With the initial Iran Deal done, we are now looking forward to its implementation and verification. That means that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have more work to do over the next six months. But what, exactly, will it be doing?

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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Most of the IAEA activities called for by the Joint Plan of Action appear to be fully consistent with things the IAEA is doing now, including in Iran. IAEA monitoring of centrifuge production will break new ground and may require an approach that will not offend other uranium-enriching countries. It isn’t clear why the agreement includes the provision for daily inspections at Iran’s enrichment plants. In any case, it would appear that the IAEA has the authority to move forward in doing the needed verification under the agreement.

The Joint Commission

The Preamble of the Joint Plan of Action sets forth that “the IAEA [will be] responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures” called for by Iran and the powers. The deal establishes a Joint Commission that will consist of representatives from the powers and Iran to “monitor the implementation of… near-term measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”

What will be the specific tasks of the Joint Commission? Some participants in discussions with the IAEA claim to know that the Joint Commission’s members will concern themselves primarily with sanctions-related issues, leaving nuclear verification to the IAEA, regardless of whatever may be implied by the above reference to a cooperative relationship between the Joint Commission and the Vienna agency, which is not spelled out in the text. The IAEA is not a party to the Iran Deal, and it is not a member of the Joint Commission. If media reports are correct, however, the IAEA will attend an initial meeting of the Joint Commission early next week. By then at the latest, the IAEA, Iran, and the powers must know what is in store for the IAEA in dealing with the Joint Commission. If it is intended that the Joint Commission will work closely with the IAEA, there must be an understanding to protect confidentiality of information. Beyond that, any Joint Commission participation in any IAEA verification activities in Iran would pose serious legal and confidentiality issues.

Enhanced Monitoring

The text of the Joint Plan of Action says this about the IAEA’s role under the rubric “enhanced monitoring”:

Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • Provision of specified information to the IAEA, including information on Iran’s plans for nuclear facilities, a description of each building on each nuclear site, a description of the scale of operations for each location engaged in specific nuclear activities, information on uranium mines and mills, and information on source material. This information would be provided within three months of the adoption of these measures. 
  • Submission of an updated DIQ [Design Information Questionnaire] for the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40, to the IAEA. 
  • Steps to agree with the IAEA on conclusion of the Safeguards Approach for the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40. 
  • Daily IAEA inspector access when inspectors are not present for the purpose of Design Information Verification, Interim Inventory Verification, Physical Inventory Verification, and unannounced inspections, for the purpose of access to offline surveillance records, at Fordow and Natanz.
  • IAEA inspector managed access to:
    • centrifuge assembly workshops;
    • centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities; and uranium mines and mills.

The first and the last of the above points appear to follow from the Framework for Cooperation, which Iran and the IAEA signed in Tehran on November 11. The Annex to that agreement specifically mentions only two locations: the Gchine mine and the heavy water production plant located adjacent to the IR-40 reactor under construction. The IAEA will visit the heavy water production plant on Sunday. But that visit is unrelated to the steps called for in the Joint Plan of Action.

It is understood that the IAEA will need more resources–personnel and money–to do the verification work called for under the Joint Plan of Action. But the amounts need not be very great, since most of the work the IAEA will be asked to do follows from its application of routine safeguards at declared installations in Iran. Much of the scope of work itself would appear to be well within the IAEA’s existing competencies and routine activities, including in Iran:

  • At Iran’s Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz and the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) enrichment plants, the IAEA could without difficulty, using its existing inspection regime with some extra inspection activities, verify that Iran has halted all enrichment above 5% and dismantled the connections necessary to enrich to above 5% U-235.
  • The IAEA could verify the downblending of Iran’s inventory of 20%-enriched uranium at PFEP and maybe also at FFEP. At the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz it would verifiy that the UF6 is converted to oxide. Additional inspections may be required to meet the six-month timetable.
  • With some extra inspection activity, the IAEA could without difficulty verify that no additional centrifuges are being installed and that designated installed centrifuge capacity at both enrichment plants is idle.
  • The IAEA can verify that the IR-40 is not operating, and that Iran is not making or testing fuel, or installing equipment at the reactor. The IAEA can carry out inspections for this purpose at the Arak site, at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), and at a critical facility.
  • The IAEA can confirm that it has no information that Iran is not violating its agreement not to build a reprocessing plant for the IR-40. This issue should not be a problem under the agreement. If Iran were to inform the IAEA it is constructing a hot cell facility, the IAEA would in any case have to inspect it quickly to verify design information.
  • The same applies for construction of any new uranium enrichment facilities in Iran.
  • It should be possible for the IAEA to obtain information about Iran’s mining and milling activities, as well as about heavy water production, during the next six months.
  • Ditto for long-sought design information verification (DIV), more frequent inspector access, and provision of key data, consistent with the modified Code 3.1 and the Additional Protocol, for the IR-40 reactor.

Problem Areas

A few activities that the Joint Plan of Action calls upon the IAEA to perform do raise some potential issues.

The inventory of uranium enriched to 3.5% U-235: Iran has committed to halt progress in the growth of this stockpile. Iran must not increase the inventory such that the amount at the end of six months is not greater than at the beginning, and Iran must convert any newly-enriched uranium from UF6 to oxide. The IAEA can verify this at the FEP/PFEP and FFEP using its established inspection regime. But the six-month timeline may mean that the IAEA should perform an interim physical inventory verification (PIV) at these installations near the end of the six-month period.

