By Kelsey Davenport
After a monthslong stalemate, Iran and the United States resumed indirect talks over Iran’s advancing nuclear program. It is unlikely that the two governments will reach an agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal or a new accord soon, but both sides appear willing to take steps to deescalate tensions.
Such steps could reduce the likelihood of conflict because Iran’s current nuclear trajectory is increasing the risk that the United States or Israel will determine that military action is necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Since talks to restore the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), stalled last August, the political space for the United States and Europe to reach a deal with Iran has narrowed. Iran’s illegal transfer of drones to Russia for use in its war on Ukraine and Iran’s brutal crackdown on civilian protesters make it highly unlikely that the Biden administration will negotiate a deal with Iran that provides broad sanctions relief prior to the 2024 elections.
Furthermore, the United States is unlikely to accept the draft deal under consideration last August to restore the JCPOA given Iran’s nuclear advances over the past 10 months. U.S. officials have suggested that the Biden administration is open to taking steps to deescalate if Iran is prepared to do the same, and they conveyed that message to Iran.
In a June 12 interview with the newsletter Diplomatic, a senior U.S. official speaking anonymously said that if Iran shows it is open to changing the “current trajectory,” it would “open up different possibilities.” The United States also made clear that if Iran takes certain steps to ratchet up its nuclear program, “it could lead us to a very dangerous spot,” the official said.
Iranian officials long have maintained that they are only interested in a deal to revive the JCPOA. When Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nassar Kanaani confirmed on June 12 that Iranian and U.S. officials met for proximity talks in Oman in May, he said there are no discussions on an interim deal or any arrangement not based on the JCPOA.
But Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that Tehran may be open to other approaches. In a June 11 visit to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), he said that it is “not a problem” to reach agreements in certain areas so long as Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains intact.
Khamenei also reiterated that Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons and that if Iran “wanted to build nuclear weapons, we would have done so” and the West would not have been able to stop them.
Given the polarization over the JCPOA in Washington and Tehran, unilateral deescalatory steps may be a more politically viable alternative than negotiating a new agreement or a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal at this time.
In the U.S. view, deescalation reduces the risk that Iran’s nuclear program advances beyond U.S. or Israeli redlines to trigger military action. Capping certain nuclear activities and increasing transparency would also make it more challenging for Iran to take steps toward nuclear weapons development without rapid detection.
An understanding that both sides will take unilateral steps also may avoid triggering the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, a 2015 U.S. law that allows Congress to vote on any Iranian-U.S. nuclear agreement. If both chambers pass a resolution of disapproval, the president cannot lift sanctions on Iran. Given the current political dynamics, any congressional review would be contentious. On the Iranian side, deescalation would reduce the risk of military strikes on the nuclear infrastructure and bring economic benefits.
Deescalatory steps also would allow both sides to retain leverage for future talks and could be enacted more swiftly than returning to talks over the JCPOA.
It is unclear exactly what steps both sides might take if there is a mutual interest in deescalation. Iran’s nuclear program is one of several issues being discussed in the proximity talks.
On the nuclear side, U.S. and Iranian officials quoted in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal suggest that Iran would cap its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, refrain from enriching above that level, and increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These actions likely would reduce the most immediate proliferation risk and provide greater assurance that any attempt by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons development or divert materials for a covert program would be detected. The United States would allow Iranian assets held abroad to return to the country through humanitarian channels and allow certain regional trade.
Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent-enriched U-235 poses a more immediate proliferation risk because it can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade levels, or 90 percent U-235. Tehran has threatened to enrich to 90 percent U-235 in response to future U.S. provocations. Israeli officials have suggested publicly that producing 90 percent-enriched U-235 would trigger military action.
In the short term, capping Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent-enriched U-235 would have some modest nonproliferation benefits. According to a May 31 report from the IAEA, Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent-enriched U-235 is 114 kilograms. If Iran were to enrich that stockpile to 90 percent U-235, it would have enough weapons-grade material for nearly three bombs in about three weeks.
But establishing a limit on the 60 percent-enriched U-235 stockpile will make it more time-consuming to produce additional weapons-grade material, increasing the likelihood of IAEA detection and giving the international community more time to respond. Limiting the stockpile at this point will not affect Iran’s ability to produce enough material for one bomb, which U.S. officials say is less than two weeks, but one nuclear weapon does not provide Iran with a nuclear deterrent.
Iran took limited steps to increase cooperation with the IAEA in May, but it is not clear if those actions were part of a March 4 agreement with the agency to increase transparency voluntarily or because of progress made during the Oman proximity talks. Further steps to increase transparency could provide significant benefits, given that Iran suspended its more intrusive safeguards agreement in February 2021 and switched off monitoring equipment at key sites in June 2022. The IAEA has warned multiple times that the gap seriously affects its ability to verify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA limits. It reported on May 31 that Tehran allowed inspectors to reinstall cameras at a centrifuge production facility in Esfahan in early May. Behrouz Kamalvandi, the AEOI spokesperson, suggested in June that the agency reinstalled cameras at certain facilities in Natanz, but the AEOI later denied the report.
Although the cameras may deter Iran from diverting materials for a covert program, reinstalling them provides few immediate benefits. The IAEA needs to be able to access the recordings from February 2021 to June 2022 and from the reinstalled equipment to begin reconstructing a history of Iran’s nuclear activities during the monitoring gap. When Iran agreed to allow IAEA cameras to continue recording in February 2021, after it limited inspector access, Tehran said it would hand over the data to the agency as part of an agreement to restore the JCPOA.
But the monitoring gap makes it more difficult for the IAEA to reestablish reliable baselines for certain inventories, such as uranium centrifuge components and uranium ore concentrate. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned in the past several IAEA reports that the agency will not be able verify certain JCPOA limits if the deal is restored, even with Iran’s cooperation, due to the monitoring gaps.
In a May 31 report, Grossi called for access to the new recordings and the data from the February 2021-June 2022 period “without delay.”
Iran also allowed the IAEA to install enrichment monitors at the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility and in the area of the Natanz enrichment facility. Both sites produce 60 percent-enriched U-235.
According to Grossi, installation of the monitors will provide the IAEA with more immediate and accurate data on Iran’s enrichment activities. This should deter Iran from enriching uranium to a level higher than 60 percent U-235 and quickly detect any spikes, such as the uranium enriched to 84 percent U-235 that the IAEA detected at Fordow in January.
The IAEA said in its May 31 report that Iran provided a “possible explanation” for the 84 percent-enriched U-235 particles and that it has no further questions at this time. Despite maintaining that the spike was accidental, Iran could have been experimenting with higher enrichment levels. In the future, the enrichment monitors would detect more accurately and swiftly any anomalies from declared levels.