Iran Is Accused of Hiding Suspected Nuclear Activity

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, which is facing new accusations that it hid nuclear activity.EPA, via Shutterstock

Iran Is Accused of Hiding Suspected Nuclear Activity

The United States and the big European powers came together to declare they had serious concerns about Tehran’s failure to allow inspectors into two locations.

By David E. Sanger and Lara Jakes

June 19, 2020, 2:47 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — International nuclear inspectors and the United States accused Iran on Friday of hiding suspected nuclear activity, the first time in more than eight years that Tehran has been accused of obstructing inspections, paving the way for a new confrontation with Western powers.

The accusation came in a resolution passed by the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog, after its new director general, Rafael Grossi, reported that Iranian officials had repeatedly blocked inspectors and “sanitized” a site they wanted to visit beginning last July.

It was the first time that the big European powers — Britain, France and Germany — have sided with the Trump administration on a major Iran issue since splitting with President Trump on his decision more than two years ago to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the administration of former President Barack Obama.

The tersely worded resolution, running just over one page, noted “serious concern” that Iran had refused to allow inspectors into two locations and was unwilling to clearly answer questions about its “possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities.”

Russia and China both voted against the resolution in a vote in Vienna, leading Christopher Ford, a top nuclear official in the State Department, to accuse the two countries of acting as “protector and enablers” of the Iranian effort to restart its nuclear program.

“What is happening here is that while everyone was staring at the J.C.P.O.A., new safeguards problems have arisen in a very different lane,” Mr. Ford told journalists in Washington on Friday, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal.

He added: “Whatever disagreements there may still be about the J.C.P.O.A. — and I don’t doubt that there are some — the whole world has an interest in coming together now to protect the integrity of the global system of I.A.E.A. safeguards that everybody has relied upon to detect or prevent the diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes for generations, in countries all around the world.”

For Mr. Trump, the announcement on Friday provided cover should he choose to intensify pressure on Iran in the midst of the presidential election season. But with memories still strong of demands by former President George W. Bush that Iraq open up to inspections in 2002, only to later discover that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction under development, there would likely be strong domestic and international objections to any threats to compel access to the sites.

In this case, the United States would have a difficult time proving that Iran is racing to build a bomb anytime soon.

Under the 2015 agreement, Iranian officials shipped 97 percent of their existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country. And the nuclear agency’s latest assessment of Iran’s enrichment activities concludes that while it is violating the limits imposed in the 2015 accord, it would still take months to fashion its uranium stockpile into something that could be used to produce a single nuclear weapon. It also would take months or years more to produce the weapon.

The vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency came as no surprise to the Iranians, who have been jousting with inspectors over whether they are required to provide access under its agreements for nuclear transparency.

Ahead of the vote, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned on Thursday that a resolution by the international body would “ruin” prospects for what he described as an “agreeable solution.”

He also accused enemies of the nuclear deal of conspiring with international inspectors who had audited more Iranian nuclear sites “over the last five years than in I.A.E.A. history.”

“We’ve nothing to hide,” Mr. Zarif wrote on Twitter.

Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran policy, called that claim laughable. “If only that were true,” he said.

The issue is not how many sites inspectors have visited but which ones. Several that were previously unknown were identified after a bold raid on Tehran in early 2018 where agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency broke into a warehouse and seized thousands of long-hidden files about Iran’s early nuclear efforts, some stretching back nearly two decades.

Since then, the Israelis have shared some — but not all — of the findings with international inspectors, including the location of one major site, which Israeli officials called the Abadeh Nuclear Weapons Development Site. Experiments using conventional explosives are believed to have been conducted there.

When inspectors demanded access last summer, some buildings at the site were razed, satellite photographs showed. The inspectors still have not been able to visit.

Perhaps recalling the embarrassment of the Iraq experience, American officials have been careful to cite no evidence of their own, and simply to quote from the findings of the I.A.E.A., which had refused to go along with the Bush administration’s assessments of Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

According to American officials, classified intelligence assessments produced by the United States have been far less declarative about how close Iran might be to nuclear “breakout” — the time it would take to produce a single nuclear weapon.

Officials at the C.I.A., the State Department and the Energy Department all have agreed that the time period has dropped to under a year, though they each have different estimates. Keeping it at a year or more was the goal of the 2015 agreement, and the Iranians did not appear to have violated that until after Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement and reimposed devastating economic sanctions against Tehran.

Mr. Ford said it was not clear exactly what nuclear materials Iran is believed to have hidden, nor their significance. “That’s what the world is waiting to find out,” he said. “If there really is nothing to conceal here, they need to come clean.”

Mr. Trump and other officials have made no threats about what might happen — or might not — if Iran continues to block access. Iran is required to allow inspectors into sites under a provision of I.A.E.A. agreements called the “Additional Protocol.” Iran has never ratified that, but largely abided by its terms as long as the United States remained part of the nuclear accord.

Mr. Grossi, a longtime nuclear official who took over as director general of the organization last year, is considered more hard-line than his predecessor on nations that would flout the inspection agreements. “There are no exceptions,’’ he said at the I.A.E.A. meeting.

Mr. Hook said that Iran’s refusal would increase its “diplomatic isolation,’’ a line that officials have used, to little effect, back to the Bush administration. So far, European officials have shown no interest in elevating the issue to the United Nations Security Council, where Russia and China would undoubtedly block action.

“Iran has a choice: It can answer the I.A.E.A.’s questions and comply with the legitimate requests for access, let inspectors travel freely and be transparent about its activity,” Mr. Hook said. “Or Iran can take its current path of stonewalling and deception.”

David E. Sanger is a national security correspondent. In a 36-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.” @SangerNYT • Facebook

Lara Jakes is a diplomatic correspondent based in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Over the past two decades, Ms. Jakes has reported and edited from more than 40 countries and covered war and sectarian fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank and Northern Ireland. @jakesNYT

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