US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through
Sep 12, 2023 | AIJAC staff
Update 09/23 #01
Reports say that the US and Iran are about to carry out the prisoner swap deal they reached last month, which would see five American citizens being held by Iran released in exchange for at least US$6 billion in sanctions relief to Iran – with the money to come from frozen Iranian funds held by South Korea – and also the release of five Iranians imprisoned in the US. (More details on the deal here).
This Update looks at the background and implications of this deal, including in terms of Iran’s ongoing rogue behaviour on numerous fronts.
We lead with some excellent background on Iran’s long-standing policy of arresting foreign citizens on bogus “espionage” charges and then trading them for benefits Teheran wants, written by the Middle East Media Research Institute. The piece cites the recent case of EU diplomat Johan Floderus, who it was revealed only last week has been detained in Iran for more than a year, in an apparent attempt to force the release of Hamid Nouri, an Iranian operative jailed for life in Sweden for crimes against humanity. What is particularly valuable about this piece is that it not only documents this Iranian practice over three decades, it quotes extensively from Iranian officials effectively admitting that they have a deliberate policy of seeking to seize and then swap foreign prisoners for money and other Iranian policy goals. For all the basic facts about Iran’s hostage-taking of foreigners set out clearly, CLICK HERE.
Next up, noted Israeli analyst and journalist Jonathan Spyer looks at current US-Iran diplomacy in the context of the multi-front war Teheran and its proxies have declared against the US and its allies across the Middle East, including Israel. Spyer cites a recent threat issued by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah against the US as an example of a larger multi-front doctrine being talked about in pro-Iranian circles, termed “unity of the arenas.” Spyer cites a pattern of Iranian proxy attacks on the US and Israel over recent months as the outcome of this doctrine and implies the US Administration’s focus on outreach to Teheran is going to make this problem worse. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, two unimpeachable experts, former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy head Olli Heinonen and fellow non-proliferation expert Andrea Stricker, take on the sorry state of current efforts to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons. They point out that this week makes exactly 20 years since the IAEA Board of Governors first demanded that Iran come back into compliance with its non-proliferation obligations as mandated by international law, and it has never done so. They argue current US efforts to reach a deal providing significant sanctions relief in exchange for mere token concessions by Iran are likely to see Iran soon “strolling” into the possession of nuclear weapons – and say any sanctions relief should only come in return for full Iranian cooperation with the IAEA. For Heinonen and Stricker’s chilling warning, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A podcast discussion on the US-Iran prisoner swap deal featuring Israeli experts Dan Diker and Michael Segall.
- Mossad Director David Barnea’s speech this week warning of the escalating danger of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
- Michael Rubin’s discussions of the recent detention of Swede Johan Floderus as an example of what not to do when Iran seizes a foreigner.
- An amazing story about a secret movie collaboration between Israeli and Iranian filmmakers.
- Richard Goldberg discusses how the Iranian nuclear issue is complicating efforts to negotiate Israeli-Saudi normalisation.
- Meanwhile, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi says Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians and prepared to make concessions to them as part of a deal with the Saudis. Reports says the Palestinian leadership is prepared to explore what they can get, rather than play a spoiler role.
- Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been widely condemned internationally for a speech in which he insisted the Holocaust was not motivated by antisemitism but by the Jewish “social role”. Condemnations came also from Australian Foreign Minister Sen. Penny Wong and shadow FM Sen. Simon Birmingham. Unfortunately, Abbas has a long history of making similar claims.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing on AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC Research Associate Dr Ran Porat’s analysis of the IAEA’s latest leaked report on Iran – and how elements of it are being unjustifiably spun as progress.
- Justin Amler, writing in the Algemeiner, notes an attempt by the UN cultural agency UNESCO to erase the Jewish history of yet another city.
- In the wake of the opening of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Embassy in Jerusalem last week, Alana Schetzer reports on the history and current state of Israel-PNG relations.
- Ahron Shapiro outlines Israel’s difficulties in attempting to bring a wave ofspiralling crime in Israeli Arab towns under control.
- AIJAC’s statement mourning the tragic passing of long-time AIJAC Sydney head Jeremy Jones last week.