Verifying Iran’s compliance on centrifuge production: This action is new and requires additional resources and agreement with Iran and the powers over what it entails. The IAEA is not doing this in other countries with centrifuge enrichment programs. It is possible that enriching states–the members of the Almelo Treaty, France, Russia, China, Brazil, Japan, perhaps even the U.S.–would not want to see the IAEA expand its authority into centrifuge production monitoring, in part for nonproliferation and intellectual property reasons. A “black box” approach to this challenge in Iran may therefore be the answer.

Daily inspections at Natanz and Fordo: Iran has committed to provide inspectors daily access at these facilities to ensure comprehensive monitoring. It isn’t clear why. Does the IAEA want to use this provision to increase the frequency of its inspections? If so, then the agency will have to work out the logistics required.

IAEA safeguards aficionados will tell you that, in safeguards terminology, “daily presence” means “continuous inspection”–a notion which was introduced for use at reprocessing plants, where significant quantities of material are constantly flowing. There’s lots of material flowing at enrichment plants, too, but the amounts are by comparison small; the IAEA only needs to look at the feed, product, and tails to do a material balance at the plant.  The enriched uranium product is collected in cylinders that fill up slowly and are detached from the process when full. What is of safeguards significance is how much and what material is in the product cylinders and where are they stored. (There is also the issue of undeclared feed and take-off points to reckon with.) So the question is whether the IAEA really needs “continuous inspection” to ensure against undeclared movement of product cylinders. The IAEA doesn’t really need 24/7 personnel presence in at least some enrichment plants operating today. Having inspectors in the plant all the time might make the window of opportunity for a diversion smaller, but the marginal value may be very limited.

The IAEA’s response to this point in the Joint Plan of Action may depend on the specific design of the enrichment plants in Iran. At Russian centrifuge plants, some settings which would be diversion-critical are made in the control room and the change would take just 15 minutes to accomplish. At Urenco plants, the same operations would require making hardware adjustments in the piping in centrifuge cascades.

IAEA Resources

Right now, the IAEA is spending a lot of money on safeguards in Iran–US $12,256,000 in 2012.  That’s more than for any other IAEA member state except Japan. The lion’s share of this amount pays for activities related to the IAEA’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear program under mandates from the IAEA board of governors and the U.N. Security Council–not routine inspections at declared facilities. Routine safeguards are comparatively inexpensive. Like Iran, the Netherlands has a large uranium enrichment plant and one power reactor. Routine safeguarding of nuclear activities in the Netherlands, however, last year cost only $1,888,000.

At any one time, the IAEA probably has no more than about four or five personnel on the ground in Iran doing safeguards. A few more–certainly not 100 or even a score–may be needed to fulfil the IAEA’s expanded mission under the Joint Plan of Action.

The same goes for the money that will be needed. This will likely be a small fraction of the total current safeguards cost in Iran. Since the IAEA passed its 2014 budget at the General Conference three months ago, the easiest solution would be for member states–most logically the six powers themselves–to agree to pay the costs under an extrabudgetary program. In the past some states have objected to the growth of extrabudgetary funding to cover the costs of IAEA safeguards. But it is not anticipated that this concern will stand in the way of funding verification under the Joint Plan of Action because most states on the IAEA board–on the basis of statements they made during the board meeting last week–clearly support the results of Iran’s diplomacy with the six.

The IAEA’s Authority 

Does the IAEA have the authority to do the work? Right after the Iran deal was closed in Geneva, questions in Vienna arose about that because, as I have said above, the IAEA is not a party to this agreement. The agreement itself is based on voluntary commitments by Iran and the six powers–not legal obligations.

As of last week’s board meeting, it wasn’t clear how the IAEA would proceed. Director General Yukiya Amano had proposed internally convening an extraordinary board meeting pertaining to the IAEA’s response to the Joint Plan of Action. Less clear last week was whether the IAEA would inform the board of its intentions or instead seek its formal approval.

In any case, it would appear that the agency has the authority go do the work which Iran and the powers assign to it under the agreement, as Article III A. 5 of the IAEA Statute tells us:

The Agency is authorized… to establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information made available by the Agency or at its request or under its supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose; and to apply safeguards, at the request of the parties, to any bilateral or multilateral arrangement, or at the request of a State, to any of that State’s activities in the field of atomic energy.

PMD Reporting

The Joint Plan of Action says that the IAEA and the Joint Commission are to cooperate to “facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern” but it does not make specific reference to “Possible Military Dimensions” in Iran’s nuclear program, which has been the subject of IAEA formal reporting to the board of governors since November 2011. The IAEA-Iran Framework for Cooperation likewise states that Iran will “resolve all present and past issues.”

Iran has not provided the IAEA answers to any key PMD-related questions since 2009. It is unlikely that all of these questions will be answered during the next six months. How much information the Iran gives to the IAEA will no doubt be subject to negotiation during this period along the lines of what the IAEA and Iran agreed upon on November 11 in Tehran. At the end of a year, assuming that six months will not suffice to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Iran conundrum, perhaps the biggest challenge will then appear: If we assume that Iran implements all other conditions of the Joint Plan of Action, save divulging what may be compromising details about its previous nuclear activities, how much about Iran’s most sensitive nuclear past must the IAEA know for the six powers to make a deal with Iran looking into the future?

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.