IAEA Board Passes Resolution on Iran
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors passed a resolution calling on Tehran to fully cooperate with the agency’s investigation into possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities from the pre-2003 period.
The resolution, drafted by the three European parties to the 2015 nuclear deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), passed June 19 by a vote of 25-2, with 7 abstentions and one country not voting. The United States supported the resolution, whereas China and Russia, also party to the nuclear deal with Iran, voted against it.
Ahead of the vote, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the IAEA Board should not allow enemies of the nuclear deal, likely referring to the United States, “to jeopardize Iran’s supreme interests” and blasted the E3 for being “an accessory” to that agenda. He said Iran has “nothing to hide” and that a resolution “will ruin” the possibility of “an agreeable solution.”
Before the resolution’s adoption, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told the agency’s Board June 15 that Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation is “adversely affecting the Agency’s ability to resolve the questions and to provide credible assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities” at the locations in question. He called on Iran to “cooperate immediately and fully” with the IAEA and to provide “prompt access.”
According to a report on Iran’s safeguards issued by the agency in March 2020, the IAEA requested clarification from Tehran in January 2019 about possible nuclear activities and materials at three sites. After a year of attempting to gain information, the IAEA requested access in January 2020 to two of the locations in question to take environmental samples. In a report issued June 5, the IAEA noted that Iran had still not provided access or information about the outstanding questions.
The March and June reports make clear that the IAEA’s investigation is focused on activities and materials from the pre-2003 period when Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program according to agency and U.S. assessments. While there appears to be no evidence of ongoing undeclared nuclear activities in the IAEA report, the information provided by the agency makes a compelling case that Iran has violated its safeguards agreement by failing to declare nuclear materials from the pre-2003 period to the IAEA. (For more information on the report and the possible undeclared nuclear activities and materials in question see “Iran’s Failure to Comply with IAEA Investigation Raises Concerns.”)
According to the resolution, Iran should “satisfy the Agency’s requests without any further delay” and provide “prompt access to the locations specified.” The resolution also “reaffirms” that Iran shall “cooperate fully and in a timely manner” in implementing its safeguards agreement and the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement.
As a member state to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is legally required to implement as safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Tehran is voluntarily adhering to the additional protocol, which expands IAEA access to sites and information, as part of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott said June 18 that the resolution is a “balanced and fair reaction to Iran’s alarming refusal to comply with its legal obligations.” Wolcott said that “ignoring such critical safeguards-related questions in Iran would undermine the implementation of safeguards everywhere.”
Chinese Ambassador Wang Qun opposed the resolution and said in a June 18 statement that the root causes for this case “lie in the unilateral and bullying practices” of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign on Iran after the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA. He questioned the legal basis for the IAEA’s request and said the agency was too hasty in submitting a report to the Board on Iran’s safeguards implementation. Wang said that if a resolution were adopted it could “be the basis for further actions in the Security Council, leading to the ultimate termination of the JCPOA” and would damage the global nonproliferation regime.
Russian Ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov said June 19 that Iran and the IAEA need to “settle this problem without delay,” but that Russia viewed the resolution as counterproductive. Ahead of the IAEA Board meeting, he tweeted June 11 that there are “no clear rules in the Agency on the use of information received from third countries” and said it is “high time” this issue was addressed.
Ulyanov was likely referring to information that allegedly detailed Iran’s past nuclear weapons work that Israel stole from Iran in 2018 and provided to the IAEA. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly pressured the IAEA on several occasions to follow up on the information.
Grossi pushed back against assertions that the IAEA should not have acted on information provided by states. In the June 15 news conference, he said that the IAEA does not take any information provided “at face value” and that the agency conducts “dogged, technical and scientific analysis of information coming from any state.” There are “no legal ambiguities” around this issue, he said. Grossi said it is “up to the [Board of Governors] members to decide how to respond” and that he is not seeking a particular outcome.
After the vote, Grossi told reporters that he would not speculate on whether or not the passage of the resolution would lead Iran to reduce its cooperation with the IAEA. He said he hoped that the issue can be resolved without any further steps.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant
Iran’s Uranium Stockpile Grows
The June 5 quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal noted an increase in the country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium but said Iran continues to abide by the additional monitoring and verification mechanisms put in place by the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
According to the IAEA report, Iran’s stockpile measures 1,571 kilograms of uranium enriched to less than five percent, an increase of 551 kilograms since the IAEA’s March report. About 483 kilograms of the uranium is enriched to about two percent, which does not impact the country’s breakout time. The remaining 1,088 kilograms is mostly in gas form and likely enriched to between 3.67 and 4.2 percent. If further enriched to weapons-grade (greater than 90 percent uranium-235), it is enough for one bomb. If Iran chose to pursue nuclear weapons, it would likely take about 3-4 months to enrich the material to weapons-grade using Iran’s 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow.