The Iranian Regime’s Strategy Of Taking Western Hostages To Use As Bargaining Chips With The U.S. And Europe For Political And Financial Gain
By: A. Savyon
MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute)Inquiry and Analysis | 1717 |
September 6, 2023
Swedish EU Diplomat Johan Floderus (L), the latest victim of Iran’s hostage diplomacy – and the man Iran is allegedly seeking to get released in exchange for Floderus, Iranian “diplomat” Hamid Nouri, sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity last year (R) (Photos: Twitter. Wikimedia commons)
On September 4, 2023, The New York Times revealed that a European Union official, Swedish citizen Johan Floderus, has been detained in Iran since his arrest in the country in April 2022 while on vacation. According to Tehran, he was engaged in espionage. He is being held in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
It should be noted that in July 2022, Sweden sentenced an Iranian “diplomat,” Hamid Nouri aka Hamid Abassi, to life in prison for crimes against humanity. Nouri, a former Iranian judiciary official, was involved in mass executions, in the summer of 1988 and on regime orders, of political prisoners opposed to the regime. Iran has demanded, and is still demanding, his release, claiming that he was arrested for political reasons and that the accusations against him are fabricated. It is also notable that Iran is applying considerable pressure to European countries to free its citizens sentenced to prison for terrorism offenses. Recently, in May 2023, it was reported that an Iranian “diplomat,” Asadollah Assadi, was freed from a Belgian prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence, in exchange for Iran’s release of a Belgian aid worker arrested for “spying” (see below).
Since it came to power in 1979, Iran’s Islamic regime has regularly used the taking of Western hostages for political and financial gains from the West, to the point where it can be seen as a policy.
In August 2023, it was reported that Qatar and Oman had mediated between the Biden administration and the Iranian regime to arrive at understandings for a prisoner exchange deal and the transfer of funds from the U.S. to Iran. Under the deal, five American prisoners held in Iran would be exchanged for five Iranian prisoners held in the U.S. and the release of billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenues frozen due to the U.S. sanctions.
Iran has so far released five prisoners with dual Iranian-American citizenship who were “accused of spying,” among them American businessman Siamak Namazi, detained since 2015 and serving a 10-year sentence for maintaining contacts with foreign governments; American tourist Emad Sharqi, detained since 2018 and serving a 10-year sentence in Evin Prison for espionage; British-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, detained since 2018 and serving 10 years for espionage, and another man and woman whose names have not been revealed.
Iran has said that the five will leave Iran within two months, and after receipt of the promised funds – $6 billion from South Korea and $4 billion from Iraq. According to Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, negotiations on the release of billions of dollars more, in Japan, are underway.
This report will review Iran’s policy of arresting citizens of the U.S. and other Western countries, most of them with dual Western-Iranian citizenship, when they are in Iran, and demanding in exchange for their release millions or billions of dollars and the release of Iranian prisoners held in the West.
Senior Iranian Security Official: “We Released A Few Iranian Prisoners In Exchange For Some Prisoners Whose Sentences Were About To End – And, On The Other Hand, We Succeeded In Releasing Billions Of Dollars Of Our Blocked Resources Without Committing To Anything Else”
In an August 12, 2023 interview, a senior Iranian security source spoke anonymously with the Fars news agency about how Iran had achieved the current prisoner exchange with the U.S. Iranian prisoners, he said, were released in exchange for American prisoners and several billion dollars of Iran’s resources that were blocked because of the American sanctions. He noted that “this sum of money that was released to Iran this time is four or five times greater than [the amount released] the last time” – that is, in 2016, when President Obama transferred $1.7 billion in cash to Iran.
In the interview, he discussed how the prisoner exchange idea had been raised with the Obama administration during the nuclear negotiations for the JCPOA: “The idea that was raised with the Americans, that in addition to the prisoner [release] there must also be action to remove the illegal seizure of Iran’s monetary resources during the [prisoner] exchange, was then a new idea raised by one of the young security experts. At first, no one thought it was possible, but it was gradually accepted by [the top] hierarchy and ushered along by [Iran’s] Supreme National Security Council, but the government at that time [of Iranian President Hassan Rohani] was not involved at all, and feared that this [Iranian demand] would sideline the JCPOA.
“During the previous period, this idea was new, and put forth for the first time, and the Democrats quietly accepted and implemented it. But taking into account that the last time, after implementing the [JCPOA negotiations] project [with the U.S.], they greatly pressured Obama, this time [under the Biden administration] it was harder for the Americans to accept this idea, and they knew that in light of their political rivals and public opinion in the U.S., they must respond by explaining such a compromise made to the Iranian side.”
