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– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
New IAEA Report Details Iran’s Retaliatory Moves | The P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert EXTRA
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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:

  • Breached the limit on enriching uranium to no more than 3.67 percent for 15 years. The IAEA verified that Iran began enriching uranium to 4.5 percent uranium-235 July 8. Since that time, the IAEA report noted that Iran has produced 159.7 kilograms of uranium enriched up to that level and its centrifuges continue to produce 4.5 percent enriched material.
  • Breached the stockpile limit of 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent (about 202 kilograms of uranium by weight) for 15 years. In May 2018, Iran stated it would no longer be bound by the 300-kilogram limit. The IAEA confirmed that Iran breached the limit July 1. The IAEA reported that Iran’s current stockpile is 372.3 kilograms (of which 349 kilograms is in uranium gas form), comprised of 212.6 kilograms enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235 and 159.7 kilograms enriched up to 4.5 percent.
  • Breached restrictions on the number of advanced centrifuges installed and the 10-year prohibition on accumulating enriched uranium from advanced machines. The IAEA noted that Iran has installed small cascades of advanced centrifuge machines, including IR-2, IR-4, and IR-6 models, and is accumulating enriched uranium produced by these centrifuges. The JCPOA allows testing of limited numbers of machines with uranium (the numbers reported by the IAEA exceed the limits) but prohibits accumulating enriched material. Specifically, the IAEA reported that at Natanz:
    • A 164 machine IR-2 cascade, a 164 machine IR-4 cascade, and a 30 machine IR-6 cascade are producing enriched uranium for accumulation.
    • Iran has installed various numbers of IR-2, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-8 machines in two lines and intends to accumulate enriched uranium once the cascades are completed.
    • Additionally, Iran informed the IAEA that it will install six new centrifuges, the IR-7, IR-8s, IR-8B, IR-9, IR-s, and IR-6s at Natanz. While the JCPOA permits Iran to develop new centrifuges using computer models, any mechanical testing on new advanced centrifuges requires prior approval from the body set up to oversee implementation of the deal, which Iran does not appear to have obtained. Iran informed the IAEA that it intends to test advanced machine at a new location, which violates the JCPOA’s provision that testing take place only at sites specified in the deal.

  • Breached the prohibition on any uranium activities, including enrichment, at Fordow for 15 years. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani directed the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin enriching uranium to 4.5 percent uranium-235 at Fordow Nov. 6.  The IAEA report verified that Iran transferred uranium to Fordow Nov. 6 and began enriching uranium Nov. 9 using two cascades of IR-1 centrifuges (of the 1,044 centrifuges allowed at the site). Iranian officials stated that 348 machines would still be used for stable isotope production.

The IAEA report also noted areas where Iran continues to comply with the accord:

  • Monitoring Activities: Most importantly, the Nov. 11 IAEA report states that Tehran is adhering to the continuous monitoring measures put in place by the deal and abiding by the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. If Iran were to reduce compliance with the monitoring and verification provisions, speculation would increase that Tehran intends to pursue illicit nuclear activities. The continuous surveillance measures include online enrichment monitoring, which ensures that if Iran were to begin enriching uranium to higher levels, the IAEA would quickly detect the deviation. The report also notes that Iran continues to apply the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and that inspectors have had access to all sites and locations requested. The IAEA did note that its investigation of uranium particles at an undeclared site is unresolved and said it is “essential for Iran to continue interactions with the Agency to resolve the matter as soon as possible.”
     
  • Conversion of the Arak Reactor: The IAEA notes that Iran has not taken any actions on the Arak heavy-water reactor consistent with its original design. The United States has continued to waive sanctions (most recently Oct. 31) allowing cooperative efforts to convert the reactor to a design that produces significantly less weapons-grade plutonium for a bomb on an annual basis.
     
  • Heavy Water Production: Iran’s heavy water stockpile is 128.9 metric tons, below the 130 metric ton limit set by the deal.

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