Iran Announces Countermoves on Nuclear Deal
Tehran announced it will no longer be bound by certain limits set by the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal. Iran’s leaders also threatened to restart other nuclear activities restricted by the agreement in the future if the Europeans, China, and Russia do not deliver on sanctions relief (see below for details).
The announcement was a delayed if not predictable response to the Trump administration’s systematic attempt over the past year to deny Iran any benefits under the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council issued a statement May 8—one year after U.S. President Donald Trump violated the nuclear deal by reimposing sanctions on Iran and withdrew from the agreement—saying that the country will no longer be “respecting the limitation on keeping enriched uranium and heavy water reserves.”
If Iran follows through on its threat to breach the heavy water and enriched uranium limits it would be a violation of the JCPOA, but these actions do not pose a near-term proliferation risk. Heavy-water is used to moderate reactors that can produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, but Iran is years away from an operating heavy-water reactor. Breaching the 300 kilogram-limit on uranium hexafluoride enriched to 3.67 percent will, down the road, reduce the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon (the so-called breakout timeline), but is a far cry from the 90 percent enriched uranium-235 considered weapons grade.
Iran’s statement said “once our demands are met, we will resume implementation” of the JCPOA commitments. Specifically, Iran is looking for the remaining P4+1 parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) to agree on specific measures to facilitate oil sales and banking relationships—areas targeted by U.S. sanctions (see below for details.)
EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urged Iran in a May 9 statement to continue to meet its commitments under the deal and rejected “any ultimatums.” They said they will “assess Iran’s compliance” based on whether or not the country meets its JCPOA and NPT obligations.
In a reference to the United States, the statement also called on “countries not party to the JCPOA to refrain from taking any actions that impede the remaining parties’ ability to fully perform their commitments.” The ministers also reiterated their commitment to “enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the “irresponsible behavior” of the United States for creating an “unacceptable situation.” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said that “it is a shared responsibility of all parties to uphold and implement the JCPOA” and called upon “relevant sides to exercise restraint and step up dialogue to prevent a spiral of escalation of tensions.” He said Beijing regretted that U.S. moves “heightened tensions” and will protect Chinese entities engaged in business with Iran.
Iran’s announcement follows the April 22 U.S. announcement ending waivers that allowed states to buy oil from Iran and the May 3 U.S. decision to end waivers for certain nuclear cooperation projects, including those that allowed Iran to export enriched uranium and store excess heavy water out of the country (see below for details). Iran does have other options for remaining below the heavy water limit and enriched uranium cap, but Iranian officials may argue that the Trump administration has forced Tehran into exceeding the caps by preventing the sales or transfer of the material out of the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Iran’s plans as “intentionally ambiguous.” He said the United States will “have to wait to see what Iran’s actions actually are” before responding. The White House press release May 8 reiterated that Iran must “abandon its nuclear ambitions” and detailed U.S. sanctions efforts over the past year, but did not reference Iran’s announcement.
The United States did announce new sanctions targeting Iran’s industrial metal exports, but those appear to have been planned to coincide with the May 8 anniversary of U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, not in response to Iran’s decision.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director
Of greater proliferation risk are the activities that Iran may pursue if the P4+1 do not come through with sanctions relief, specifically on oil sales and banking transactions, within 60 days. At that point, the Supreme National Security Council said Iran will resume construction on its unfinished heavy water reactor at Arak and resume higher-level enrichment.
The Supreme National Security Council statement quoted publicly did not specify what level of enrichment Iran would pursue, merely that the country will “cease implementation of restrictions on uranium enrichment levels.” However, Ali Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has stated that Iran would resume enrichment to 20 percent uranium-235 at its Fordow facility. Iran is currently limited to 3.67 percent enrichment and prohibited from uranium enrichment at Fordow for 15 years. Before the JCPOA, Iran’s use of Fordow to enrich to 20 percent was a key U.S. concern.
Increasing enrichment levels, in particular, would pose a far greater proliferation risk than breaching the 300-kilogram cap, as it would more quickly reduce Iran’s so-called breakout time, or the time it would take to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Resuming construction on the Arak reactor poses a less near-term risk, as that facility is likely years away from operation and Tehran does not currently have the capability to reprocess the spent fuel to extract plutonium for weapons purposes.
Iran’s Vice Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi also threatened to withdraw from the JCPOA in its entirety if the any of the parties to the agreement attempt to snap UN Security Council sanctions back into place.
There are a number of factors that will influence when and if Iran follows through on its threat to breach the heavy water and enriched uranium limits. The timing of any violation is largely within Iran’s control, but from a technical standpoint, it could happen within the next month or so.
The JCPOA sets a stockpile limit on enriched uranium at 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235. That accounting includes the equivalent of any enriched uranium in other forms. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section J.) The weight of the uranium in 300 kilograms of UF6 is 202.8 kilograms. According to the IAEA, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent in all forms was 163.8 kilograms in mid-February. That put Iran about 39 kilograms below the limit.
Based on Iran’s record of production since the deal was implemented in 2016, Tehran appears to either be downblending enriched uranium back to natural levels to stay under the cap or operating less than the allowed 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges. How quickly Iran reaches the limit of 202.8 kilograms of enriched uranium will depend on whether or not it operates all of its allowed centrifuges and stockpiles all of the enriched uranium produced.