He also discussed the Rohani government’s January 2016 release of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian: “Among the prisoners released at that time, the exchange of Rezaian motivated the American side more than [the other prisoners]. When his arrest became known to the Americans, they immediately sent a message to the [Iranian] government at the time stating that Jason must be freed or the negotiations and the agreement would be disrupted.
“So [President] Rohani called a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, during the Friday sabbath – that is, less than 72 hours afterwards. Unrelated to the content of the case and to Jason’s criminal [actions] and espionage, he [Rohani] said that Jason must be released, or else the government’s most important issue, that is, the JCPOA, would be disrupted. The security institutions and the judiciary did not accept this, and they said that the [Rezaian] case must be investigated.”
Another point, said the official, “was that the sentences of the current prisoners were almost up and essentially they had served their sentence in Iran. [Thus,] these exchanges were maximal utilization of this issue.”
The security source continued: “Among the current prisoners, Baquer and [his son] Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz are more important to the Americans. Siamak’s father [Baquer] who was transferred [out of Iran] a few months ago [in October 2022, for medical care], had in effect already served his sentence, was very old , and in fact was it was not recommended that he remain in prison, and the judicial and security authorities made a good plan to release him.
“[His son] Siamak Namazi, who has also been in prison for about 10 years, had been under the watchful eye of the [Iranian-American] lobby [in Washington] NIAC, and Baquer Namazi himself, who was very influential among the Democrats, and Morad Tahbaz, one of the main activists in the environmentalists’ Influence Project [the name given by the Iranians for this espionage against it] has both American and British citizenship…
“A strong point of the [prisoner] exchange the last time was the Iranian side’s receipt of cash at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran simultaneously with the exchange of the prisoners. This might not have been possible this time due to the very large amount of resources [i.e. billions of dollars] released, and also due to the political conditions inside America and the Americans’ past experience.
“This exchange operation is in fact one of the most successful and effective negotiation [efforts] ever to happen to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In essence, we released a few Iranian prisoners in exchange for some prisoners whose sentences were about to end, and, on the other hand, we succeeded in releasing billions of dollars of our blocked resources without committing to anything else.”
Iranian Regime Policy: Arresting Westerners And Releasing Them In Exchange For Financial And Political Gain
Iran’s policy of taking Western hostages for political and financial gains from the West came into play as soon as its Islamic regime took power in 1979, with the kidnapping of the American diplomats. They were released 444 days later in exchange for $8 billion and an American commitment not to interfere with Iran’s internal affairs.
This success was the basis for the practice’s continued use by Iran, and Iranian officials have in recent years recommended several times that Americans or Britons be taken hostage and released in exchange for billions of dollars to boost the Iranian economy or for political gains from the Western countries.
On July 31, 2019, Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezaee said on Iran’s Channel 2 that Britain must pay for the release of its citizens detained in Iran, such as British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Rezaee said the UK foreign secretary had begged Iran to release the British citizens but that Tehran had explained to him its rationale for not doing so because Iranian interests were being “trampled.”
In June 2021, Iranian journalist in exile in the U.S. Masih Alinejad tweeted a video showing Rezaee, at the time a presidential candidate, calling on Iranian TV for solving Iran’s economic problems by taking 1,000 American hostages and demanding billions of dollars for their release.
Masih Alinejad’s tweet, June 10, 2021
In October 2021, Rezaee, now vice president for economic affairs and secretary of the Expediency Council, warned that if the U.S. attacked Iran, Iran would take 1,000 Americans hostage and demand $1 billion in ransom for each.
Hassan Abbasi, head of the IRGC’s Center for National Security Doctrine, who is known as the IRGC theoretician, said in a speech he gave in the city of Nowshahr that the IRGC should “create income” by kidnapping Americans and demanding ransom for their return. In the speech, a video of which was posted on Aparat.com on January 17, 2020, he cited the $1.7 billion that Iran had received, he claimed, from Qatar because the aircraft that had killed IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani had taken off from Qatar. He added that Iran’s economic problems could be solved by kidnapping an American every week, and thus raising $50 billion a year.
