Andreas PersboThe JCPOA and the Broader Conclusion

On 2 December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency released its final assessment on past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Here in the United Kingdom, the report did not hit the front pages, as the parliament was debating whether the country should extend its military engagement in the Middle East to Syria. Like so many others, I was distracted by the debate and dazzled by some of the oratory in the house. Whether or not you like the outcome, the debate itself was a very fine representation of democracy in action.

Likewise, irrespective of how you read the IAEA’s Iran report, what happens next is relatively settled. The rumor from Vienna is that some JCPOA signatories have completed a draft resolution and that no one in the Board of Governors intends to block its adoption.

The report has little impact on the JCPOA from a technical verification perspective. The plan of action is future-directed and concerns itself very little with what happened in Iran’s past. The key paragraph in the Director General’s report, number 88, establishes a solid foundation for future implementation. It reads, “The Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”

It is important to read this paragraph carefully. The Director General writes that the agency finds no “credible” indication of diversion of material. This means that there have been some indicators of diversion, but that they have been uncompelling. Moreover, the inclusion of the word “indication” means that the inspectorate cannot say—with an acceptable degree of certainty—that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful use.

Paragraph 77 of the report hides another important conclusion, namely that the agency “has not found indications of an undeclared nuclear fuel cycle in Iran, beyond those activities declared retrospectively by Iran.” This language is more assertive, as it excludes the word “credible”, and bodes well for the future implementation of the JCPOA; it also builds confidence that all material in Iran is used for peaceful purposes. If the agency has not found any indicators that there are more nuclear sites in Iran, it is highly probable that the JCPOA implementation framework captures all relevant production facilities in the country. In practice, this means that there will be international monitoring of all potential pathways leading to the fabrication of weapons components.

A careful examination of the Director General’s report should lead the reader to conclude that Iran, over the past 20 years, made some considerable progress towards nuclear weapons acquisition, but that the country still had some way to go. Most development activities ended in 2003. Iran dabbled in computer modeling of nuclear weapons designs up to 2009 after which this work appears to have stopped as well. In any case, the Agency notes that this work was “incomplete and fragmented.”

Much dust has been thrown up over what has happened at the Parchin Military Complex. The Director General’s report increases suspicion that a “large cylindrical object” was on the site in the summer of 2000—more than fifteen years ago—but notes that this object, as of 20 September 2015, is not there. The agency can no longer establish what this object was intended to do; therefore it is now not possible to prove or dismiss the hypothesis that it could have been a test chamber for small-scale implosion tests.

However, does this matter for the future implementation of the JCPOA? Not really. If Parchin was just a conventional military site, the cylindrical object is inconsequential to the broader question of whether Iran introduced or intended to introduce nuclear material at the site. If it was, it is no longer active, and the only question remaining would be if the chamber has been moved somewhere else. Even that question becomes irrelevant if and when the agency concludes that Iran has accounted for all its nuclear material.

So here comes the crux. While the IAEA now closes the PMD file, the inconclusive nature of some of its findings may complicate the work to reach a so-called broader conclusion for Iran. Formally, the matter may be off the Board of Governors’ agenda, and this is what both Iran and its JCPOA partners desired, but the issues will not go away entirely. The agency is likely to continue to assess many of these issues internally, as it works towards giving Iran a so-called broader conclusion that all nuclear material in the country remains in peaceful use. This work will start, albeit internally and away from the international spotlight, once Iran brings its Additional Protocol into force.

On 20 July 2015, fellow blog contributor Mark Hibbs wrote for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “For the IAEA to arrive at a BC requires a mountain of work, scouring every shred of data it can find on a state’s nuclear history and then putting all of it into a holistic context. Will eight years suffice? For a state like Iran with sensitive fuel cycle activities that may be limited in scope, the process might take six years or so, assuming Iran fully cooperates.”

Not all agree with this, as Mark points out in his commentary, and this was one principal reason as to why sanctions relief and the broader conclusion are disconnected. Some officials, Mark explains, “argued that Iran had so far to go to explain its murky nuclear past that the IAEA could never award a BC to Iran. So to give an agreement with Iran a chance, they reasoned, it would be better not to use the BC as a yardstick.”

So in conclusion, while Iran’s past cannot easily be brushed under the carpet, it certainly does not stand in the way for the successful implementation of the JCPOA. This, I think, is what people should take away from the Director General’s report. All else is of lesser importance.

Update, 8 December 2015. The P-5+1 has now circulated the draft resolution on Iran to the Board of Governors. See GOV_2015_70. While the report formally closes the Board’s consideration of the present item, the Direction General is nevertheless requested to continue to submit a written report to every meeting under a new agenda item.

The resolution clears the way for continued JCPOA implementation.


  1. Rob Goldston (History)

    The IAEA assesses that Iran worked on designing a bomb, got part way, and then stopped. The IAEA Board of Governors should accept the IAEA Report as final and accurate, and take the issue of the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program off its regular agenda, unless and until new evidence appears. It should also note that once Implementation Day arrives, under the JCPOA Iran must implement the Additional Protocol. This report forms part of the historical baseline for the Additional Protocol, which requires the IAEA to determine if Iran has any undeclared nuclear activities.

    The Board should require that Iran in the future not prevent the IAEA from access to sites it identifies, and not engage in clean-up activities at such sites. Since uranium was found at a site of interest in Parchin in small quantities, and the IAEA assesses that Iran used this site for research related to nuclear weapons, the Board should require that Iran quarantine this site, and not enter it pending potential future actions by the IAEA under the Additional Protocol.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      Actually, I should be more careful about what the IAEA said about Parchin. They said that the modifications made by Iran there had seriously compromised the IAEA’s ability to conduct effective verification. This remains a good reason for the proposed “hands-off” policy.

  2. FlamesInTheDesert (History)

    The iaea cant even establish that the “large cylindrical object” in question actually even existed in the first place

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      The IAEA says that they have satellite images supporting previous indications of a large cylindrical object at the location of interest. Seems pretty clear to me.

  3. Anon2 (History)

    It would make a good article for one of you Wonks to see how the newest IAEA report compares with the old 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, as that report seems to indicate that worked stopped in 2003, and IAEA now states it only ended in 2009.

    It would also be interesting to see how this 2009 date contradicts or agrees with Khamenei’s statements, sometimes described as fatwas against nuclear weapons.

    Finally, thank you for updating the look of the ACW website.

  4. HLC (History)

    Rob’s comment that ‘the IAEA assesses that Iran used [Parchin] for research related to nuclear weapons’ gives me the opportunity to get something off my chest.

    I am frustrated that those commenting on the agency’s report routinely overlook its carefully ambiguous wording, and say things like ‘the IAEA confirmed that Iran had a coordinated nuclear weapons development program until the end of 2003’ (from 2 December ISIS Report). In fact, the report says ‘The Agency assess that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort’. Activities that are relevant to nuclear weapon development are not necessarily activities directed at nuclear weapon development.

    The words I’ve emphasised may only be a fig leaf: covering what might be an accepted fact within the agency (that these activities were intended to develop nuclear weapons) to maintain what might be considered proper agency decorum in this situation. On the other hand, the agency may have no solid and reliable means of assigning intent to the limited array of dual-use activities it has been able to confirm. I am not suggesting that Iran never contemplated nuclear weapons, and that the activities described in the report were never directed at such an effort. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what a coordinated array of activities ‘relevant to the development of a nuclear device’ might aim to achieve, other than a nuclear explosive device. The evidence compiled by the IAEA and others, as well Iran’s suspiciously lacklustre cooperation, makes me suspect that up to 2003, Iran did have a coordinated nuclear weapon development programme.

    But I am not the agency, and I think that ignoring the agency’s careful syntax is unhelpful. It allows the the news and commentators to create wildly incompatible interpretations of the report that will probably come back to haunt us during the implementation of the JCPOA. This may be inevitable, but it is also regrettable. Ignoring the Agency’s syntax also glosses over the careful choices made by the report’s drafters, and therefore the factors influencing those choices. Understanding these factors will probably tell us more about what is and is not known about Iran’s nuclear efforts than the summary of the PMD report.

    I understand the desire to translate impenetrable bureaucratese into simple English, but the IAEA did not confirm that Iran had a nuclear weapon programme prior to 2003.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      Does the IAEA produce official translations of such original-English documents into other languages? In other cases, I’ve found that UN documents issued in several languages can provide insights into the intended meaning.

    • Rob Goldston (History)


      Just to be clear, I read your comment as saying that my way of characterizing the IAEA PMD Report is accurate. I think even the statement at the top of my comment is accurate, given that the IAEA is unequivocal that Iran did neutroncis modeling of a nuclear explosive device. Those who derided the so-called AP Diagram should consider this carefully.

      I would be interested in your or other readers’ (or ACW writers!) take on the suggestion for a requirement by the BoG of hands-off at the site of interest at Parchin. The trick is to make this not a contradiction of the finality of the “final” PMD report.

