#Hold Iran accountable for expelling nuclear inspectors

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear provocations continue to mount.

The clerical regime on Sept. 16 barred one-third of all International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from the country’s nuclear facilities. The organization’s director general, Rafael Grossi, said in a statement that Tehran’s move is “disproportionate and unprecedented” and “affects in a direct and severe way the ability of the IAEA to conduct effectively its inspections in Iran.” 

World powers must rectify their feckless approach and hold Tehran accountable for its nuclear misconduct. They must censure Iran at the next IAEA Board of Governors meeting on Oct. 2, and provide a deadline for Tehran to reinstate the inspectors. If the regime fails to comply, the West should enact the snapback of UN sanctions on Iran. 

If Washington and its European partners were alarmed by the regime’s latest nuclear provocation, they didn’t show it. The U.S. and the E3 — France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — issued what amounted to a peep in an underwhelming joint statement. The U.S. proceeded to authorize the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets in a hostages-for-prisoners deal, on top of the $10 billion Washington already unfroze this summer. Europe, for its part, stuck to its position that it won’t reinstate UN missile, drone, and arms sanctions against Iran, despite their expiration on Oct. 18. 

At the Sept. 11 to 15 IAEA board meeting, 63 countries, including the U.S. and the E3, called in a joint statement for Tehran to comply with a separate IAEA investigation into the regime’s secret nuclear weapons work, whose status remains unknown. The U.S. and E3 also issued a separate statement hinting at formal censure of Iran should it not comply, garnering the regime’s ire. One day later, Iran banned all French and German IAEA inspectors. 

As a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran must submit to regular IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities and work with the IAEA on implementing safeguards against diversion of nuclear assets to an atomic weapons program. The newly banned inspectors, Grossi explained, had “unique knowledge in enrichment technology.” IAEA monitoring at sensitive facilities will be curtailed as a result of Iran’s move, spreading agency inspectors thin and affecting the frequency of inspections.  

Tehran has reached a worrying nuclear status overall. It now possesses enough enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade material for 10 nuclear weapons in under four months, with additional months required to fabricate fuel for nuclear devices. Moreover, Iran’s ability to delay IAEA access to nuclear facilities — or to “sneak out” of its nonproliferation commitments in order to make nuclear weapons in secret — becomes more viable by the day, particularly as the regime reduces inspector eyes on its activities.  

Since the start of President Joe Biden’s term in office and his administration’s effort to engage the regime on nuclear constraints and improving relations, Iran has dragged the West along in negotiations, incrementally reduced IAEA monitoring, and taken further steps toward the nuclear threshold. Now, the administration is lifting pressure on Tehran in return for illusory nuclear concessions as Iran continues its nuclear march and other malign activities. Last week, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi even vowed to avenge the 2020 killing of Iranian paramilitary commander Qassem Soleimani — an apparent threat to assassinate former U.S. officials. 

Notably, the West’s two statements at the IAEA lacked the weight of a formal censure by a majority of the IAEA board’s 35 nations. Such resolutions can, for example, impose deadlines for compliance with board demands or refer countries to the UN Security Council for countermeasures such as sanctions. Paradoxically, Washington and the E3 feared Tehran would take drastic action if they pursued formal censure. 

But lack of censure or strong responses to Tehran’s activities is precisely what has emboldened the regime to go further. Grossi pointedly noted in a recent press conference a “decrease in interest” by member states in holding Iran accountable. 

Washington and the E3 must change their current path, which risks upending international security and the nonproliferation regime led by the IAEA.  

At the Oct. 2 IAEA Board of Governors meeting, America and the E3 must act in concert to pass a resolution censuring Iran and demanding Tehran reinstate inspectors. The resolution should state that if Iran fails to comply within a week, the parties will act at the UN Security Council before Oct. 18 to start the 30-day process of snapping back multilateral sanctions against Iran. These sanctions remain suspended by the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, but any of the E3 countries has the right, as remaining members of the accord, to reimpose them. Importantly, Russia and China could not block the snapback. 

Snapping back UN sanctions in response to Tehran’s nuclear malfeasance would have the added benefit of reinstating the UN missile, drone, and arms embargos, which Iran has contravened for years and is now violating further by arming Russia against Ukraine. It would also reimpose international demands that Iran halt further uranium enrichment. 

Iran has shown that it is not interested in fulfilling its nonproliferation obligations as it continues taking steps toward the bomb. The West must act now before Tehran, with impunity, builds and tests its first nuclear weapon. 

Ambassador Jackie Wolcott was the U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2018 to 2021. Andrea Stricker is deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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