“Your association has taken a significant role in fostering public awareness of nuclear disarmament and has led to its advancement.”
– Kazi Matsui
Mayor of Hiroshima
June 2, 2022
Kelsey Davenport

Iran Sends Mixed Messages on Nuclear Activities

October 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran slowed its production of highly enriched uranium over the past three months and released five imprisoned Americans as part of a prisoner swap with the United States, but its failure to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could spoil further efforts to deescalate tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Morad Tahbaz (L) and Emad Shargi arrive at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia on Sept. 19, one day after they and three other Americans imprisoned by Iran were released in a deal with the United States that gives Tehran access to $6 billion in frozen funds. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)After months of negotiations, Iran released the Americans on Sept. 18 in exchange for five Iranians in U.S. custody and access to $6 billion in frozen assets. The money, which was held in South Korean banks in payment for oil purchased from Iran, was transferred to Qatar. Iran can access the funds through a humanitarian channel to pay for goods exempt from U.S. sanctions, such as food and medicine.

Bret McGurk, U.S. National Security Council adviser for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Washington Post on Sept. 18 that the money will be used to pay the vendors and “no funds
whatsoever are going into Iran.” He said the money in Qatar is subject to more restrictions than it was in South Korea.

Prior to the swap, the IAEA reported on Sept. 4 that, over the past two months, Iran decreased its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 by two-thirds when compared to the previous quarter. In addition, Iran blended six kilograms of 60 percent U-235 down to a purity of 20 percent. According to the IAEA report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 is about 121 kilograms.

Uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 poses a greater proliferation risk because it can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade level, or 90 percent U-235.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent U-235, a level suitable for power reactors.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, noted the reduction in a Sept. 12 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, but urged Iran “to halt all such production” and said the material has “no credible peaceful purpose.”

The United States and Iran discussed capping the stockpile of 60 percent U-235 during indirect talks in Oman in the spring. But neither party announced a specific cap, and those talks appeared to be on hold while the prisoner swap was finalized.

McGurk emphasized that U.S. efforts to free the hostages in Iran “was not linked to nuclear diplomacy,” but said that the Biden administration made clear that “diplomacy cannot meaningfully advance if American citizens are being wrongfully detained.”

It is unclear if the prisoner swap will open the door to further actions to deescalate tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. The reduction in production of 60 percent U-235 may have been intended to send a signal that Iran is committed to taking steps to reduce nuclear risk, but Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s comments during the UN General Assembly and Tehran’s failure to work with the IAEA to enhance monitoring of its nuclear program and implement its safeguards agreement overshadowed the gesture.

During his UN General Assembly address, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called on the United States to “change their course” away from sanctions.  (Photo by Iranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)During his address on Sept. 19, Raisi said the United States violated the JCPOA and “must build trust to demonstrate its good intentions and genuine willingness to fulfill its commitments and conclude the path,” referring to a restoration of the agreement. Given Iran’s nuclear advances and the changing geopolitical landscape, it is unlikely that the Biden administration is interested in restoring the JCPOA at this point.

Raisi called on the United States to “change their course” away from sanctions that “have not yielded the desired results.”

He accused the West of interfering in Iranian domestic politics by supporting the protests that broke out last year after Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being beaten for violating the country’s dress codes. He suggested that Tehran will take further action to avenge the death of Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike during a visit to Iraq in 2020.

If Iran does take action against the United States, it would put at risk the fragile steps both sides have taken to mitigate tensions. Similarly, tensions between Iran and the IAEA could spoil efforts to stabilize the current nuclear crisis.

Iran agreed in March to enhance IAEA monitoring of its nuclear program. After modest progress installing surveillance cameras at one centrifuge production facility in early May, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the IAEA board on Sept. 11 that there has been “no further progress” in implementing the agreement.