    • HLC (History)


      Rule 54 of the Rules and Procedures of the Board of Governors states that: ‘Summary records of meetings, resolutions adopted by the Board and other important documents shall be made available in the working languages.’ These are listed as Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. I would certainly class the PMD report as an important document.

      Unfortunately, for those on the outside the issue is somewhat moot until someone leaks the PMD report in another language…..


    • Jeffrey Lewis (History)

      I find myself torn by this, most likely as one of the principle offenders.

      The IAEA’s language is careful. And we should take care to represent that language accurately.

      And yet, the reference to a “coordinated effort” prior to 2003, and in contrast to the 2003-2009 period, seems absolutely clear to me as a reference to what the IAEA previously referred to (starting with GOV/2006/15) as “administrative interconnections” among activities “which could have a military nuclear dimension.”

      In other documents (GOV/2008/4), the IAEA has specified that those interconnections involve entities such as PHRC and Kimia Maadan, which are the same entities at the heart of the 2007 US NIE’s definition of Iran’s covert “nuclear weapons program.”

      Or, to put it simply, “a coordinated effort to conduct a range of nuclear activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” is a good definition of what might be meant by the term “nuclear weapons program.”

    • HLC (History)

      Thank you for finding a better way of expressing my thoughts regarding ‘a coordinated array of activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear device”‘. I agree that does sound like a good definition of a nuclear weapon programme. That being said, there is are reasons that the IAEA has used the language that it has – and I’m more interested in those than reducing this language into a more direct form. But then again, I am a massive pedant.

      For instance, Iran has so far been guilty of violating its safeguards agreement and the various agency and UNSC resolutions bought against it. As far as I know (and my limited legal knowledge may be wrong here), Iran has not been found to have violated the NPT. If the agency were to say ‘Iran had a nuclear weapon programme prior to 2003’, would this too easily equate to a post-hoc violation of the NPT? And would such a finding be welcomed by anyone, given the NPT’s current state?

      I ask this question primarily to illustrate my point, so please by all means treat it as rhetorical.

    • HLC (History)

      Quick note: Peter Jenkins actually tackles this issue head-on in an article for Lobelog, by saying ‘We can also say with confidence, thanks to the IAEA, that Iranian weapon-related activities never reached the point of entailing any breach of Iran’s core non-proliferation commitment to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons.’ This is obviously entirely debatable (as is the rest of his article…).

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      Sorry if this is a terribly ignorant statement – I’m a terribly ignorant feller, so that sort of thing happens a lot – but Iran pursued enrichment post 2003. And isn’t that, strictly speaking, an activity relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device (for some value of relevant)? I mean, give me enough enrichment and I can give you a bomb.

      In other words, if this dual-purpose activity is *not* being included in the definition of an activity relevant to blah de blah (as the reference date implies), wouldn’t that pretty strongly imply that the pre-2003 activities referred to were not dual-purpose, but rather specifically directed at development of a bomb?

  5. HLC (History)

    PS – to avoid raising the now-famous ire of the good god ISIS, I feel I should clarify that I am not singling any one person out, and that many other commentators are in my eyes guilty of misrepresenting the IAEA report. To avoid raising their ire too, I will leave them unnamed

  6. Scott Monje (History)

    While considering HLC’s ruminations on what might or might not have been intended by a set of activities relevant to nuclear weapons development, an odd idea struck me. Is it possible that “someone” in Iran–a place known for its many uncoordinated and mutually jealous power centers–was working toward the development of a nuclear weapon but telling other power centers that it was something else, or some series of unrelated activities? After all, this is something that the ayatollah has called un-Islamic. Would the the discovery of an unauthorized program explain why it was ended so suddenly?

    Unrelated to that, I find it fascinating that he final studies apparently ended while Ahmadinejad was still president.

    • Andreas Persbo (History)

      Hello Scott,

      That is an interesting thought. I obviously cannot give you an answer. However, I note that it is not unusual for discontinued weapons programmes (do keep in mind that we are talking about a very limited selection here) to have a ‘tail-end’ of semi-sanctioned or non-sanctioned research that continues even after the top-level decision to stop. Two countries, which shall remain unspoken, comes to my mind.

      I suppose the answer as to why research may continue after a halt order may lie in organisational and bureaucratic inertia. The bigger, and the more compartmentalised, the programme is, the longer it will take for it to grind to a halt. I suppose it would take even longer in a political system rife with vested interests, and where there are no legal penalties for those that would resist or delay a halt order.


  7. Trevor Findlay (History)

    Dear all,

    If anyone is interested I’ve done a comprehensive analysis of all cases of non-compliance considered by the IAEA. See:

    Trevor Findlay