The Nov. 11 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s implementation of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal confirms that Tehran resumed enrichment at its Fordow site under agency monitoring and is accelerating its production of low-enriched uranium. Iran’s frustration with the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in violation of the deal is understandable, but its most recent breach at Fordow is a very serious escalation that increases the risk that the nuclear agreement will collapse.
Like Iran’s three prior breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s resumption of enrichment at Fordow does not, by itself, pose a near-term threat. However, in combination, Iran’s violations over the past six months are slowly decreasing Iran’s so-called breakout, or the time it would take to produce enough fissile material for one bomb. When the JCPOA was fully implemented, the breakout was 12 months.
The IAEA reports that Iran has stockpiled about 372 kilograms of uranium enriched up to five percent uranium-235 (see below for details). This is far below the estimated 1,050 kilograms of less than five percent enriched material that, when enriched to weapons-grade (greater than 90 percent uranium-235), is enough for one bomb—but Iran’s production is accelerating. If Iran produces five kilograms of enriched uranium a day, which Ali Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, says is possible, Iran’s stockpile could hit 1,050 kilograms in just over four months—or sooner if Iran continues to expand its enrichment capacity.
While Iranian officials have said that the program is nearly restored to its pre-JCPOA status, Iran’s current activities pose far less of a threat than in 2013. At that time, Iran had stockpiled more than 7,000 kilograms of uranium gas enriched to less than five percent and could have produced enough weapons-grade material for one bomb in 2-3 months.
Furthermore, Tehran’s continued compliance with the intrusive IAEA monitoring and verification measures put in place through the JCPOA indicates that Iran is not racing to build a bomb but is trying to apply more pressure on the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on economic benefits agreed to in the JCPOA.
While the increased enrichment capacity at Fordow does not pose a near-term risk, Iran’s use of this underground facility, which was initially built in secret, poses a greater threat than enrichment at Natanz (where limited enrichment is allowed by the JCPOA) because it would be difficult, if not impossible, to completely destroy the site with a military strike. While military action would only set Iran’s program back several years and would likely encourage Tehran to openly pursue nuclear weapons, U.S. presidents have repeatedly stated that the military option is on the table to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. To neutralize the risk posed by Fordow, the JCPOA prohibits Iran from introducing uranium into the facility for 15 years and provides Iran with assistance to convert the site to a research and stable isotope production facility.
As troubling as Iran’s latest breaches of the 2015 deal may be, there is still time to pursue a diplomatic resolution and bring all parties back into compliance with the JCPOA.
French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed an interim deal that would have Iran return to full compliance with the JCPOA, reiterate its commitment to “never acquire a nuclear weapon,” commence negotiations on a “long-term framework for its nuclear activities” with France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, and agree to talks on regional security concerns. In return, the United States would have lifted sanctions imposed since 2017 and allow Iran to export oil without restrictions.
Macron’s plan, details of which were leaked in October, still represents a viable win-win option to restore full compliance with the JCPOA but the window of opportunity to pursue it is closing.
France, along with Germany, the United Kingdom, and the EU, said in a Nov. 12 statement that Fordow is a “regrettable acceleration of Iran’s disengagement” with its JCPOA obligations and reiterated their willingness to use the dispute resolution mechanism under the deal. Despite this condemnation, they said they are ready to “continue our diplomatic efforts” to de-escalate tensions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has emphasized that Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA are reversible and that Tehran is open to “win-win conditions” to restore compliance with the accord. He has also warned, however, that Iran will take further steps to breach the JCPOA in 60 days if the remaining parties do not deliver economic benefits. The nuclear deal may not survive another breach.
Key Details from the Nov. 11 IAEA Report
The IAEA does not determine Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but the most recent report indicates that Iran has violated the following restrictions on its nuclear activities that were agreed to in the JCPOA:
The IAEA report also noted areas where Iran continues to comply with the accord:
The Nov. 11 report by the IAEA Acting Director-General on “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015)” can be accessed on the Arms Control Association website.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy