Since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded in 2003 that Iran had systematically concealed activities that it was required to report to the agency, two tracks have been used to respond to Iran’s challenge: an IAEA track and a diplomatic track.

During the last nine years the spotlight has gradually shifted away from the IAEA track because Iran limited its cooperation with the agency’s investigation of past activities, while sustaining its uranium enrichment and heavy water reactor programs in defiance of orders from the United Nations Security Council to suspend these programs. And since late 2009, when Yukiya Amano succeeded Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the IAEA, Amano has taken a lower diplomatic profile in the Iran crisis, confining the IAEA to the core mission of investigating and safeguarding the Iranian program while leaving to member states the task of negotiating a comprehensive diplomatic solution.

The diplomatic track is now in high gear. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the IAEA’s role in resolving the crisis will be secondary. In fact, the IAEA track will prove absolutely essential to making the diplomatic track a success, because it will test Iran’s sincerity in reaching an agreement with the six powers (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) negotiating with Tehran.

Beginning June 4 in Vienna, Amano will once again update the IAEA’s board of governors on the agency’s ongoing Iran probe. Two weeks later in Moscow, the six powers and Iran will meet for the third time in as many months to seek a diplomatic route out of the crisis. The two tracks are separate, but doubts about Tehran’s credibility can only be overcome if Iran permits the IAEA to effectively verify its commitments to peaceful use.

IAEA Link to the Diplomatic Track

The IAEA’s relationship with Iran is bilateral, following from the agency’s safeguards agreement with Iran under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obligates the IAEA to verify that Iran’s nuclear activities are dedicated to peaceful use. Beginning in 2003, when the IAEA confirmed media reports that Iran had constructed nuclear facilities it did not declare to the agency and then learned that Iran had failed to declare uranium processing activities and uranium imports, the IAEA intensified this independent track with Iran.

In addition, the IAEA was also tasked by its board of governors to shed light on Iran’s past and current nuclear activities. Under the IAEA statute, these findings may serve as the basis for decisionmaking by the board of governors and, thereafter, the UN Security Council. Beginning in 2006, on the basis of the secretariat’s reports to the board and followed by IAEA board referrals, the Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran and enlarged the IAEA’s role in Iran to monitor its compliance with Security Council resolutions.

Iran has tried to leverage its cooperation with the IAEA to weaken sanctions, while the board and the Security Council are counting on the IAEA Department of Safeguards to provide a reliable assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities upon which it can base its judgments and conduct diplomacy with Iran. And since 2003 the IAEA has provided such an assessment, despite the severe limitations imposed by Tehran on the IAEA’s access to information.

In the aftermath of an IAEA report to the board last November bringing forth evidence that Iran engaged in research and development for a nuclear explosive device, additional sanctions from the United States and the European Union against Iran will enter into force in a few weeks. In parallel, Iran and the six powers are meeting to scope out a possible comprehensive resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis.

The IAEA’s reconstruction of the historical development of Iran’s nuclear program is needed to provide the international community a benchmark to assess unresolved allegations that Iran has engaged in nuclear weapons-related activities. At the same time, the IAEA’s ongoing monitoring of current Iranian nuclear activities is crucial to verify that Iran does not cross the line into clandestine actions that are not permitted by Iran’s safeguards agreement.

IAEA Track

After the IAEA found that Iran had failed to declare numerous nuclear activities for eighteen years, Iran and the IAEA signed in 2003 an Additional Protocol for safeguards, an agreement giving the IAEA more access to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran also agreed—as had many other NPT states before—to a 1991 safeguards provision called “Code 3.1” which required states to inform the IAEA about new nuclear facilities as soon as it was decided to build them. But in 2006 and 2007, respectively, Iran suspended implementation of the Additional Protocol (which it never ratified) and Code 3.1. Meanwhile, the IAEA was probing Iran’s nuclear history, and finding evidence it deemed credible that Iran had engaged in secret military research related to nuclear weapons since the late 1980s.

In 2007, the IAEA agreed to a “work plan” sought by Iran to eventually conclude the IAEA’s investigation. Since 2008, Iran has claimed it has fulfilled the work plan and, therefore, that Security Council sanctions are groundless and that the IAEA’s role should be limited to routine safeguards on activities that Iran has formally declared to the agency. Since 2011 Iran has promised the IAEA it would increase cooperation if the IAEA declares the 2007 work plan fulfilled. So far, Amano has not been willing to do this, especially because Iran has not cleared up allegations that it has worked on development of nuclear explosives.

