Analysis of the IAEA’s Iran NPT Safeguards Report - May 2023

by David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, and Andrea Stricker [1]

June 1, 2023

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The latest quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards report on Iran indicates limited progress on safeguards and monitoring issues, and overwhelmingly shows that Iran is unwilling to cooperate on providing full and truthful answers. On the vast majority of safeguards issues, where Iran simply cannot refute IAEA allegations, it continues to stonewall. On reestablishing monitoring, Iran is moving very slowly. Iran shows an intention to wear down the IAEA, as Iran renders any progress marginal, extremely difficult, and time consuming to achieve.

Despite the IAEA’s language in the report being difficult to understand, the IAEA has established a compelling case that Iran committed safeguards violations and has made little progress in reestablishing adequate monitoring. The Board of Governors needs to provide more support to the IAEA, condemning Iran’s lack of cooperation and providing a deadline for compliance. If it does not, Iran will succeed in maintaining secrecy over past and potentially ongoing nuclear weapons activities, weakening the IAEA in the process. Coupled with a growing uranium enrichment program and breakout capability, as well as limited IAEA monitoring, Iran could more easily — and even secretly — abandon its nonproliferation obligations and build a small nuclear weapons arsenal at a time of its choosing.

To avoid this, the IAEA should pursue additional answers on Iran’s nuclear activities and seek additional access to information, locations, and people — but on a larger scale than it has ever done before. The IAEA should release a report summarizing its understandings and findings about Iran’s past nuclear weapons program and any nuclear weapons-related materials, equipment, or activities that have continued up to today.


  • Iran has consistently violated its obligations under its comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA), a key part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which it must cooperate with the IAEA and fully account for nuclear material and past and present nuclear activities. The IAEA refers to this process as a country providing both a correct and complete nuclear declaration.

  • For more than four years, the IAEA has been investigating the presence of man-made uranium particles at three Iranian sites. Earlier, it sought information about nuclear material and activities at a fourth site. In March 2022, the IAEA found Iran in breach of its safeguards obligations for failing to declare its use of nuclear material at the fourth site, a former Amad Plan site called Lavisan-Shian.

  • The sites are related to Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons under the Amad Plan, Iran’s crash nuclear weapons program dating to the early 2000s, but concern its NPT compliance today, including the whereabouts of nuclear material and equipment and the nature of activities at the sites, as well as whether Iran continues nuclear weapons-related activities.

  • The IAEA concluded in September 2022 it is “not in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.” This means the IAEA cannot verify Iran’s compliance with its CSA and the NPT and is implying Iran is violating both agreements.

  • A November 2022 IAEA Board of Governors resolution spelled out four steps Iran must take in order to clarify the outstanding safeguards issues. These include providing technically credible explanations for the presence of uranium at the three sites, informing the IAEA on the current location(s) of the nuclear material and/or contaminated equipment, providing all the information the IAEA needs, and providing access to locations and materials as needed.

  • A new safeguards issue arose, when, in January 2023, Iran made an undeclared change in the operation of two advanced centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), followed by the IAEA’s detection of near 84 percent highly enriched uranium (HEU) particles at the cascades, which Iran had declared were enriching only up to 60 percent HEU. Iran’s explanation was that unintended fluctuations occurred. At a press conference, Director General Rafael Grossi stated that his inspectors would be able to find out whether the high enrichment level was a “one time shot, a one-time occurrence, or a more dedicated effort.”

  • Following high-level meetings between the IAEA and Iran, the two released a joint statement in March 2023 in which Iran pledged to take steps to cooperate with the IAEA, expedite a resolution over the outstanding safeguards issues, and allow the IAEA to implement appropriate verification and monitoring activities. 2

  • This analysis summarizes and assesses information since the IAEA’s last NPT safeguards report on Iran — the latest report issued on May 31, 2023. It also provides extensive background information on the former Iranian nuclear weapons sites under IAEA investigation, in addition to IAEA findings.


Partial Implementation of Joint Statement

The Director General states that “some progress has been made in implementing the activities set out in the Joint Statement.” He reiterates, however, that “unless and until Iran provides technically credible explanations for the presence of [uranium] particles at undeclared locations in Iran and informs the Agency of the current location(s) of the nuclear material and/or of the contaminated equipment, the Agency will not be able to confirm the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations under its Safeguards Agreement.”

Marivan Site: Partial Progress but Main Safeguards Issue Remains

There are two areas of IAEA concern at Marivan – a high explosive testing area, where outdoor testing of nuclear-weapon components took place or was planned during the Amad Plan, and a nearby support/development area with buildings, demolished by Iran before the IAEA was able to visit the site and around a time the IAEA was asking questions about a related site (see Annex). In 2020, Iran initially denied IAEA access to Marivan, and then relented following Board of Governors censure. Later that year, the IAEA visited and discovered particles containing man-made uranium at the Marivan support area.

In its latest report, the IAEA says it received information from Iran on the nature of these uranium particles. During meetings with the IAEA in March 2023, Iran “maintained its previous statements that the support area of ‘Marivan’ was a mine operated by an organization from another Member State in the 1960s and 1970s.” Iran noted the prior existence of a chemical laboratory where miners used “laboratory instruments and equipment,” which may have been the source of the contamination. According to the IAEA, this answer provided a “possible” explanation for the presence of depleted uranium particles with uranium 236. However, the IAEA cannot prove or disprove this statement. In the absence of additional information, the IAEA has no more questions and stated the issue is no longer outstanding at this stage. However, it should be noted that the IAEA report did not call this issue closed.

The safeguards issues at the high explosive/bunker area at Marivan remain unresolved. Iran claimed that the bunkers at Marivan were used “to shelter the bomb disposal unit during the deactivation of worn-out or mal-functioned munitions” and did not address “the use of neutron detectors and the source of the neutrons, and has provided no evidence to support its responses to questions regarding the activities at the explosive test area at ‘Marivan.’” In its latest report, the IAEA stands by its assessment that “based on its analysis of all safeguards-relevant information available to it…Iran conducted explosive experiments with protective shielding in preparation for the use of neutron detectors and nuclear material” at the high explosive site. The IAEA is describing a planned test during the Amad Plan, to be undertaken late in Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts, often called a cold test. A cold test involves the detonation of a fully assembled nuclear weapon, absent its weapon-grade uranium core. The neutron detectors would detect the neutrons produced by a neutron initiator at the center of the nuclear device, designed to initiate the atomic explosion. Thus, the IAEA is stating that while Iran may have prevailed on the relatively small point of the uranium particles, the elephant in the proverbial Marivan tent remains present.

Failure to Address Concerns at Turquz-abad and Varamin

The IAEA reports that Iran has failed to address outstanding safeguards issues at Turquz-abad and Varamin, “including informing the Agency of the current location(s) of nuclear material and/or of contaminated equipment.” Turquz-abad contained numerous containers holding equipment and materials related to nuclear weapons development, and Varamin, aka the “Tehran Site” in Iran’s Nuclear Archive, was an Amad Plan uranium conversion site. See Annex for details on these sites.

Ongoing Discrepancy at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) Linked to Undeclared Uranium at Lavisan

A discrepancy remains in the amount of uranium present at the UCF, involving the dissolution of what Iran states is 302.7 kilograms (kg) of natural uranium. The uranium came from the Jaber Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Laboratory (JHL), which has been linked to undeclared nuclear activities and materials. JHL has figured prominently in past IAEA efforts to understand the fate of undeclared uranium dating to Amad Plan activities at the Lavisan-Shian site in Tehran (see Annex). According to the Wall Street Journal, the discrepancy was “connected to Iran’s dissolution of a natural uranium metal disc the IAEA has been looking for as part of a probe into undeclared nuclear material found in Iran.” 3

Initially the IAEA did not report whether the discrepancy meant a surplus or a shortfall in Iran’s declaration, but the latest IAEA report specifies that there was a shortfall in Iran’s declaration. This indicates that the IAEA did indeed verify the presence of more material than declared by Iran, and while not evidence, this is consistent with the media reporting that Iran may have mixed in undeclared nuclear material it used at Lavisan-Shian. In April 2023, Iran provided the IAEA with revised nuclear material accountancy information for the UCF, but the IAEA stated these revisions “neither addressed the discrepancy nor satisfied the requirements stipulated under’ its comprehensive safeguards report. The IAEA concluded that revisions are “not based on scientific grounds, and, therefore not acceptable.”

An Overall Negative Account of Iran’s Cooperation to Establish Whether its Program is Peaceful

The safeguards report provides an overall negative account of Iran’s cooperation and progress in addressing whether its program is peaceful and its nuclear declaration is complete, making clear that out of the four steps demanded by the November 2022 Board of Governors resolution, only one step was fulfilled — and only partially. A concern is that Iran is continuing to get away with not providing credible answers about suspicious nuclear activities and safeguards violations, both past and present, and that other matters, such as improving monitoring in the face of Iran’s stonewalling, are being prioritized. Some fear a slow-motion repetition of 2015, when the IAEA “closed” all files related to the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s program, despite having made incomplete assessments and the closure doing little more than the IAEA accepting Iran’s false and incomplete explanations regarding past nuclear weapons issues.

Near Weapon-Grade Uranium Explanation Accepted

Iran provided the IAEA with additional information that the agency deemed “not inconsistent” with Iran’s explanation for the origin of particles enriched up to 83.7 percent, detected in January 2023 at the FFEP. Despite this weak IAEA endorsement, encoded in traditional IAEA wording, “not inconsistent,” the IAEA stated it had “no further questions on this matter at this stage.” Although the high enrichment level appears to have been a one-time occurrence, this finding does not resolve whether Iran produced the 83.7 percent material on purpose.

Limited Monitoring Progress

The IAEA reports that Iran allowed the IAEA to install or restore some limited monitoring and verification measures, such as installing for the first time ever an “enrichment monitoring device” (EMD) at Fordow and one at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP). (The IAEA reports that the devices are functioning but are still under commissioning and calibration). Iran also allowed the IAEA to reinstall surveillance cameras at centrifuge manufacturing workshops in Esfahan on May 2 and 3. Iran stopped providing video footage and data from the Natanz on-line enrichment monitor, from its heavy water production plant, and from video cameras at all its centrifuge manufacturing and assembly facilities in February 2021 and removed such devices altogether in June 2022.

The IAEA’s latest reporting underscores that despite reinstalling cameras at the Esfahan workshops, Iran is still not providing any of the actual video footage that would allow the IAEA to re-establish a baseline inventory of Iran’s centrifuge production. It has not provided any video footage from 2021 to 2022 or even from May 2023 at the Esfahan workshops. Nor has Iran reinstalled cameras at its other, publicly unknown, centrifuge manufacturing and assembly workshops. The IAEA told Iran it needed access to the data to re-establish “a satisfactory understanding of Iran’s inventory of centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows, including those in assembled centrifuges.” In addition, Iran has not restored surveillance and data collection at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant or at the heavy water production facility.

Moreover, the IAEA reports in late May, nearly three months after Iran and the IAEA reached agreement on the March IAEA/Iran joint statement, that “the process of implementing the activities set out in the joint statement has begun [emphasis added], but there is a need to ensure that the process is sustained and uninterrupted in order that all of the commitments contained therein are fulfilled.” The IAEA adds, “the Agency expects to be able to start to address, without further delay, access to data and recordings and the gaps in the recordings.”

Still No Implementation of Modified Code 3.1

The IAEA calls on Iran to engage the agency on whether it plans to implement modified Code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements to its CSA, and continues to note this is a “legal obligation” that “cannot be modified unilaterally.”

An IAEA Plea for Help

The IAEA reminded member states that “the remaining outstanding safeguards issues stem from Iran’s obligations under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement between Iran and the Agency and need to be resolved for the Agency to be in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful.” The IAEA welcomed progress made to date but emphasized the need for Iran to fulfill its commitments “without further delay.”


Despite all its work, and some limited progress, the IAEA is still no closer to resolving most safeguards issues in Iran, let alone being able to determine if Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. Nonetheless, the IAEA has shown that Iran’s declaration is woefully incomplete. Iran had a large-scale nuclear weapons program in the past, and some aspects of that earlier effort remain. Meanwhile, Iran refuses to cooperate in any meaningful manner, as it continually looks for ways to undermine the IAEA’s investigation.

Marivan is a case in point. While Iran proclaims that the Marivan issue is closed, the IAEA has actually cemented its assessment that undeclared, nuclear weapon-related activities took place at Marivan and that Iranian statements to the contrary are not technically credible. In the end, the issue of the uranium particles is, at most, one piece of evidence in the IAEA investigation and is of little lasting importance compared to the fact that the site was involved in actual and intended nuclear weaponization testing activities vital to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Despite the herculean task, the IAEA must continue its investigation into Iran’s violations of nuclear safeguards and work through its fallacious declarations. To compensate for the confidence deficit created by Iran’s lack of technically credible information regarding the presence of nuclear material at undeclared sites, the IAEA should pursue additional answers on related nuclear activities and seek additional access to information, locations, and people — but on a larger scale than it has ever done.

The IAEA should release a report summarizing its understandings and findings about Iran’s past nuclear weapons program and any nuclear weapons-related materials, equipment, or activities that have continued up to today. While the IAEA’s recent effort to focus exclusively on undeclared nuclear material is understandable, that amounts to exploring the tip of the iceberg. It is time for the IAEA to expose the entire iceberg and reconstruct the history and nature of all aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons activities.

In its future reports and statements, the IAEA may want to consider language that more clearly avoids giving the impression that matters are forever settled or further questions cannot be asked. Moreover, the IAEA should clearly indicate that when it states an issue is not outstanding or does not require Board action, it does not mean that the issue cannot be revisited or is necessarily resolved in a safeguards sense. The current language gives the impression that no further action is needed by the IAEA or the Board of Governors, when in fact, more action could be required to obtain a resolution.

Due to Iran’s prolonged, ongoing lack of cooperation, the IAEA Board of Governors should pass a resolution condemning Iran’s failure to fully meet the demands spelled out in the November 2022 resolution and provide a deadline for Iran to cooperate, after which the board will refer Iran’s case to the UN Security Council. Such a referral would not in any way halt the IAEA’s investigations of Iran’s undeclared materials and activities; in fact, it should encourage IAEA members to provide additional information and resources aimed at assisting the IAEA in pressing Iran to come into compliance with its safeguards obligations.

The United States and Europe should not press the IAEA to end the ongoing investigation, and should refuse any such Iranian demands that involve pressuring the IAEA to end the inquiry as a condition for revival of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or as a condition for implementing a new, interim nuclear deal. The West should instead pressure Iran to cooperate with the IAEA by strengthening sanctions, including moving to enact the so-called snapback of UN sanctions, allowed in case of Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA. Iran’s unjustified delays in reestablishing JCPOA monitoring adds urgency to taking such action.

Read the full report in pdf here

1. Andrea Stricker is deputy director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program and an FDD research fellow.

2. “Joint Statement by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” March 4, 2023,

3. Laurence Norman, “U.N. Agency Confirms Iran Produced Enriched Uranium Close to Weapons Grade,” The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2023.

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