The International Atomic Energy Agency's Decision to Find Iran in Non-Compliance, 2002–2006

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Op-Ed National Defense University
The public revelations of Iran's clandestine nuclear activities in August 2002 unleashed one of the most intensive and highly publicized inspections in the history of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
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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.

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In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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