This year, in parallel with efforts by the six powers to restart diplomacy with Iran, the IAEA has again stepped up bilateral dialogue with Iran over safeguards implementation. On May 22, Amano announced that the IAEA is close to reaching an agreement with Iran over a “structured approach document on which we have been working [with Iran] since January.”

Conclusion of a new IAEA agreement with Iran would greatly empower the diplomatic process—provided that the IAEA does not sign away its rights to rigorously investigate any leads that Iran is carrying out undeclared nuclear activities, including research and development for nuclear weapons development.

Since February, Iran has proposed a new agreement, which allows Iran to address outstanding issues one by one until remaining boxes are checked and without imposing a deadline for Iran to respond to IAEA requests for access to locations, individuals, and documents. If Amano concedes these points, it will not be possible for the IAEA to assure the world in a reasonable period of time that its understanding of the scope of Iran’s program is comprehensive.

If Amano instead reaches an agreement with Iran that ensures that the IAEA can effectively investigate allegations of past and current activities that would provide the six powers and Iran a sound basis to agree to a plan permitting the step-by-step lifting of all nuclear sanctions as the IAEA does its work.

Iran will not agree to a negotiated solution on the basis that it must forfeit its uranium enrichment program. But for the Security Council to permit Iran to enrich uranium without facing continued sanctions, it must be confident that Iran has no undeclared nuclear activities—especially for processing nuclear material—and is not working on the development of nuclear weapons.

Looking Back and Ahead

To support a diplomatic solution to the crisis, the IAEA must look both backward and forward.

The IAEA must look backward to reconstruct with Iran’s cooperation the complete history of Iran’s nuclear program, including activities that Amano reported to the board last November as pertaining to a “possible military dimension.” The six powers negotiating with Iran could support the IAEA by giving Iran immunity from sanctions for any previous undeclared nuclear activity which Iran discloses to the agency.

The IAEA must also look forward because, once Iran and the six powers reach agreement on a roadmap for lifting sanctions, the IAEA must enforce the will of its member states to make sure that Iran remains exclusively committed to the peaceful use of the atom.

The six states negotiating with Iran should spell out that a comprehensive settlement must include ratification of the Additional Protocol and the acknowledgement that it is already legally committed to implement the new Code 3.1. But in view of Iran’s track record of deception and failure to declare nuclear activities to the IAEA, these steps will not be enough to give the international community sufficient confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is wholly peaceful. In September 2005, ElBaradei told the board of governors that that the IAEA needed additional powers: “Given Iran’s past concealment efforts over many years, transparency measures should extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol and include access to individuals, documentation related to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military owned workshops, and research and development locations.”

Because Iran has set up centrifuge enrichment plants that were made known to the IAEA before Iran itself declared them to the agency, and because Iran’s capabilities to build centrifuges are not fully understood by the IAEA, the six powers negotiating with Iran now need confidence that Iran will not have a hidden centrifuge production capability in the future. The Additional Protocol would obligate Iran to make known to the IAEA its capabilities to manufacture centrifuges, but only at locations that Iran declares to the agency. The IAEA will need more authority to pursue information that Iran has undeclared capabilities to build and operate enrichment plants. That authority should be expressed in a separate, complementary protocol agreed to between the IAEA and Iran.

Amano’s vows since 2009 to refocus the IAEA on its technical mandate should not imply that the IAEA’s role in supporting a diplomatic resolution of the Iran crisis can be modest and secondary. To the contrary, it will be absolutely critical.

The IAEA statute provides a beacon for the IAEA to conduct effective and wide-ranging verification of Iran’s NPT peaceful use commitment. Article XII says that IAEA inspectors “shall have access at all times to all places and data and to any person… as necessary… to account for source and special fissionable materials supplied and fissionable products and to determine whether there is compliance with the undertaking against use in furtherance of any military purpose… and with any other conditions prescribed in the agreement between the agency and the state or states concerned.” Were the IAEA and Iran to conclude a new agreement expressly giving the IAEA this authority, it might suffice to ensure that the Iran nuclear crisis would have a diplomatic and peaceful resolution.

Iran’s challenge to the IAEA must not become a precedent for others to follow. An IAEA agreement with Iran that permits the agency to do the needed work to open the way for a negotiated roadmap for lifting sanctions could serve as a model for future conflict resolution with other states, first and foremost with North Korea and Syria.