Iran Announces New Nuclear Deal Breach
Iran announced its fifth breach of the 2015 nuclear deal Jan. 5, stating that it “discards the last key component of its operational limitations” put in place by agreement. In the Jan. 5 statement Iran said its nuclear program “no longer faces any operational restrictions,” however Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did say that Iran will still continue to “fully cooperate” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Zarif’s statement implies that Tehran intends to abide by the additional monitoring and verification measures put in place by the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Zarif also reiterated Iran was willing to return to compliance with the accord if its demands on sanctions relief are met.
The extent to which Iran’s breach increases the proliferation risk posed by the country’s nuclear program depends on what specific steps Tehran takes to act on the Jan. 5 announcement. The government’s statement did not provide details but mentioned that the cap on installed centrifuges was the only remaining limitation that Tehran has not breached.
Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran is limited to 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz for enriching uranium and 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow for isotope production and research. Iran has continued to abide by those limits according to the most recent IAEA report in November, although it did resume uranium enrichment at Fordow in November in violation of the 15-year restriction on uranium activities at that site. Iran has also already breached the limits on the number of advanced centrifuges it is permitted to test.
Before the JCPOA, Iran had installed about 18,000 IR-1 centrifuges, of which about 10,200 were enriching uranium, and about 1,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which were not operational. Fordow housed about 2,700 of the IR-1 machines, of which 700 were enriching uranium. The remaining machines, including the IR-2s, were installed at Natanz. The JCPOA required Iran to dismantle excess machines and store them at Natanz under IAEA monitoring.
Iran’s statement that its nuclear program will now be guided by “technical needs” provides little insight into how many centrifuges Tehran may choose to install and operate. Iran has no need for enriched uranium at this time. Its nuclear power reactor at Bushehr is fueled by Russia and the JCPOA ensures that Iran will have access to 20 percent enriched uranium fuel for its research reactor. The Trump administration has continued to waive sanctions allowing fuel transfers.
The ambiguity of the announcement gives Iran considerable latitude to calibrate its actions. Iran could choose to remain on its current trajectory by slowly installing additional IR-1 machines and enriching uranium to less than five percent. Similar to Iran’s earlier steps, this will slowly and transparently erode the 12 month breakout time, or the time to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb, established by the JCPOA. The action would also be reversible, in line with Iran’s earlier violations, to keep open the option of returning to compliance with the accord.
Alternatively, if Iran wants to increase pressure more quickly, it could quickly install and begin operating its more advanced IR-2s and remaining IR-1s. There is also the possibility of further violating the provisions of the JCPOA that Tehran breached in 2019. Iran exceeded the limit on uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent uranium-235 in July by slightly increasing levels to 4.5 percent. Resuming enrichment to 20 percent uranium-235, for example, could significantly shorten the breakout time. Iran enriched to the 20 percent level before negotiations on the JCPOA and officials have threatened to return to it.
While Iran’s breach of the deal came just two days after the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General and head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qassim Soleimani, Tehran’s Jan. 5 announcement was expected and not a response to Soleimani’s death. Since Iran announced in May 2019 that it would respond to the U.S. violation and withdrawal from the JCPOA with its own breaches, Tehran has taken steps every 60 days to violate the accord.
Unlike past violations, Tehran did not specify that it will take another step to breach the deal in 60 days and referred to the announced action Jan. 5 as the “final remedial” breach. Iran still could take additional steps to further violate provisions put in place by the deal or reduce compliance with the JCPOA’s monitoring provisions. The likelihood of further actions may increase if tensions continue to escalate after the death of Soleimani and Iran’s reprisal strike on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant
P4+1 Responses to Fifth Violation
France, together with the other European members of the JCPOA, will decide in the coming days whether to trigger the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism to address Iran’s violations of the nuclear agreement. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Jan. 6 that, “the repeated violations leave [the EU+E3] today asking about the long-term validity of this (nuclear) accord” and confirmed that launching the dispute resolution mechanism is under consideration.
The dispute resolution mechanism outlined in the JCPOA and endorsed in Security Council Resolution 2231 could result in a snapback of UN sanctions lifted under the deal, which would likely kill the nuclear agreement.
On Jan. 7, however, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi warned that any decision to trigger the dispute resolution mechanism would jeopardize the future of the deal.
In a joint statement released Jan. 6, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a de-escalation in the region and on Iran to “reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA.”
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU foreign policy chief, tweeted Jan. 6 his commitment to preserving the JCPOA, calling the agreement “crucial for global security.” He continued that “full implementation of the [JCPOA] by all is now more important than ever, for regional stability & global security.”
Statements released by Russian and Chinese officials appear to suggest Moscow and Beijing are less concerned with the proliferation and security implications of Iran’s fifth violation. Russian Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted Jan. 5 that Iran’s announcement to continue compliance with the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards and adherence to its Additional Protocol agreement, which gives inspectors greater access, was of “paramount importance.”
Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said Jan. 6 that despite Iran’s breach of the nuclear accord, “Iran has demonstrated a restrained attitude and its political will to implement the JCPOA effectively and in full.” In the same statement, Shuang condemned the U.S. withdrawal from the deal as neglect of international law and he encouraged all parties to the deal to “avoid taking any measure that may complicate the situation.”
Russia Suspends Work At Fordow
Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company announced Dec. 5 that it was suspending cooperative work on converting Fordow into a medical isotope research and production center. Rosatom said that Iran’s decision to resume uranium enrichment at Fordow caused contamination at the site that precludes further work on isotope production.
Iran announced in November that it was resuming uranium enrichment at Fordow in violation of the JCPOA, which prohibited uranium activities at the site for 15 years. The JCPOA stated that Russia would assist Iran in converting Fordow to a research center and the Trump administration had been waiving sanctions to allow that work to continue. However, after Iran resumed uranium enrichment the State Department announced Nov. 18 that the waivers for Fordow would be terminated Dec. 15.
Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said Dec. 16 that “Iranian and Russian technical experts are working to solve the problem” and that Russia has not “withdrawn from the cooperation” at Fordow.
UN Secretary-General Reports on Resolution 2231
In a biannual report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal with Iran, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed regret over the U.S. and Iranian actions contrary to the JCPOA.
Gutteres noted in the Dec. 10 report that the Trump administration’s decision in May 2019 not to fully renew waivers for nonproliferation projects outlined in the nuclear deal are “contrary to the goals” of the accord and “may also impede the ability” of Iran to meet its JCPOA commitments. He specifically referenced that the U.S. decision in November to terminate sanctions waivers allowing cooperative work at Fordow was contrary to the exemptions set out in Resolution 2231.
Guterres also expressed his regret over Iranian actions to reduce its compliance with the JCPOA and encouraged all parties to the deal to continue efforts to provide Iran with legitimate economic opportunities permitted by the agreement.
The report noted that no new proposals for transfers of dual-use materials and technologies had been submitted to the procurement channel since the prior report in June 2019 and said that several investigations into illicit transfers of missiles and other conventional arms continue. Under Resolution 2231, Iran is required to seek approval from the Security Council before any transfers of conventional arms or missiles. The procurement channel is set up by the JCPOA to approve the import of any dual-use goods.
The report noted an investigation is ongoing into a U.S. allegation that Iran received a shipment containing a compound that can be used for solid-rocket motor propellant in violation of Resolution 2231.
The United Kingdom, France, and Germany also informed the secretary-general’s office that the Houthis launched a new medium-range ballistic missile that shares similar features to an Iranian system, the Qiam-1. They said that Iran “may be acting in breach” of Resolution 2231.
In a letter to the Secretary-General, Iran denied the claim made by the European countries and said the argument that Resolution 2231 prohibits the transfer of missile technology is a “distortion of the text.” Iran also said that for “political reasons” the Security Council has been prevented from “actual operationalization for the necessary mechanism for making required decisions to permit such activities.”
The Secretary General’s office was “unable to independently corroborate” that the missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles used in a September attack on Saudi oil facilities were of Iranian origin but said that investigations into the origins of the systems are ongoing. The United States and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of being behind the attack.
Iranian Lawmaker Raises NPT Withdrawal
Iranian parliamentarian Mahmoud Sadeghi announced Jan. 6 he would introduce a bill calling for Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iranian officials have threatened in the past to withdraw from the NPT, but Tehran has refrained from doing so, likely because of the international consequences that the country would face if it took that drastic step.
Iran ratified the NPT in 1970 as a non-nuclear weapon state. Under the treaty, Iran is obliged to refrain from nuclear weapons acquisition and development and to negotiate a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that any nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. Even if the JCPOA collapses, Iran would remain bound by these legal obligations, but this would change if Iran were to withdraw from the NPT entirely.
Iran’s threats to abrogate the treaty are not new; in April 2018, ahead of U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iranian officials warned that a U.S. withdrawal could motivate Tehran to scrap the NPT. In June 2019, an Iranian official told reporters Iran would leave the NPT if the remaining parties to the deal could not uphold their commitments to the JCPOA.
While it is unlikely that Iran will actually withdraw from the NPT, Iran’s warnings to do so should not be ignored. Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would collapse the JCPOA, undermine the global nonproliferation regime, and risk a nuclear crisis.
Iran Breaches Heavy Water Limit in November
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran breached the 130 metric ton stockpile limit on heavy water set by the JCPOA Nov. 17. At that time, the IAEA said Iran’s stockpile measured 131.5 metric tons.
Iran announced in May that it would no longer adhere to the limit on heavy water. Iran had been shipping excess heavy water out of the country for storage, but the United States announced in May that further transfers would be subject to sanctions.
While the breach is a concern, heavy water does not pose a proliferation risk. Heavy water is used to moderate certain types of reactors that produce plutonium. Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor is still under construction and, as required by the JCPOA, is being modified to produce far less plutonium than what would be necessary for a nuclear bomb on an annual basis.
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