Since the kidnapping of the American hostages in the early days of the Islamic Revolution, there have been dozens of such arrests in Iran of dual Iranian-Western citizens. Western military servicemen and Western tourists have even been kidnapped outside Iran and held inside the country, as the regime negotiates for their release in exchange for large sums of money. To justify its actions, the regime accuses these hapless Westerners of spying and other security offenses against Iran.
The following are notable Iranian kidnappings of Westerners in recent years:
- Bob Levinson – an FBI agent, kidnapped in Iran in 2007 – his fate is unknown.
- Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal – In 2009, the three were kidnapped by the IRGC as they hiked in the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains near the Iranian border. Sentenced to eight years in prison for spying, Ms. Shourd was released after a year and a half, and the other two after two years, in exchange for $1.5 million in a deal brokered by Oman. President Obama welcomed this deal, saying of Ms. Shourd’s return, “I am very pleased that Sarah Shourd has been released by the Iranian government, and will soon be united with her family.”
- Jason Rezaian – A Washington Post journalist, Rezaian was arrested in Iran in 2014 on espionage charges. He was released in 2016, a few months after the conclusion of the JCPOA nuclear deal and before the International Atomic Energy Agency report of Iran’s nuclear violations. Four other American citizens were released with him: pastor Saeed Abedini, a former Muslim who became an Evangelical Christian preacher; former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati; businessman Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, and Matthew Trevithick, who had come to Iran to study Farsi. Iran received in exchange $1.7 billion in cash.
- Ahmad Reza Djalali – a Swedish-Iranian doctor and researcher, who had come to Tehran for a conference and was arrested in 2016 on charges that he was a Mossad agent. He was sentenced to death for espionage and treason, and was tortured throughout his detention in Evin Prison and held in solitary confinement.
Additionally, a 2017 Reuters investigation named some 30 dual Iranian-Western citizens arrested in Iran by the IRGC in the preceding two years. They included the aforementioned British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who had come to visit her family in 2016 and was detained in Evin Prison on charges of spying against Iran. She was released in a 2022 deal together with another Briton, Anoosheh Ashoori, who in 2019 was sentenced to 10 years for spying for the Mossad, and another two prisoners held for “accumulating illegal capital.” They were freed in exchange for $530 million, which the Iranian regime claimed was owed to it by Britain.
Former Australian hostage in Iran Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, displaying a button she was sent by Iranian dissidents which says “I oppose the mandatory hijab.’ (Photo: Twitter/X)
Another foreign citizen, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic in Islamic studies who was at the time married to an Israeli, was arrested by Iranian intelligence in September 2018 for spying and collecting information under the cover of academic research and Islamic studies. She was sentenced to 10 years, partly in solitary confinement, and released as part of a deal in 2020 that also included Iranian terrorists held in Thailand who had attempted to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012.
France also announced in January 2023 that seven of its citizens were being held in Iran on espionage charges.
Furthermore, Iran customarily kidnaps foreign citizens on its soil, imprisons them on charges of spying, and exchanges them for its own citizens imprisoned in other countries. For example, on May 26, 2023, Iran freed Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele. Vandecasteele had previously lived in Iran for six years, beginning in 2015, and was arrested when he returned to the country, and sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for spying. He was freed in exchange for Belgium’s release of Iranian intelligence officer Asadollah Assadi, described by Iran as a “diplomat.”
Assadi was serving a 20-year sentence in Belgium for a 2018 bomb plot against an expatriate Iranian opposition group’s rally near Paris with an expected attendance of 25,000 people. The attendees were to include senior officials from other countries, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10639, Oman Serves Iran By Brokering Exchange Deal To Free Iranian Agent Convicted And Imprisoned In Europe For Terrorism, May 31, 2023)
A week after Vandecasteele’s release, in early June 2023, “Phase Two” of the prisoner exchange deal was carried out, with a Dane and two Austrians arriving in Belgium via Oman, which had brokered the negotiations. According to Belgian authorities, 22 European Union citizens are still imprisoned in Iran on fabricated charges.
A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project.
Biden Courts Iran as It Wages a Multifront War on the U.S.
The head of Lebanese Hezbollah last month issued a direct threat against America.
