On August 14, 2002, at a press conference in Washington, DC, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled Iranian opposition group, drew worldwide attention when it publicly accused Iran of clandestinely developing nuclear weapons. Alireza Jafarzadeh, then-U.S. media spokesperson for the NCRI, described two “top secret” nuclear facilities being constructed in Iran at Natanz and Arak under the guise of front companies involved in the procurement of nuclear material and equipment. Noting that media attention had focused on Iran’s publicly declared civilian facilities, Jafarzadeh claimed that “in reality, there are many secret nuclear programs at work in Iran without knowledge of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” the international body responsible for verifying and assuring compliance with safeguards obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Nearly 3 months before the NCRI’s press conference, the U.S. Government reportedly briefed the IAEA on Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities. The IAEA had received briefings from several member states since the early 1990s that indicated possible undeclared nuclear activities in Iran. Yet IAEA inspectors needed Iranian authorities to provide physical access to any suspected sites in order to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. The public revelations of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities in 2002 unleashed one of the most intensive and highly publicized inspections in the history of the IAEA. In the shadow of the political divisions wrought by the U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq, the IAEA Board of Governors—the Agency’s main policymaking body composed of 35 member states—delayed the decision to find Iran in non-compliance with its NPT safeguards agreement.

The process for determining non-compliance depends on the technical and legal findings of the IAEA Secretariat—the Agency’s technical arm—and the political judgments made by the IAEA Board. However, the lack of an established definition of non-compliance makes the decisionmaking process one of the most challenging tasks faced by the IAEA, which has a statutory obligation to report non-compliance to the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the General Assembly. Since the IAEA was first established in 1957, the Agency’s Board of Governors traditionally made its decisions based on a rule of consensus widely celebrated as the “Spirit of Vienna.” All previous safeguards violations were routinely reported as non-compliance by the IAEA to the UNSC (Iraq in 1991, Romania in 1992, and North Korea in 1993 and 1994). In the case of Iran, it took more than 2 years for the IAEA Board to reach a formal finding of non-compliance. This case study examines the IAEA’s approach to determining non-compliance with NPT safeguards agreements, as exemplified by past experience with Iran, and addresses the following questions: How did the IAEA decide to find Iran in non-compliance and refer the case to the UNSC? Who were the primary actors involved and how did they seek to advance their positions? How did the internal politics of the IAEA and changing geopolitical circumstances shape the Agency’s decisionmaking process?

This case study was originally published at the National Defense University's Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction.