegation will be led by its ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh; the IAEA group will be led by safeguards head Herman Nackaerts and by Rafael Grossi, the most senior aide to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

Expectations for the meeting at the IAEA are muted because earlier this year Iran refused the IAEA access to a site in Iran—the Parchin military complex—which the IAEA had anticipated Tehran would permit.

Why has Parchin figured prominently in the IAEA’s recent deliberations with Iran?

Iran frequently objects that the IAEA will not share with Tehran the information it has obtained about locations it wants to visit in the country. The IAEA replies that it cannot share information based on highly classified intelligence data provided by member states.

In January, after Iran had agreed to meet with the IAEA in Iran to discuss the allegations in its November report, the IAEA asked to visit Parchin, a site the IAEA had information on that was not based on sensitive intelligence data. The IAEA therefore anticipated that Iran would agree to the IAEA request.

Parchin was identified in the November report as the location of experiments using hemispherical shaped charges containing high explosives. In January 2005, six months after the initial request, Iran permitted the IAEA to visit one of four sectors at the site and only five buildings in that area, but inspectors then saw no evidence of nuclear-related activities. This time, the IAEA told Iran it wanted to see one specific building.

While the IAEA earlier this year viewed the intended visit to Parchin as a confidence-building measure, Iran in February refused to let the IAEA go there and offered instead to take inspectors to another site in an area called Marivan about which the IAEA had no hard information. The IAEA declined. Thereafter, Amano reported to the board of governors that the two visits to Iran had failed.

Parchin is believed to be less significant than other sites on the IAEA’s wish list, but some IAEA officials see Tehran’s refusal of access as a challenge to the IAEA’s primacy in setting the agenda for inspections, and for that reason the IAEA will continue to request access to that site as a matter of principle.

What does Iran want from the IAEA?

Iran wants a formal agreement that limits the IAEA’s right to ask follow up questions and establishes a closing deadline for the IAEA’s investigation. This is something that the IAEA should not provide, because it makes no sense to bind the parameters and duration of an investigation when the search may turn up new information requiring further probing.

In 2007, the IAEA and Iran negotiated a “work plan” to resolve issues that a year before had prompted United Nations Security Council sanctions. Some, but not all, of the then-specified issues have been clarified.

Since 2008, Iran has claimed that the UN sanctions resolutions are illegal in part because Iran has implemented the “work plan.” Last May, Iran proposed greater cooperation with the IAEA provided that the IAEA declares the “work plan” fulfilled. Beginning in June, Amano has told Iran that he is not prepared to do that, especially since the IAEA’s dossier supporting the weapons allegations has become thicker.

During the meetings in January and February, the two sides discussed modalities for a new agreement, but once again Iran demanded limits on the IAEA probe. Especially given evidence that Iran has in some cases scrubbed clean sites the IAEA wants to see—Kalaye Electric Company near Tehran in 2003, Lavizan-Shian before late 2004, and possibly Parchin in late 2004 and again recently—the IAEA should not compromise on this point.

What are the possible outcomes of the meeting?

The most optimistic result would be that Iran, following up on a meeting last month with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the so-called P5+1), would decide on a policy course of leveraging its political weight to get UN sanctions lifted, beginning by providing access to Parchin and agreeing to a new framework that doesn’t compromise the IAEA’s inspection rights. At the other end of the scale, Iran could again refuse access and insist on limiting the scope of the IAEA investigation, actions that should prompt Amano to negatively report to the board later this month.

What is the relationship between the IAEA-Iran meeting and the bigger diplomatic picture?

Independent of the IAEA’s third meeting this year with Iran, the P5+1 will meet with Iran for a second negotiation in Baghdad on May 23 to try to move forward toward a comprehensive solution.

Unlike his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, Amano since late 2009 has vowed to leave nuclear diplomacy with Iran in the hands of the IAEA board members and the Security Council, and concentrate on fulfilling the IAEA’s obligations—including vis-à-vis Iran—under the agency’s statute and its bilateral safeguards agreements. Because the IAEA unlike member states has no sanctions power, Amano has little political flexibility.

But that doesn’t mean the IAEA has no influence on the course of P5+1 diplomacy. After the conclusion of this week’s IAEA meeting with Iran, Amano will prepare a quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities for a board meeting scheduled to begin on June 4. That document may be written by the time the second round of talks takes place in Baghdad. If Amano reports then—as he did in February—that Iran once more spurned his engagement, the Baghdad meeting could be set back. This prospect may therefore influence how both Iran and the IAEA play their hands in Vienna.

Doesn’t Iran have to agree to let the IAEA inspect the Parchin site?

