US questions Iran’s assent to non-proliferation pact amid inspections

Washington is challenging Tehran's commitment to global non-proliferation agreements, citing traces of uranium found at an Iranian site.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) listens during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council held during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters, New York, US, Sept. 26, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.
Jack Detsch

Jack Detsch


Topics covered

nonproliferation, jcpoa, us-iran escalation, un general assembly, donald trump, iran nuclear deal, iran nuclear facilities, iran nuclear file, uranium enrichment

Sep 18, 2019

The Donald Trump administration is questioning whether Iran is sticking to its nonproliferation commitments as UN-backed inspectors found traces of uranium in what Israel has called a "warehouse" for atomic weapons.

In a declassified report provided to Congress in August, the State Department said that a cache of seized documents unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “could suggest efforts by Iran to conceal past activities that were nuclear-related.”

Iran “continues to demonstrate interest in acquiring dual-use items and materials that could be relevant to the manufacture of advanced centrifuges” and has continued to employ scientists and maintain historical documents from the so-called Amad program shelved more than a decade ago, including its chief Mohsen Farizadeh. 

Unless the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is succeeded, the report indicates, Iran could “enable a production-scale operation” of nuclear centrifuges that would reduce the amount of time needed to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Last week, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed they’d found uranium particles at a site that Netanyahu had called a “secret atomic warehouse” in 2018. The recently discovered samples represent a possible violation of nonproliferation safeguards, experts say.

“It's not proof that Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon, it's proof that Iran has a nuclear hedging strategy available to build a nuclear weapon,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former acting deputy assistant secretary of state. “It's available if it needs to break its commitments wholesale.”

Iran’s history of misleading nuclear inspectors raises questions about Iran’s adherence to the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, known as the NPT, and suggests that Iran could race to a nuclear bomb, the report said. In a June interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say whether Iran was a member in good standing of the NPT.

Yet the initial findings, first published and removed from the State Department’s website in April, elicited strong pushback from Democratic House lawmakers. In a letter to Pompeo, the leaders of the House intelligence, armed services and foreign affairs panels said the 12-page unclassified account “consisted largely of hypotheticals and opinion” and “disproportionately focused” on Iran.

“There’s tendency to pile on Iran,” said Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Anything that looks like a violation of any agreement, the inclination is to put it in a report.” 

But the report also makes clear the challenges in the US administration’s current position, as the White House’s deliberations over fresh nuclear talks at the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month were interrupted by suspected drone and cruise missile strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that intelligence officials are blaming on Iran.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that the notion the US administration would meet with Iran without preconditions was an “incorrect statement,” though the commander-in-chief indicated he would be willing to do so as recently as July. Yet even if both sides get to the bargaining table, former US officials say it will be difficult to iron out differences over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

“In terms of what they’ve laid out, the administration has some pretty maximalist goals,” said Vann Van Diepen, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and arms control. “They don’t want any flight testing of any system scud and up.”