A report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog has expressed dissatisfaction in Iran’s answers to questions over its past atomic activities.

Iran agreed March 5 to provide written explanations by March 20 of long-standing issues in its nuclear work before 2003, and to clear up remaining queries by June 21. But a new quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expresses disquiet with Iran’s response to agency queries over four sites not declared as part of the nuclear program where inspectors detected traces of uranium.

"Iran has not provided explanations that are technically credible in relation to the Agency's findings at those locations," the report says. Mohammad Eslami, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in April that Tehran had answered all the agency’s questions.

Back in 2015, the IAEA concluded that Iran had operated an “organizational structure” carrying out “feasibility and scientific studies” in nuclear research before 2003, with some aspects continuing until 2009. When Iran agreed in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) drastically limiting its nuclear program, the agency’s emphasis shifted towards monitoring its compliance with the agreement reached with six world powers.

But the pre-2003 work was revived as an issue by further agency investigations after Israel claimed in 2018 to have stolen a trove of documents from Iran, and by Tehran’s expansion after 2019 of its nuclear program beyond JCPOA limits in response to the United States leaving the deal in 2018 and imposing ‘maximum pressures’ sanction.

A more assertive approach was also taken by Rafael Mariano Grossi, who became IAEA director-general in 2019.

The IAEA quarterly report comes with negotiations paused between Iran and world powers over restoring the JCPOA as US sanctions continue and Iran develops its nuclear program. A separate IAEA report put Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to 60 percent up 9.9kg to 43.1kg, with the agency calling this a “significant quantity,” given it could be further enriched relatively easily to the 90 percent required for a crude nuclear weapon.

Iran in early 2021, following the killing of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the continuing of ‘maximum pressure,’ scaled back cooperation with the IAEA almost to that required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and subsequently raised its level of enrichment to 20 percent and then 60 percent, far above the 3.67 percent cap set by the JCPOA.

The IAEA board is due to meet next week, and may face pressure from the United States to in censure Iran. Grossi has managed a series of ad hoc arrangements over access to the Iranian nuclear sites but has consistently argued that the agency’s role would be best performed with “political circumstances” overcome and the JCPOA back in place. The European Union, which alongside Russia and China, criticized the US leaving the JCPOA, has led diplomatic efforts to restart talks.

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