The United Nations' nuclear watchdog met Tuesday to complete its probe of oil-rich Iran’s nuclear weapons program, moving a step closer to the lifting of international sanctions on the country. It comes as oil prices are near a decade low.
World powers, including the United States, reached an agreement with Iran in July to limit its nuclear activities to peaceful purposes in return for sanctions relief.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will consider a vote Tuesday on a resolution that closes the agency’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear weapons work. The vote is a necessary step in implementing the nuclear agreement, which stands to open Iran’s vast oil reserves to global markets.
Global crude prices are near an 11-year low. Iran is poised to add a half million barrels a day to the saturated world oil supply by mid-2016 once the nuclear agreement starts getting implemented, said Sara Vakhshouri, a senior energy fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
Positive news on Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers "could have a psychological downward impact on the global oil prices,” Vakhshouri said. “This could happen even before Iran increases its export volumes.”
In a statement to the IAEA board of governors Tuesday, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said that his investigation did not answer all outstanding questions but did conclude that Iran's nuclear weapons research continued until 2009.
"The agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009," Amano said. "Nor has the agency found any credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material" in connection to such work, he said.
Implementing the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran is now the priority, he said. "Significant progress has been made on the Iran nuclear issue, but now is not the time to relax."
Supporters and critics of the nuclear deal agree that world powers should maintain pressure on Iran to make sure it sticks to the terms, but they disagree on whether Tuesday’s vote will make that task easier.
“It’s an important step for closing the book on the IAEA investigation into Iran’s past weaponization work, but it doesn’t mean the IAEA and Iran will have a normal relationship going forward,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a research organization that cheered the deal when it was reached.
“I do think Iran will push the edges of the agreement and the international community will have to be aggressive about keeping Iran from wandering into the gray zone,” Davenport said.
Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran sanctions at foreign policy group Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has criticized the nuclear agreement as too weak, says Tuesday’s vote will likely weaken it further.
"The international community has let Iran off the hook,” Dubowitz said. “Iran has learned that stonewalling and intransigence will be met with a feeble international response.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, blocked further steps his country must take until after the IAEA votes on the resolution.
Iran is already required to remove the core from its nuclear reactor at Arak, ship 98% of its enriched uranium fuel to other countries, dismantle 13,500 centrifuges that process uranium into fuel and allow the IAEA to install verification and monitoring equipment.
The IAEA resolution calls for inspectors to continue to seek “a broader conclusion” that Iran has not diverted nuclear material to undeclared facilities and that it has no secret weapons program, an allegation it has denied for years.
Davenport says the nuclear agreement gives the IAEA inspectors greater tools for accomplishing that goal.
Inspectors will have access to sites where nuclear activity is suspected, she said. Iran also agreed not to conduct explosive testing that in the past Iran claimed was for conventional purposes.
Davenport said that once sanctions are lifted and Iran becomes integrated in the world market “they will have a powerful incentive to remain there, (and) to remain compliant with the deal.”
Dubowitz was skeptical.
“Removing sanctions makes it much harder because we’re losing leverage to get Iran to comply,” he said.