The IAEA report noted that Iran on Aug. 28 rejected the agency’s requests to install cameras at another site where centrifuge components are manufactured and to access data recorded from surveillance equipment that operated from February 2021 to June 2022. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) The IAEA has not had access to these locations or surveillance data since February 2021, when Iran reduced IAEA monitoring and inspections. (See ACT, March 2021.) The report said access to the data recordings are “indispensable” to reestablish a “satisfactory understanding” of Iran’s inventories of centrifuge components. The IAEA also will need to establish baseline inventories for verifying limits under a restored JCPOA or, more likely, a new nuclear agreement.

Holgate said Iran’s cooperation “remains significantly lacking overall.”

The report noted that Iran’s stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235 and 5 percent U-235 grew over the past quarter and that Iran installed an additional cascade of advanced IR-4 centrifuges at the nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz.

In response to these advances and the lack of cooperation with the agency, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom announced that they would continue to implement sanctions originally set to expire in October under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

In a Sept. 4 statement, they said the decision to maintain “nuclear proliferation-related measures on Iran, as well as arms and missile embargoes” is a “direct response to Iran’s consistent and severe non-compliance.” Maintaining the sanctions is “fully compliant” with the 2015 nuclear deal, the statement said. The three states also noted their efforts to resolve Iran’s breaches through the dispute resolution mechanism set up by the nuclear deal.

In a Sept. 15 statement, the Iranian Foreign Ministry accused the three countries of “malicious intentions” and said the decision to retain sanctions “creates tensions” and violates the JCPOA. Iran defended its decision to breach the JCPOA limits, calling its actions a “completely legal” retaliatory response to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

In apparent retaliation for the European decision to retain sanctions, Tehran informed the IAEA that it would not allow certain agency inspectors to conduct safeguards inspections in Iran. Prior to this announcement, Iran had rejected at least one other inspector.

Under a safeguards agreement, a state can refuse to allow certain inspectors from conducting safeguards, but Grossi suggested that Iran is abusing this right. He condemned Iran’s decision in a Sept. 16 statement and said Iran has “effectively removed about one-third of the core group of the agency’s most experienced inspectors designated for Iran.” Grossi described the decision as an “unnecessary blow to an already strained relationship” between Iran and the agency and said that “shutting out” inspectors affects the agency’s verification mandate. He urged Iran to “correct course.”

Despite Tehran’s decision to release five jailed Americans and slow a key nuclear activity, it is unclear if Iranian-U.S. tensions will deescalate.

Kim, Putin Meet to Discuss Military Ties

October 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and pledged to support Moscow’s war against Ukraine despite U.S. warnings that North Korea will pay a price if it transfers munitions to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before they inspect the spaceport Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Amur region on Sept. 13. Kim says that relations with Russia are “the very first priority” for his country. (Photo by Kremlin Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)It is not clear if Kim and Putin reached any agreements during their five-hour meeting at a cosmodrome in eastern Russia on Sept. 13. But Russian and North Korean media reported that the leaders called for strengthening cooperation between the two countries and emphasized their shared struggle against what they called imperialist powers.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that, during his lunch with Putin, Kim reiterated North Korean support for the Russian war in Ukraine and expressed confidence that Russia will “win a great victory” against hegemonic forces.

The military focus of Kim’s itinerary, which included tours of the space port, a naval frigate, and a fighter aircraft production facility, further suggest that the two countries are deepening military ties.

Kim did not say specifically that North Korea will ship munitions to Russia, which would be a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. But Moscow is facing shortages of the munitions it is using against Ukraine, and certain North Korean artillery and rockets are compatible with Russian systems.

In a Sept. 10 interview with CBS, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris called Putin’s decision to meet with Kim an “act of desperation” and said that it would be a “huge mistake” for North Korea to provide arms to Russia.

But U.S. warnings and UN restrictions are unlikely to stop either Moscow or Pyongyang from engaging in illicit weapons and technology transfers, particularly if both sides perceive the cooperation as benefiting their national security interests.

