Washington is reportedly prepared to conclude a new Iran deal that would limit U.S. pressure on Tehran to cooperate with nuclear inspectors and address the regime’s possible atomic weapons activities, which would violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If the United States fails to hold Iran accountable, Tehran could build upon the highly enriched uranium stockpiles it has developed to date — along with other nuclear assets it will continue amassing under a deal — and break out at a time of its choosing. 

For more than four years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been investigating Iran’s secret efforts to produce atomic devices. The agency has a mandate to ascertain the correctness and completeness of states’ declarations about their production and use of nuclear material in order to confirm their adherence to their NPT pledge never to develop nuclear weapons.  

In 2018, the IAEA resumed its long-running investigation of Iran’s nuclear activities, following Israel’s seizure of a vast archive detailing Tehran’s past and possibly ongoing work on nuclear weapons. In 2015, despite Iran’s insufficient answers and cooperation, world powers voted to shelve the IAEA’s inquiry as part of the Iran nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

In 2019 and 2020, the IAEA asked Iran for access to three suspected nuclear sites, Marivan, Varamin, and Turquz Abad, and posed questions about a fourth site, Lavizan-Shian. Following Tehran’s stonewalling and concealment efforts, international pressure succeeded in securing IAEA access and sampling at the three sites, where the agency detected undeclared, man-made uranium particles.  

Last year, the IAEA concluded that Tehran had breached its NPT safeguards obligations by failing to declare “activities and the nuclear material used” at Lavizan-Shian.  

Last month, the IAEA reported more troubling new developments in its investigation. The agency concluded that Iran carried out high-explosive tests related to weaponizing nuclear material at Marivan. Iran told the IAEA that prior to 2004, it was conducting munitions disposal at Marivan, but the agency deemed this explanation “not technically credible.” The IAEA called for Iran’s cooperation regarding the two other sites, Turquz Abad and Varamin, but Tehran is so far not complying. 

Despite these IAEA findings, world powers declined to formally censure Tehran for its ongoing nuclear advances or set a deadline for the regime’s compliance with its NPT safeguards commitments. 

If the Biden administration opts under a new deal to withhold pressure on Iran at the IAEA, the administration would effectively shelve the watchdog’s inquiry into Tehran’s nuclear weapons activities. Iran would no longer face requisite pressure from the international community to enable the IAEA to make headway in its investigation.  

Under the reported deal, the regime may retain possession of enough enriched uranium to produce eight nuclear weapons and continue amassing this material. Combined with weaponization activities and billions of dollars in sanctions relief, Iran would be able to fortify its economy and break out at a time of its choosing. 

Washington must empower the IAEA to ascertain Iran’s compliance with the NPT, including whether it retains nuclear weapons activities, and refrain from limiting the agency’s authority in any way. Relieving Tehran of its NPT obligations — as world powers did in 2015 — will have lasting, negative ramifications for ascertaining the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA’s authority, and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. 

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Andrea and FDD please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. 

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