Iran Censure at Atomic Watchdog Signals Deep Diplomatic Rift

(Bloomberg) -- The United Nations’ atomic watchdog passed a resolution of censure against Iran on Wednesday, deepening a diplomatic rift over the Islamic Republic’s contested nuclear program.

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European diplomats proposed the measure after International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors reported Iran hasn’t helped them resolve a probe into uranium particles, presumed to be decades old and detected at undeclared locations.

Twenty mostly-western countries voted for the censure. China and Russia opposed the motion with the rest of the IAEA’s 35-member board abstaining, according to diplomats at the meeting. The three-page censure, drafted by France, Germany and the UK, said it was “essential and urgent” that Iran cooperates on the issue of the unexplained fissile matter.

Should Iran fail to clarify suspicions, the countries will demand the IAEA produce an updated assessment about the “possible presence or use of undeclared nuclear material” for non-peaceful purposes.

It was the IAEA’s first vote of censure since November 2022 and comes at a time of elevated tension in the Middle East. April’s military confrontation between Iran and Israel also prompted two prominent Iranian politicians to warn that if threatened, Tehran would be left with no choice but to change its nuclear doctrine and start developing nuclear weapons.

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The Persian Gulf nation has always maintained its atomic work is peaceful, but international doubts led to a 2015 agreement, limiting the program for sanctions relief.

China, Iran and Russia issued a joint statement ahead of the vote calling on Europe and the US to revive negotiations over the moribund nuclear deal that was unilaterally scuttled by former President Donald Trump in 2018.

“Both the agency and the Iranians have dug themselves into a hole,” Tariq Rauf, the IAEA’s former head of nuclear-verification policy, said. “Iran needs to provide explanations and the IAEA needs to be clear that in the 22 years since the Iran file was opened its inspectors have not reported diversion of nuclear material for weapons.”

The IAEA’s current probe into Iran stems from a cache of information released by Israel in 2018. Even as US intelligence agencies continue to report there’s no evidence that Iran is developing weapons, environmental samples taken by agency investigators suggest gaps in the IAEA’s understanding of past activities.

Iran continues to insist that it’s fully cooperated with the IAEA. Even after its president and foreign minister were killed in a helicopter crash last month, it only briefly delayed a planned technical meeting with investigators.

“This constructive cooperation should not be undermined by short-sighted political interests,” Iran told diplomats Tuesday in a 14-page briefing and demanded the IAEA “avoid distorting the bigger picture on cooperation.”

This week’s IAEA deliberations come as the clock winds down on key provisions in the original nuclear deal that stipulate UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic will be permanently lifted in October 2025, unless France or the UK raise a broader objection and extend the shelf life of the penalties.

The latest censure resolution could be used by the two countries, which are permanent members of the UN security council, to strengthen their case to do so.

“This resolution should be a first step in a strategy aimed at achieving a sustainable, effective solution to Iran’s nuclear program that includes full cooperation with the IAEA, especially as we look ahead to October 2025,” Laura Holgate, the US envoy to the IAEA, said in a statement.

“This will be a natural inflection point for the international community’s quest to make certain that Iran’s program remains exclusively peaceful,” she said.

(Updates story with the result of the vote, adds US comment in the last paragraph)

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