Putin said on Sept. 13 that Russia “complies with all the restrictions,” but when asked directly about military support for North Korea’s military and space program, he replied that “all questions will be discussed” and that there are “prospects” for cooperation. Russia has purchased drones from Iran in violation of UN Security Council sanctions, a sign that it may be willing to take a similar risk with North Korea. Russian news agency TASS reported that, at the end of Kim’s trip, Russia presented North Korea with six surveillance drones, which would violate Security Council restrictions.

A week before Kim’s trip, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States has not seen North Korea “actively supply” a large amount of munitions or other military supplies to Russia, but that discussions about military support are “advancing.”

Sullivan said in a Sept. 6 press briefing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu’s trip to North Korea in July was “in essence” to ask for weapons. Shoigu attended a military parade with Kim and visited several munitions factories. (See ACT, September 2023.)

Sullivan said North Korea will “pay a price” if it provides Russia with weapons to use on the battlefield against Ukraine and that the Biden administration will continue to “look for opportunities to dissuade the North Koreans from taking this step.”

Shoigu met again with Kim and other North Korean military officials during their trip to Russia. The KCNA reported that Kim and Shoigu discussed “practical issues” related to strengthening “cooperation and mutual exchange between the armed forces of the two countries” during a meeting in Vladivostok.

Kim’s trip came amid efforts by Pyongyang to further advance its nuclear weapons program and develop its struggling space program. Kim’s activities in Russia, which included a briefing on Russian space launch vehicles, suggest that Pyongyang is looking for Moscow’s assistance with its space program. After visiting the spaceport, North Korean media reported that Kim called Russia a “space power” and said he was pleased to have a more detailed understanding of Russia’s capabilities.

In August, North Korea again failed to launch a satellite into orbit using the three-stage Cholima-1 space launch vehicle. Similar to the attempt made in June, the Cholima-1 exploded before delivering a satellite to orbit. (See ACT, July/August 2023.) North Korea announced that a third attempt is planned for October.

Putin suggested that Russia is willing to assist North Korea with its space program, saying that North Korea “shows great interest in space” and Russia has “good expertise” and infrastructure.

It is unclear what specific assistance Russia may be willing to provide. States are prohibited from assisting North Korea’s space program under Security Council resolutions because space launch vehicles use technologies applicable to ballistic missiles, but Russia no longer supports tightening sanctions on North Korea as it advances its illegal nuclear and missile programs.

Russia blocked recent efforts at the Security Council to condemn North Korea’s illicit activities and strengthen sanctions. (See ACT, July/August 2023.) During Kim’s visit to the spaceport, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his government supported past sanctions during a different geopolitical environment. He accused the United States of refusing to support Security Council resolutions that would meaningfully address tensions on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea is also expanding its nuclear weapons program. Kim oversaw the inauguration of a new “tactical nuclear attack submarine,” according to a Sept. 8 statement from the KCNA.

The news agency said that the launch of the Hero Kim Kun Ok submarine represents a “new chapter for bolstering up the naval force” and the country’s “steadfast will…to further strengthen the state nuclear deterrence in both quality and quantity.”

The Hero Kim Kun Ok is a modified Soviet-era submarine. Photos suggest that North Korea expanded the missile deck, which now includes 10 vertical launch tubes. In an analysis for 38 North, missile expert Vann Van Diepen said that four of the launch tubes appear large enough for submarine-launched ballistic missiles that North Korea tested in the past, the Pukguksong-1 and Pukguksong-3. The smaller tubes likely are intended to hold Hwasal-2 land-attack cruise missiles, he said.

But South Korea expressed doubt over whether the submarine is ready for deployment. In a Sept. 8 statement, the South Korean military said the submarine does not “look capable of normal operation.”

Even if the submarine is operational, the Soviet-era diesel design will be noisy and easier to track than more advanced nuclear-armed submarines with nuclear power reactors operated by countries such as the United States.

Although the submarine will be vulnerable, it gives North Korea additional options for deploying nuclear weapons and would be more difficult for South Korea and Japan to defend against.

Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said that the announcement demonstrates that North Korea’s military poses a “graver and more imminent threat.”