By Jonathan Spyer
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10, 2023 11:41 am ET
Jerusalem – The Biden administration has pursued a strategy of outreach to Iran—releasing frozen assets in exchange for hostages, trying to revive the Obama-era nuclear agreement. Iran and its regional allies, meanwhile, are getting more aggressive. On Aug. 28 Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Lebanese Hezbollah, issued a direct threat to the U.S.
“The Americans control the oil fields east of the Euphrates, and they are the ones who prevent these fields from returning to the Syrian government,” he said. “The Syrian state and its allies are able to liberate the east of the Euphrates. . . . But the east of the Euphrates is an area occupied by U.S. forces, so the conflict there is a regional conflict and could lead to an international conflict. . . . If the Americans want to fight, they’re welcome, and this is the real battle that will change everything.”
Mr. Nasrallah said this in an address marking 17 years since the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, which his Iran-backed movement considers a “divine victory.”
His saber rattling comes amid heightened tensions in the Syria-Lebanon-Israel triangle. Nine hundred U.S. troops are deployed east of the Euphrates. More than 70 people have been killed in clashes between the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, which control the area, and Bedouin tribes.
The Hezbollah leader’s threats to the U.S. are in line with an idea making the rounds among Iran’s allies in the Levant. It is the “unity of the arenas” (wahdat al saha’at in Arabic), according to which the various battles between Iran’s allies and pro-Western forces in the region are parts of a single war. That includes Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon, the Assad regime’s effort to expel the U.S. from Syria, and terrorism against Israel by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The concept deserves close attention. In Israel, such utterances are noted not only because of their rhetorical appeal but also because they have direct consequences.
Several ominous events in recent months demonstrate what this concept means in practice.
In March, an operative carrying a claymore mine was dispatched from Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon to central Israel. His mission clearly was to carry out a mass terror attack using a type of ordnance rarely seen in the Israel-West Bank arena. The operative was killed as he tried to return to Lebanon, after planting the mine. An Arab citizen of Israel was blinded when the mine exploded.
In the same month, a drone attack on a U.S. position in Hasakah, Syria, killed a civilian American contractor and wounded five U.S. service members.
In April, 34 rockets were fired at Israel from South Lebanon. Israeli authorities suggested that Hezbollah might not have been aware of the firing. This contention was fatuous, conveyed hesitation, and is no longer maintained by Israel. Nothing moves south of the Litani River without Hezbollah’s permission.
On Aug. 3, missiles were fired at a U.S. position near Shaddadi, Syria.
Later that month, Israeli security forces intercepted a smuggling attempt from Jordan into the West Bank, close to Ashdot Yaacov in the Jordan Valley. The smugglers were carrying Iranian-made explosives, presumably destined for the newly emergent militia groups of the northern West Bank. Because of those organizations’ efforts, 2023 has seen the highest rates of Palestinian and Israeli fatalities since the end of the Second Intifada in 2004.
The unity of the arenas also encompasses illicit commerce. The ordnance intercepted at Ashdot Yaacov almost certainly entered Jordan from Syria. It would have been moved along the same smuggling routes that Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps use to traffic Captagon, the amphetamine-type stimulant that helps finance their campaigns.
The “unity of the arenas” in action: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (c) meeting with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala (l) and Hamas deputy leader Saleh el-Arouri in Beruit earlier this month. (Photo: NNA)
There are more overt indications of growing coordination. On Sept. 1, Mr. Nasrallah entertained Palestinian terrorist leaders in the underground Beirut bunker where he has dwelt since 2006. Ziad Nakhaleh, Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s secretary-general, was there. Appearing for Hamas was Saleh al-Arouri, who oversees that movement’s efforts to light up the West Bank.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, suggested recently that his country is closer to military action against Hezbollah than at any time since the 2006 war. The U.S., meanwhile, continues its outreach to Tehran. Iran is waging a multifront military and political struggle—the unity of the arenas. Its enemies are divided.
Mr. Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.”
Twenty Years Later, Iran Remains In Non-Compliance With Its Nuclear Nonproliferation Obligations
Olli Heinonen and Andrea Stricker
19FortyFive, September 8, 2023
The landmark 2003 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in which the agency first demanded Iran comply with its nuclear nonproliferation safeguards obligation. Twenty years later, it still hasn’t happened. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)
Sept. 12 will mark the 20th anniversary of the first resolution criticizing Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) board of governors.