Since 2006 and as late as last November, resolutions passed by the IAEA board and the Security Council have urged Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol with the IAEA. Iran signed a protocol in 2003 but argues that it was never ratified. Implementation would permit the IAEA to request “complementary access” to Parchin and other sites the IAEA wants to inspect to pursue nuclear weapons allegations. But even without the Additional Protocol, under Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Amano has the right to request a “special inspection” to access sites that are not declared by Iran as hosting nuclear activities or nuclear materials.

So far, however, Amano like ElBaradei has not operated on the basis that Iran has an Additional Protocol in force. Nor has the IAEA requested a “special inspection.” Were the IAEA to request such an inspection this week, and were Iran to refuse it, that could prove fatal to P5+1 negotiations. In January, the IAEA asked Iran to allow at Parchin a “transparency visit” only, giving Iran the option of denying the request, which Iran has exercised.

Is Amano’s handling of Iran supported by IAEA member states and his staff?

Most member states have so far supported Amano’s actions on Iran. The IAEA’s controversial November report to the 35-member board, which included the twelve-page annex documenting the weapons allegations, was followed by a board resolution, opposed by just two states, which expressly “commended” Amano’s “efforts to implement” the IAEA’s safeguards agreement with Iran.

Because Amano’s decision to formally disclose the weapons allegations reversed ElBaradei’s policy of keeping the details under wraps, many observers had expected the reporting to unleash a storm of protest from the 118 members of the non-aligned movement, which has supported Iran’s right to enrich uranium and carry out nuclear research. That hasn’t happened, and in retrospect Amano’s decision to air the weapons dossier looks instead like he has been given credit for upholding the IAEA’s responsibilities.

Internally, however, there may be problems. Differences among senior staff have arisen over how the IAEA conducts verification in a few states in the Middle East. Some verification experts have faulted the IAEA’s tactical approach in making its request to get access to Parchin. More generally, since January several weighty board member states have criticized the IAEA’s choice of that site to probe the weapons allegations because other locations in Iran are more significant and more likely to reveal useful findings.

What would be the IAEA’s role in a negotiated settlement of the crisis with Iran?

P5+1 states and the IAEA board since 2006 have reiterated that Iran must cooperate with the IAEA in demonstrating that its nuclear program is wholly dedicated to peaceful use. It can be expected that any comprehensive settlement will therefore require Iran to implement its Additional Protocol. That would give the IAEA a stronger legal basis for getting access to sites, data, and personnel in Iran than is afforded by its safeguards agreement alone.

But because the IAEA’s information suggests that Iran’s military since the 1980s has been deeply involved in clandestine nuclear activities, Western states now negotiating with Iran may insist upon a role for the IAEA in Iran that goes beyond the Additional Protocol. As in other cases where the IAEA has implemented the protocol, in Iran the IAEA’s ultimate goal will be to make a “broader conclusion” about whether Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. Until that happens, the Iranian “nuclear crisis” cannot fully be resolved and not all nuclear sanctions against Iran may be lifted.

How important is the issue of Iran suspending uranium enrichment?

Very. Until now it has not been clear to all involved that a negotiated, comprehensive solution would permit Iran to enrich uranium at the end of the day. Many negotiators will now tell you that it is clear—Iran will enrich uranium. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s lobby organization in the United States, which backs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, acknowledges that, should Iran demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, Iran may resume uranium enrichment.

But before that happens, Iran will have to put its enrichment program on hold—the question is for how long. In July 2006, the Security Council, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, demanded that Iran “suspend all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.” This demand was reiterated by the Security Council in five successive resolutions, most recently in June 2010.

Prior to, during, and since the P5+1’s meeting with Iran in Istanbul last month, all six nations negotiating with Tehran have affirmed that Iran must suspend its uranium enrichment program as part of a step-by-step deal to arrive at a comprehensive settlement. Iran has so far refused to oblige, consistent with its position that the Security Council’s suspension order is illegal.

In an effort to restart diplomacy, Russia beginning in 2010 proposed a road map that included steps Tehran would have to take to lift UN sanctions. These steps included Iran suspending uranium enrichment, but Western powers objected that the suspension Russia called for—a few months—was too short. Some Western negotiators say that Iran should halt uranium enrichment for as long as it takes the IAEA to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is wholly peaceful.

But the Security Council didn’t define in fine print what “suspension” means, giving negotiators flexibility in setting the duration and other parameters, if Iran were to take steps significant enough to convince its counterparts that it will provide full transparency to the IAEA and verifiably foreswear activities related to nuclear weaponization.