US and Israeli hawks are worried Iran could use coronavirus pandemic fears and Western governments' preoccupation with staving off the accompanying economic disaster to evade nuclear monitors and quickly ramp up weapons-grade uranium development.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials are already talking about dramatically increasing the UN nuclear watchdog's remote monitoring capabilities, such as cameras and data monitors placed at key sites connected with Iranian nuclear power. Crucially the IAEA has online enrichment monitoring installed at some key nuclear locations throughout the country, such as at Natanz.
Some of these remote monitoring powers were established under the 2015 nuclear deal, but as coronavirus inside the Islamic Republic has begun impacting inspection teams directly, and also in many cases thwarting ability to inspect sites, officials want to see remote monitoring hugely increased.
Bloomberg reports on Thursday, "There’s concern that contact with carriers of the virus in Iran, where senior officials have been infected, could deplete the International Atomic Energy Agency’s roster of inspectors by forcing some into quarantine, according to two diplomats briefed on the matter who asked not to be identified."
Andreas Persbo, a nuclear-verification specialist at the think tank European Leadership Network told Bloomberg: “At a time when the prevalence of coronavirus in Iran potentially makes life for inspectors more difficult, the redundancies built into the JCPOA become more valuable.” He added, “That’s particularly the case for online enrichment monitoring.”
The IAEA in conjunction with the US' Oak Ridge National Laboratory previously developed unique online enrichment monitoring technology specifically for Iran as part of the JCPOA.
However, it's still in somewhat early usage and development, given that, "The gear was tested in July at Iran’s biggest uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, after Iran raised uranium enrichment levels to 4.5% in response to renewed U.S. sanctions," according to the Bloomberg report.
Officials confirmed the system worked exactly as expected and detected the breach. And now it's seen as more urgent inside the country as ever, also given anti-Iran hawks in the West are growing increasingly anxious over further violations as the globe is distracted by the more immediately pressing pandemic.