The board, a 35-nation body tasked with policymaking for the UN nuclear watchdog, issues such resolutions to pressure countries to comply with their nonproliferation safeguards obligations. In 2023, the Islamic Republic has still not fulfilled the demands of the original resolution, and it appears poised to make nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing.
A new approach is needed that refocuses Western attention on addressing Iran’s fundamental breaches of its nonproliferation obligations — and soon.
The strictly worded resolution passed by the board in September 2003 demanded that Tehran provide “a full declaration” under its safeguards agreement — the fundamental legal accord that parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty reach with the IAEA to ensure international oversight and the peacefulness of their nuclear programs.
The resolution followed international discovery in mid-2002 of Iran’s vast, secret nuclear program, including a uranium enrichment site at Natanz and Iran’s acquisition and processing of uranium. Both breached Tehran’s safeguards agreement, because Iran failed to report them.
To support the IAEA’s “verification of the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations,” the first resolution also demanded unrestricted access to Iranian sites and environmental sampling, which would enable the agency to detect traces of nuclear materials. The board requested Tehran answer the agency’s questions about the origins of its nuclear activities, give details about experimentation, and provide any other information or explanations the agency deemed necessary.
Twenty years later, Iran has not remedied “all failures identified by the Agency” or cooperated “fully with the Agency to ensure verification of compliance with Iran’s safeguards agreement,” as the original resolution stipulated. The board has since passed 15 other Iran resolutions. In 2006, it referred Iran’s case to the UN Security Council, which passed a series of sanctions against Tehran.
The United States, Europe, and their partners have tried nuclear deals — most systematically the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Washington left in 2018 — but to little success. Iran pockets concessions without meaningful reciprocation.
Since 2018, the IAEA remains embroiled in a fruitless investigation of information the agency learned from an Israeli raid on a Tehran warehouse. The raid’s findings indicated that Iran had a full-fledged nuclear weapons program up until mid-2003 called the Amad Plan.
The pilfered materials suggested Iran likely retains some of its nuclear weapons-related work, today overseen by the Organization of Defense Innovation Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND. Under SPND, Tehran advances disparate activities at locations not inspected by the IAEA.
Tehran initially refused IAEA access to sites so that Iran could remove evidence. Yet when the IAEA succeeded in detecting undeclared nuclear material and disclosed facts about Iranian nuclear weapons activities, as it did in March 2022 and May 2023, the international community failed to put meaningful pressure on the IAEA to probe deeper, or on Iran to cooperate more.
In its Iran safeguards report for September, the IAEA still could not verify the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations. In short: The IAEA is unable to provide credible assurances of the peaceful nature of Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran now has thousands of advanced centrifuges spinning at fortified enrichment locations, and the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear bombs in under three months. It may be building a new enrichment site deep in the mountains near Natanz that would be immune to even the strongest U.S. bunker-buster bombs. Tehran is limiting IAEA monitoring of its nuclear sites and activities, withdrawing cameras, and restricting inspections. Iran advances its nuclear program, waiting for an opportune time to cross the nuclear threshold.
Former IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen: A new approach to Iran is needed that addresses “Iran’s fundamental breaches of its nonproliferation obligations”
A reported new arrangement between Tehran and the Biden administration requires just token reductions of Iran’s capabilities in return for significant sanctions relief. Thus far, according to the IAEA’s latest reporting, these regime concessions appear illusory. The West heralds this as a win, but the Islamic Republic remains a nuclear threshold state.
The United States and its partners must act.
They must demand a new, comprehensive, and verifiable declaration by Tehran of all nuclear activities, past and present, and direct the IAEA to undertake a large-scale investigation backed by full Iranian cooperation. The investigation must include access to sites and equipment, personnel interviews, and provision of documentation. It is indispensable that the IAEA inspect all installations and institutes involved in the pre-2003 Amad Plan — something it has not yet done.
Moreover, absent a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Tehran’s full cooperation with the IAEA, and a deep IAEA investigation into the regime’s ongoing nuclear weapons activities, Washington and its partners should not authorize further sanctions relief for Iran.
The 20th year of the Iran nuclear crisis is upon us. Unless the West pivots soon and changes its lackadaisical approach, the result could be a regime that need not rush. Under the world’s watch, it will simply stroll to possession of atomic weapons.
Olli Heinonen is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and served for 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), most recently as deputy director-general. Andrea Stricker is deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).