Iran Accelerates Highly Enriched Uranium Production

January/February 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran accelerated its production of uranium enriched to near-weapons grade levels in November, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, seen attending a meeting in Moscow, said in a Dec. 9 speech that the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is becoming “useless.”  (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu via Getty Images)In a Dec. 26 report, the IAEA noted that Iran is now producing approximately nine kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 per month. Iran was producing 60 percent enriched U-235 at a similar rate in early 2023, but decreased production by about two-thirds in June. (See ACT, October 2023.)

Accelerating the production of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 is concerning because the material can be quickly enriched to weapons-grade levels or 90 percent.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States condemned Iran’s decision in a Dec. 28 statement and described it as a “backwards step” that demonstrates Tehran’s “lack of good will” toward deescalation. The statement said that Iran’s actions “represent reckless behavior in a tense regional context” and urged Tehran to “immediately reverse these steps.”

Mohammad Elsami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, dismissed the IAEA report as propaganda. The increase in enrichment of uranium to 60 percent U-235 comes amid mixed signals from Tehran regarding its interest in nuclear diplomacy and restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a Dec. 9 speech that the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is becoming “useless.” The United States and Iran are “not currently on the path to return” to the nuclear deal, he said, but Iran would consider restoring the accord if it “serves our interest.”

The comments appear to suggest a subtle shift in Iranian messaging regarding the JCPOA. Iran publicly continued to support restoring the accord long after the United States signaled that returning to the nuclear deal is no longer a U.S. priority.

Kurt Campbell, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, reaffirmed the U.S. position before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 7. Campbell, the Biden administration’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, said that the nuclear deal is “just not on the table” in the current environment.

It is unclear how the United States intends to respond to Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Iran took limited steps to slow certain nuclear activities in the second half of 2023, but the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza appear to have put discussions on further deescalatory measures on hold. (See ACT, October 2023.)

The Biden administration continues to enforce sanctions against Iran, but it is more challenging now for the United States to garner international support than it was in the period leading up to the JCPOA, when Washington, Beijing, and Moscow were aligned on pressing Tehran to negotiate.

Elsami said that sanctions have failed to halt the country’s nuclear program. In a Dec. 15 speech, he said that Iran will continue to invest in expanding its nuclear energy activities.

Tehran also is strengthening ties with Moscow and supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met on Dec. 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that Russia “gained good momentum over the past year” thanks to the support of Iran.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran of “deliberately supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine” and knowingly transferring drones for use against Ukrainian civilians.

The three states made the accusation during a UN Security Council meeting on Dec. 18 to discuss the UN secretary-general’s biannual report on implementation of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and modified UN sanctions on Iran.

They described Iran’s “continued and long-lasting contempt” for Resolution 2231 and urged Tehran to “cease its reckless proliferative activities in the region and beyond.”

The UN missile restrictions in the resolution expired in October, but the three states referred to evidence that Iran transferred missiles, drones, and related technologies without Security Council approval prior to that date. (See ACT, November 2023.)

During the Dec. 18 meeting, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, denied that Moscow received military assistance from Iran in violation of Resolution 2231. He said “there were not and could not be any deliveries to circumvent” the resolution.

Nebenzia also disputed that the UN Secretariat has the authority to investigate and attribute violations of the resolution and blamed the United States and Europe for the current nuclear crisis.

The United States and the European parties to the JCPOA “bear the key responsibility for the failure to implement the nuclear deal,” he said. Nebenzia added that Russia “remains convinced there are no alternatives” to the 2015 nuclear deal and expects “Western countries to abandon their policy of unilateral restrictions” against Iran.