During the submarine inauguration ceremony, Kim said that North Korea plans to remodel additional submarines to carry tactical nuclear weapons.

The North Korean and Russian leaders called for stronger cooperation during a meeting that had a heavy focus on military issues. 

IAEA Reports No Progress on Iran Probe

October 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

A group of states rebuked Iran for failing to meet its legal safeguards obligations and threatened to pursue further action against Tehran if it does not cooperate with inquiries from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters in Vienna on Sept. 11 that Iran still must provide the agency with “technically credible explanations for the presence of uranium particles” at two locations in Iran.(Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States accused Iran of persisting in its “deliberate refusal to engage earnestly” with the IAEA in a Sept. 13 statement, issued during the agency’s Board of Governors meeting. The states said the board must be prepared to take further action to support the IAEA and “hold Iran accountable” if Tehran does not fulfill its safeguards obligations.

One of the safeguards issues the four states noted is Iran’s failure to provide technically credible answers to IAEA questions about processed uranium that inspectors detected at two locations in 2019 and 2020. The presence of the uranium particles and the IAEA analysis suggest that Tehran should have declared these locations to the agency under its legally required safeguards agreement. The agency analysis suggests that the illicit activities involving uranium took place prior to 2003, when Iran’s organized nuclear weapons program ended.

The statement came after IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi raised concern about the “routinization” of the Iran case during a Sept. 11 press conference and said there is a “decrease in interest” from member states regarding the outstanding issues. Grossi said the agency’s issues with Iran are “as valid today as they were before.”

The board has already passed three resolutions, most recently in November 2022, urging Iran to cooperate with the agency. The board has not taken any action since then.

Iran committed in March to “resolve the outstanding safeguards issues” and provided answers regarding a third site in May, but Grossi said on Sept. 11 that there has been no progress on that pledge over the past three months. He said Iran must provide the agency with “technically credible explanations for the presence of uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at Varamin and Turquzabad.” Grossi said this issue must be resolved for the IAEA to “provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”

Evidence analyzed by the IAEA suggests that Iran conducted activities related to uranium milling and conversion at Varamin prior to 2003 and stored equipment from its pre-2003 illicit activities at Turquzabad.

Iran disputed the IAEA assessment that there was no progress on the March commitment over the past quarter.

Mohsen Naziri Asal, Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, said that the report “could have been better and presented to the Board of Governors in a manner that more accurately reflects the existing realities.” In a Sept. 13 interview with Iran Nuances, he said that Tehran has had “numerous discussions” with the IAEA that demonstrate that Tehran can “resolve issues through a highly constructive and positive engagement with the agency.” Iran is committed to addressing agency questions about the two sites, he said.

An IAEA report on Sept. 4 noted that Iran told the agency in June that it “exhausted all efforts” to determine the origin of the uranium particles and again suggested that the sites may have been contaminated with uranium as an act of sabotage.

During an Aug. 28 meeting with the IAEA in Tehran, Iran said it had “collected additional information” about the dismantled storage containers present at Turquzabad that were removed from the site prior to a visit by IAEA inspectors. Iran said it would provide the agency with that information. The IAEA requested to receive it as soon as possible.

Eight states, including China and Russia, issued a statement supporting Iran’s position. It welcomed Iran’s continued cooperation with the IAEA and said the remaining issues should be resolved in a “depoliticized manner without interference from the outside.”

In a separate statement, 63 states underscored the “urgent need” for Iran to provide “technically credible” answers to the IAEA’s questions.

The IAEA was investigating two other locations never declared as part of Iran’s nuclear program, but the agency ended those inquiries.

The agency concluded in May 2022 that, at one of the sites, Lavisan-Shian, Iran conducted activities related to uranium metal that should have been declared.


A group of states is threatening further action against Iran if it does not cooperate with safeguards-related inquiries from the International Atomic Energy Agency.   

New Momentum for Nuclear Talks?

The United States and Iran took limited steps to de-escalate tensions over the past few weeks, but it is unclear if the progress will lead to a resumption of talks over Iran’s advancing nuclear program and steps to reduce nuclear risk. On Sept. 18, five Americans imprisoned in Iran returned to the United States. In exchange, five Iranians in U.S. custody were released, and South Korea completed the transfer of $6 billion of Iran’s frozen assets to Qatar. Iran can access those funds to pay for goods exempt from U.S. sanctions, such as food and medicine. The Biden administration faced criticism...

States Urge UN Investigation of Iran Drone Sales

September 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

States urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres to investigate evidence that Iran exported drones to Russia in violation of Security Council restrictions, but action appears unlikely after the UN Secretariat did not act on a similar request last year.

Remains of an Iranian Shahed-136 drone that Ukrainians said Russia used to attack Kyiv on May 12. Fragments of these and other weapons are being studied at the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise and results are being submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Photo by Oleksii Samsonov /Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)In a July 6 statement to the Security Council, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran of escalating its violations of Security Council Resolution 2231 by “transferring hundreds” of drones to Russia since August 2022 “in the knowledge that Russia uses them to target Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.” The three states “strongly caution Iran against any further deliveries,” the statement said.

Iran is prohibited from exporting certain missiles, drones, and components relevant to building such systems under the resolution, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The secretary-general reports biannually on implementation of the resolution. The July 6 council meeting included a briefing on the latest report, dated June 29.

According to that report, Ukraine submitted another letter to the secretary-general in June assessing that components recovered from drone debris are of Iranian origin and that the drones used in attacks against Ukraine were transferred “in a manner inconsistent” with Resolution 2231. The UK also submitted an assessment of two drones recovered by Ukraine. In a May 18 letter to the secretary-general, the UK said the drones were the Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 systems and transferred to Russia in violation of Resolution 2231.

In two letters to the secretary-general in May and June, Iran rejected the allegations and said the evidence “lacks credibility.” It said the resolution prohibits the transfer of items that could contribute to nuclear weapons delivery systems and that Iran “never manufactured or supplied, nor does it intend to manufacture or supply” such items.

The three European states and Ukraine requested that the secretary-general examine the drone debris. These countries, along with the United States, made a similar request ahead of the prior implementation report, but the UN Secretariat did not follow through.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a July 6 statement that the secretary-general’s failure to accept requests to “review indisputable evidence of these violations” is an “inexplicable lapse.”

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia argued that the secretariat is “not authorized to take such action” and that it can only conduct “voluntary inquiries upon an invitation” from certain states. He said Russia would view any such investigation as “a deliberate provocation.”

Nebenzia called for the secretary-general to keep the reports on Resolution 2231 “well-balanced and objective.”

Although the secretariat did not investigate the evidence of Iranian drone transfers to Russia, it did follow up on a UK seizure of ballistic missile components in the Gulf of Oman in February, according to the June 29 report. The UK said the missile parts are for medium-range systems of Iranian origin. The report said the UN Secretariat is still analyzing information about the seizure but photographs of the systems show similar characteristics to the missiles the Houthis used against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The missile and drone restrictions in Resolution 2231 expire in October unless one of the three European countries reimposes UN sanctions on Iran using a special mechanism in the resolution that cannot be vetoed. Despite Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA, it is unlikely that the Europeans will exercise this option unless Iran transfers ballistic missiles to Russia.

Iran has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if the UN sanctions are reimposed.


Despite evidence that Iran exported drones to Russia in violation of Security Council restrictions, a probe appears unlikely after the UN Secretariat did not act on a similar request last year.   

North Korea Defends Nuclear Weapons Program at UN

September 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

In a rare appearance at the UN Security Council, North Korea’s ambassador accused the United States of pushing the region to the “brink of nuclear war” and defended his government’s expanding nuclear weapons program as necessary for national security.

North Korea’s UN Ambassador Kim Song made a rare appearance at the UN Security Council in July to defend his government’s expanding nuclear weapons program. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)The July 13 council meeting was convened after North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile a day earlier. It was Pyongyang’s second test of the three-stage Hwasong-18 missile, a solid-fueled system capable of targeting the continental United States.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described the test as a “strong practical warning” to North Korea’s enemies and called the Hwasong-18 the “core weapon system” of the country’s strategic forces.

Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from launching ballistic missiles, but the council has failed to respond to Pyongyang’s recent violations. (See ACT, July/August 2023.)

North Korean Ambassador Kim Song said the missile test posed “no threat” to other states. He said Pyongyang’s missile activities are necessary to “safeguard the security of our state” and blamed U.S. military activity for rising regional tensions.

Kim’s statement marks the first time North Korea has addressed the Security Council since 2017.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, acting deputy U.S. ambassador, told the council that the frequency of North Korea’s missile launches “should not erode our capacity to meaningfully respond to nuclear proliferation.” He called out China and Russia for preventing the council from “speaking with one voice” and said the silence emboldens North Korea to continue violating council resolutions.

But Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun defended Beijing’s approach and told the council that North Korea’s “legitimate security concerns have never been addressed.” The U.S. obsession with sanctions and pressure threaten North Korean security, Zhang said.

He said the United States should “come up with practical plans and take meaningful actions to respond” to North Korean concerns rather than accusing other states of preventing council action.

DeLaurentis expressed hope that North Korea’s participation in the meeting “demonstrates that it is ready to engage in meaningful diplomacy without preconditions” but if it does not, the council should “return to the era when we used our collective voice to address nuclear proliferation.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated the call for engagement in a July 16 interview with Face the Nation, but said that it “would not come as a surprise” if North Korea conducts another nuclear test.

North Korea rebuffed U.S. calls for diplomacy. Kim Yo Jong, deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, described the U.S. overtures as “preposterous” in a July 17 statement. She said North Korea will not “barter away its eternal security,” referring to the country’s nuclear weapons, for “variable and reversible” U.S. commitments.

Kim, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said the United States must realize that the “further it strengthens the system of extended deterrence and the more excessively it expands the system of military alliance,” the farther it pushes North Korea from the negotiating table.

The day after Kim’s statement, the United States and South Korea issued a statement on the first meeting of a bilateral Nuclear Consultative Group that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden announced during Yoon’s visit to Washington in April. (See ACT, May 2023.) The group is intended to provide South Korea with more opportunities to participate in U.S. extended deterrence planning.

The statement noted that Seoul and Washington agreed to establish “workstreams to bolster nuclear deterrence and response capabilities” and discussed how South Korea can provide conventional support for U.S. nuclear operations. The two sides reiterated that any nuclear attack by North Korea will be met with “a swift, overwhelming and decisive response.”

North Korea demonstrated its own advancing capabilities in a July 27 military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.

The parade did not include any new long-range missile systems, but North Korea displayed a new short-range ballistic missile launcher and two new drone systems.

Chinese and Russian officials, including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, watched the parade with North Korean leader Kim. Shoigu joined Kim in touring a weapons exhibition in Pyongyang.

Shoigu’s visit came amid new allegations that North Korea is providing arms for Russia’s use in Ukraine. Although North Korea is prohibited from exporting weapons under Security Council resolutions, it continues to sell weapons illicitly.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in an Aug. 7 press briefing that the Biden administration has made clear its concerns “about North Korea seeking to assist Russia in its aggression in Ukraine” and said the United States will “continue to enforce all of our sanctions.”

Kim also conducted talks with the Chinese officials, KCNA reported, and the two sides agreed to strengthen collaboration.

In a rare appearance at the UN Security Council, North Korea’s ambassador accused the United States of pushing the region to the “brink of nuclear war.”  

United States, Iran Resume Nuclear Talks

July/August 2023
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.

Haitham bin Tariq (R), sultan of Oman, is welcomed by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (C) in Tehran on May 28. Two weeks later, an Iranian spokesperson confirmed that Iranian and U.S. officials held proximity talks in Oman in May. (Photo by Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)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.

The two sides are unlikely to restore the 2015 nuclear deal but they could take steps to reduce tensions.


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