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Challenges in Nuclear Verification: The IAEA’s Role on the Iranian Nuclear Issue

Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., USA


Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am very pleased to be here today at Brookings.

This Institution has a well-deserved reputation for the excellence of its research and the high calibre of its experts. For more than a century, you have made a major contribution to public policy, both within the United States and internationally.

It is a special pleasure to see Bob Einhorn, a distinguished veteran of arms control and non-proliferation, with whom I have worked for many years.

I have been asked to talk about the challenges of nuclear verification and, in particular, about the role of the IAEA with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme. Before talking about what the IAEA is and does, let me tell you what we are not.

We are not a political actor. We are not an international nuclear police force. We do not take sides.

The IAEA is an independent technical organisation within the UN family.

One of our core activities is to verify that countries are not diverting nuclear material from peaceful activities to make nuclear weapons. We collect and analyse all relevant information and provide factual, objective reports to our Board of Governors to facilitate its decision-making. The IAEA Statute states that the Director General is under the authority of, and subject to the control of, the Board of Governors.

Under the Statute, the IAEA’s role in nuclear verification is to “establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment [and] facilities…are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.”

In addition, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons requires all non-nuclear-weapon States to commit themselves to use nuclear material exclusively for peaceful purposes.

These countries – non-nuclear-weapon States under the NPT - are required to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and submit a declaration of all nuclear material and facilities to us. Our inspectors visit facilities to verify that the declarations made by countries are correct and they continuously follow up.

The IAEA safeguards system appeared to work well until the early 1990s.

However, the discovery of a secret nuclear weapons programme in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990/91, and developments with North Korea’s nuclear programme, showed that concentrating only on facilities declared to us by countries was not enough. We needed tools that would enable us to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a country. In response, our Member States approved the Model Additional Protocol in 1997.

When a country implements an additional protocol, the Agency acquires more tools to implement safeguards, including additional access to information, to people and to sites in that country. The additional protocol is essential for the IAEA to be able to conclude that all of a country’s nuclear material remains in exclusively peaceful activities. The number of States with additional protocols in force has grown steadily and now stands at 124. This is good news.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The world in which we implement safeguards today is very different from that of our founding fathers in 1957, as are the challenges we face.

New technology and modern communications have made it easier to access knowledge, materials and expertise that would have been much more restricted back then. That makes nuclear proliferation easier.

The number of nuclear facilities coming under IAEA safeguards continues to grow steadily – by 12 percent in the past five years alone. So does the amount of nuclear material to be safeguarded. It has risen by around 14 percent in that period.

IAEA resources are limited, demand from Member States for our services continues to grow and our budget is being squeezed. That means we must constantly find ways of working more effectively and more efficiently in all areas of our activities, including safeguards.

We have developed important new instruments, such as the additional protocol, as I mentioned. We also make increasing use of modern technology such as remote monitoring and satellite imagery. We have dramatically improved our analytical capabilities by building new safeguards laboratories outside Vienna.

Safeguards implementation continues to evolve, including through what we call the State-level approach. This involves considering a State’s nuclear activities and related technical capabilities as a whole, rather than focusing only on individual facilities. This helps us to keep the frequency and intensity of routine inspections for States to the minimum level necessary to draw credible safeguards conclusions.

If you are interested, I can come back to this issue later. The important thing to remember is that the State level approach is implemented strictly within the scope of existing safeguards agreements.  

I would also like to add that the assumption in the 1950s was that nuclear weapons would only be developed and possessed by governments. Today, there are concerns about the possibility of non-state actors developing nuclear explosive devices.

We have therefore become increasingly active in important related areas such as nuclear security, which involves helping to ensure that terrorists and other criminals do not obtain nuclear or other radioactive material. The IAEA is now playing the central role in enhancing global nuclear security.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The main safeguards issues on our agenda in recent years have concerned Iran, North Korea and Syria. These are very different cases. What they have in common is the fact that these countries have failed to fully implement their safeguard agreements with the IAEA and other relevant obligations. This makes it very difficult for us to do our job effectively.

As far as the Agency is concerned, the Iran story began in August 2002, when media reported that Iran was building a large underground nuclear-related facility in Natanz which not previously been declared to the Agency. Iran subsequently acknowledged its existence and it was put under safeguards.