Iran’s heavy water production plant has a yearly production capacity of about 20 metric tons. As of mid-February, the IAEA reported that Iran’s stockpile of heavy water was 124.8 metric tons. When the next IAEA report is finalized, likely in late May, Iran could have produced an additional estimated five metric tons, bringing Tehran close to the 130 metric ton limit.
However, there are a number of factors within Iran’s control that could influence how quickly Tehran reaches the limit. While selling and transferring heavy water outside of the country for storage—methods Iran has used in the past to stay below the cap—are now targeted by U.S. sanctions, Tehran could use some of the heavy water itself for research purposes or slow/halt production at the facility. According to the IAEA, Iran has taken both of these steps in the past.
In addition to threatening withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iranian officials have also stated that the country may withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told state broadcaster IRIB April 28 that “The Islamic Republic’s choices are numerous, and the country’s authorities are considering them ... and leaving NPT is one of them."
Iran’s past pursuit of nuclear weapons violated its NPT commitments. The NPT commits Iran, in perpetuity:
Under Article X of the NPT, "a state may withdraw from the treaty, requiring three month's advance notice should "extraordinary events" jeopardize its supreme national interests. North Korea is the only other NPT state party to have declared its withdrawal from the NPT but its claim to have done so has not been formally recognized by other NPT states parties.
Iran’s announcement May 8 that it will begin adjusting its implementation under the JCPOA in retaliation for the reimposition of U.S. sanctions coincided with an April 29-May 10 conference of NPT states parties at the UN in New York in preparation for the treaty's 2020 Review Conference.
In the opening April 29 statement by Iran during the first week of the NPT gathering in New York, Iran’s delegate said:
"The U.S. continues to exert maximum pressure to dismantle the JCPOA and UNSC resolution 2231. These pressures, if continued, will be detrimental not only to the stability and security in the Middle East region but to the NPT. The anti-JCPOA and other unlawful and coercive measures by the U.S. administration against Iran allude to the fact that this administration is driven by the Rule of the Jungle in its international relations. Such policies will not be left unanswered and Iran will adopt appropriate measures to preserve its supreme national interests.”
However, on Tuesday, May 7, just a day ahead of Iran’s decision on the JCPOA, the chairman of Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said that Tehran will carry on its policy in the framework of the NPT and JCPOA, but will halt any of its excessive commitments.
Speaking to the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Falahatpisheh insisted, "There is no reason for Iran to remain loyal to any commitment outside the NPT and JCPOA," adding, "these commitments should rather be modified."
Withdrawal from the NPT would, obviously, raise fresh questions about the purpose of Iran's nuclear program and the leadership's stated commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons. Any plan by Iran to exit the NPT would be extremely counterproductive for Tehran and would undermine global security.
The Trump administration announced May 3 that it would extend waivers issued in November that will allow certain nuclear cooperation projects in Iran to proceed but end others. Allowing certain nuclear cooperation projects to move forward benefits U.S. and international nonproliferation interests. It also allows the remaining P4+1 parties to meet required obligations under the JCPOA to assist Iran in converting certain nuclear facilities and fueling/removing spent fuel from its existing reactors.
The waivers granted:
Given the clear nonproliferation benefits of these projects, there was no good reason to cut the waivers from 180 to 90 days and the Trump administration’s decision to do so raises questions about long-term U.S. support. These projects will not be completed within 90 days and several, such as the provision of reactor fuel and spent fuel takeback, are 15-year commitments that would ideally become permanent arrangements. This uncertainty could slow or halt these projects.
In what appears to be a concerted effort to provoke Iran into breaching the JCPOA, several waivers initially issued in November were not renewed:
(For more information on the nonproliferation benefits of these projects and the JCPOA’s requirements, see the Arms Control Association April 29 Issue Brief, Renewing Waivers for Nuclear Projects with Iran Serves U.S. Interests and for more information on the waiver decision, see Understanding the U.S. Moves on JCPOA Nonproliferation Project Waivers.)
In a major escalation of the U.S. effort deny Iran the promised benefits of the JCPOA, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced April 22 that the United States would not issue new waivers allowing states to purchase limited amounts of oil from Iran. The waivers were necessary after Trump violated the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions on Iran and withdrew from the agreement in May 2018.
The Trump administration had granted seven states plus Taiwan 180-day waivers in November to continue purchasing oil. Those waivers ended May 2. Legally, the Trump administration could have renewed the waiver if the states significantly reduced the volume of oil purchased. Pompeo, however, said that the United States was “going to zero across the board” and states should “err on the side of caution” before doing business with Iran because Washington will “enforce sanctions and monitor compliance.”
Pompeo said that the waivers had been initially granted to allow “allies and partners to wean themselves off of Iranian oil and to assure a well-supplied market.” Now, the United States will work to keep Iran at zero until the country decides to “end its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” ballistic missile activities, and sponsoring terrorism. Pompeo offered no evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and the U.S. intelligence community has publicly stated that Iran is not pursuing key activities related to weapons development and is abiding by the JCPOA.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said April 25 that Iran has a “PhD in sanctions busting” and will continue to sell oil. Zarif said that Iran will not be brought to its knees by U.S. pressure. U.S. tactics may, however, push Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal or push the boundaries of agreement.
Turkey, one of the states granted a waiver in November, urged the United States to revisit its decision. Prime Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said May 2 that Turkish refineries are not set up to take oil from other countries and the country cannot quickly convert the facilities. Turkey will continue “rational and legal” cooperation with Iran, he said.
China, Iran’s largest importer of oil, is “committed to protecting the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises,” according to an April 23 statement from Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. Shuang said Beijing “consistently opposes U.S. unilateral sanctions.”
Two EU states, Italy and Greece, had been granted waivers in November, but both had halted Iranian oil purchases ahead of the May 2 deadline. In a May 4 statement, the EU, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, however, expressed “regret and concern” over the U.S. decision not to extend waivers and reiterated that lifting sanctions is “an essential part of the JCPOA.” They committed to continue pursuing legitimate trade with Iran and said preserving the deal is “key to increasing stability and security in the Middle East region.”
More than 60 national security experts signed onto a bipartisan statement urging the Trump administration to rejoin the JCPOA. The May 2019 statement from the National Coalition to Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon emphasized that U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal undermined U.S. national security and “fueled momentum for a possible new conflict in the Middle East.”
The statement also noted that the U.S. unilateral action on the JCPOA weakens Washington’s relationships with allies and warned that if Iran withdraws from the deal because of U.S. actions, a “Middle Eastern nuclear arms race could ensue.”
Signers included former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, retired General Chuck Boyd, William Perry, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, and former Senators Timothy Wirth, Gary Hart, Ken Salazar, Chuck Robb, Carl Levin, and J. Bennett Johnson.
National Security Advisor John Bolton announced in a May 5 statement that the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force are being deployed to the U.S. Central Command region to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” Bolton’s statement said that the move response to a number of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said May 6 that the move was motivated by a “credible threat by Iranian regime forces” and described the action as a “prudent repositioning of assets.” Following Shanahan’s comments, the Defense Department said there are “indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces and our interests.”
Pompeo, however, told reporters that the Trump administration had been working on the deployment “for a little while.”
CNN later reported that the move was in part a response to a decision by Iran to place short-range ballistic missiles on ships. If true, the Trump administration’s decision to send a carrier group into the gulf in response would be an overreaction. Iran is capable of targeting U.S. assets in the region using its medium-range ballistic missiles, which have a range of 2,000 kilometers. Other news outlets reported that officials in the intelligence community say Bolton inflated the threat.
A group of scholars at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs released a report “The Iranian Nuclear Archive: Impressions and Implications” in April analyzing certain Iranian documents detailing the country’s past nuclear weapons work provided to them by Israel. The documents were part of the archival material that Israel stole from Iran in 2018 and the researchers noted that they were unable to independently verify the source of the material.
The Belfer report concluded from the documents that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was organized effort, approved by senior leaders, and included a plan to conduct an underground nuclear test. After the organized program ended in 2003, the documents show that activities continued in two parts: open activities that were part of Iran’s civil nuclear program and certain covert efforts that had no civilian rationale. The report states that documents on these disparate activities largely end in the mid-2000s.
The scholars also concluded that Iran made progress toward a nuclear weapon beyond what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) described in its December 2015 assessment of the country’s nuclear weapons program. The Belfer report assesses that Iran had completed a nuclear weapons design by 2003 and confirms the presence of a large chamber for explosive testing at Parchin. The documents also indicated that Iran made more progress than was previously disclosed on elements of manufacturing a nuclear device and was considering locations for a test site.
The Belfer report concludes that it will be critical to address certain issues revealed by the archives in any future negotiations with Iran. The scholars emphasize the importance of maintaining limits on fissile material production and IAEA follow up on certain information from the archive.
Iran announced a number of nuclear achievements during National Nuclear Day, celebrated April 9. Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that the new advances are applicable to a range of fields, including fuel exploration and extraction, power plant development, and other science fields.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani participated in the celebrations and said that the country would pursue several new technologies, including the installation of 20 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its Natanz facility.
Iran is permitted to enrich uranium using only up to 5,060 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuge machines under the nuclear deal, but Tehran can test limited numbers of advanced centrifuges based on the terms of the JCPOA and a more specific research and development plan submitted to the IAEA that is not public.
The nuclear deal states that Iran can test limited numbers of IR-6 centrifuges in small and intermediate cascades, but does not provide specific numbers until eight and a half years (mid-2024) after the implementation of the deal, at which point Iran can test 30 machines in a cascade. Iran is allowed to introduce uranium into the cascades, but cannot withdraw any enriched material.
An alleged copy of the confidential research and development plan, leaked to AP in 2016, suggests that Iran can move from cascades of about 10 IR-6 machines to cascades of 20 machines approximately halfway through the eight-and-a-half year period after implementation day. If the leaked plan is accurate, Iran may be interpreting the “approximately” language liberally, but it would not appear to be a violation of the deal.