Let me say at this point that it is vitally important that the IAEA and its Director General should be impartial. That means applying the same principles to all countries. For me, the fundamental principle is that all of the safeguards agreements which we conclude with our Member States should be implemented fully. So should other relevant obligations, such as resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.

When I became Director General in late 2009, I applied this principle to Iran. I felt that spelling out the issues with clarity was an essential first step towards resolving the problem. My quarterly reports from February 2010 onwards stated that nuclear material declared by Iran was not being diverted from peaceful purposes. But I also stated that Iran was not providing sufficient cooperation to enable the Agency to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran was in peaceful activities. I urged Iran to implement the Additional Protocol and clarify the issues relating to what have become known as possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme.

The next important question was how to approach these possible military dimensions. Our technical experts had spent years painstakingly and objectively analysing a huge quantity of information about that programme from a wide variety of independent sources, including from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself, as well as from a number of Member States.

After carefully reviewing the issue, I decided to present a detailed report in November 2011. In that report, I stated that the information assembled by the Agency was, overall, credible. It was consistent in terms of technical content, individuals and organizations involved, and time frames. The information indicated that Iran had carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicated that, prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities might still be ongoing.

I would like to be very clear on this issue, because there have been some misunderstandings: the IAEA has not said that Iran has nuclear weapons. We have not drawn conclusions from the information at our disposal about possible military dimensions to the Iranian nuclear programme. What we have said is that Iran has to clarify these issues because there is broadly credible information indicating that it engaged in activities of this nature. In other words, Iran has a case to answer.

In response to my report, both the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council adopted resolutions asking Iran to cooperate to clarify the issues relating to possible military dimensions in order to restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme.

On the basis of these resolutions, the Agency had talks with Iran over the next two years. However, virtually no progress was made. At times, we were going around in circles.

Late last year, we started to see some movement.

In November, I went to Tehran and signed a Framework for Cooperation with Iran under which it agreed to resolve all the outstanding issues, past and present. We agreed to take a step by step approach.

Initially, Iran implemented the practical measures which it agreed with the Agency under the Framework for Cooperation fairly well. However, since the summer of 2014, progress on implementing agreed measures has been limited. Two important practical measures, which should have been implemented two months ago, have still not been implemented. The Agency invited Iran to propose new practical measures for the next step of our cooperation, but it has not done so.

Clarifying issues relating to possible military dimensions is not an endless process. It could be done within a reasonable timeline, but, how far and how fast we can go depends very much on Iran’s cooperation. I have made clear that the Agency will provide an assessment to our Board of Governors after it obtains a good understanding of the whole picture concerning issues with possible military dimensions. It is then up to the Board to decide the future course of action.

As you may know, there are two tracks of negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue. One is the IAEA-Iran track, the other is the so-called P5-plus-1-and-Iran track, in which the IAEA is also involved. These six countries - China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States – agreed on a Joint Plan of Action with Iran in November 2013. The aim was to achieve “a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.”

All seven countries asked the IAEA to undertake monitoring and verification of voluntary measures to be implemented by Iran, which we are doing. The P5 plus 1 negotiations with Iran are continuing.

I should mention that Iran is still not implementing the additional protocol. This is contrary to the resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council. Implementation of the additional protocol by Iran is essential for the Agency to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in the country.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The current state of affairs is that Iran’s nuclear material under IAEA safeguards is in peaceful purposes, but we cannot provide assurance that all material in Iran is in peaceful purposes. In order to provide that assurance, Iran has to clarify the issues relating to possible military dimensions and implement the additional protocol.

What is needed now is concrete action on the part of Iran to resolve all the outstanding issues. I remain committed to working with Iran to restore international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme. But I repeat: this is not a never-ending process. It is very important that Iran fully implements the Framework for Cooperation - sooner rather than later.

The IAEA can make a unique contribution to resolving the Iran nuclear issue. But we cannot do this on our own. The sustained efforts of the international community are needed – as is Iran’s full cooperation with the IAEA to resolve all outstanding issues.

I will now be happy to take your questions.

Thank you


Last update: 25 Nov 2019

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