While this 3-4 month “breakout” timeline is short in comparison with the 12-month breakout when the JCPOA was fully implemented, Iran does not appear to be dashing to try to acquire a nuclear weapon or diverting material for an illicit program. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told the Board of Governors June 15 that Iran “continues to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by Iran.”
Even if Iran did decide to pursue nuclear weapons, any move to higher-level enrichment would be quickly detected and further time would be needed to weaponize the material. According to coverage of a leaked Israeli assessment, it could then take about two years for Iran to build a bomb.
Also, while it is clear that Iran undertook activities in the past related to developing a nuclear explosive device, Tehran has not verified its design with a nuclear test, and it is unlikely that Tehran would “breakout” to produce only one bomb. So, the increase in the stockpile of low enriched uranium is concerning, but it is not yet an urgent proliferation risk and there remains time to restore full compliance with the JCPOA.
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott said in a June 16 statement that “Iran’s actions are simply transparent attempts at extortion that seek to intimidate the international community, actions clearly intended to raise tensions rather than defuse them” and said that the United States remains “hopeful that Iran will reverse course.”
The IAEA report noted that Iran has not taken steps to act on its Jan. 5 announcement that the country’s nuclear program would no longer be “subject to any restrictions” and that there have been no changes to JCPOA-related monitoring and verification activities. The IAEA “maintained its verification and monitoring activities” during the Covid-19 crisis, according to the report.
Iran has, however, continued to expand enrichment activities using advanced centrifuges at the Natanz facility in violation of the JCPOA’s provisions prohibiting the withdrawal of enriched material from these machines and the limits on the number of advanced machines installed. Iran is now producing uranium enriched to two percent using a cascade of 164 IR-4 centrifuges, a cascade of 164 IR-2m centrifuges, and a cascade of 135 IR-6 centrifuges. Iran also continues to produce 2 percent enriched uranium using small cascades of 20 or less IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, and IR-6s centrifuges. Iran continues testing other models, including the IR-8 and IR-9, with uranium, but not withdrawing any enriched material. These tests all involve one or two machines.
For more details on the report, see IAEA’s Report Shows Iran’s Stockpile of Uranium Grows.
Arms Embargo Drafts Shared
The Trump administration is preparing to present to the United Nations Security Council its draft of a resolution to indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Iran. The embargo’s October 2020 expiration date is written into Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses and helps implement the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, the United States shared the draft resolution with Russia June 5, and before that, circulated the draft to the European members of the JCPOA in an attempt to garner their approval for a move that would override the provisions of the nuclear deal. Craft noted in a press briefing that the United States hopes to formally present the draft resolution to the 15-member Security Council “pretty soon.”
When presented, the resolution will be voted on in the Security Council by procedural vote. To pass, it will need a majority of the 15 states’ support, and no vetoes by the other four veto-wielding countries: Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Given that Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vasilly Nebenzia, said in May that Russia would block any attempts to extend the embargo, it is likely the introduced resolution will not pass the Security Council.
The U.S. backup plan to extend the embargo rests on the Trump administration’s legal argument that the United States remains a “participant” of the deal because Resolution 2231 was not amended to reflect its 2018 withdrawal. Participants can exercise a provision of the deal that allows for the unilateral snapback of all UN sanctions on Iran – including the indefinite arms embargo. In a May 13 opinion piece, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said, “the Trump administration is prepared to exercise all legally available options to extend the embargo.” By reimposing all sanctions that were lifted per the nuclear agreement, snapping-back sanctions would effectively collapse the deal. If the United States moves forward with a snapback, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the JCPOA and possibly the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
All other JCPOA participants have condemned U.S. attempts to claim participation in the deal and will likely attempt to block the Trump administration’s efforts to snapback sanctions on Iran. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said June 9 “the United States has withdrawn from the JCPOA, and now they cannot claim that they are still part of the JCPOA in order to deal with this issue from the JCPOA agreement. They withdraw. It’s clear.”
In preparation for the latter U.S. plan, Russian and Chinese officials wrote to the Security Council and to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to voice their disapproval of U.S. efforts to claim participation in the deal in order to snapback sanctions. “This is absolutely unacceptable and serves only to recall the famous English proverb about having one’s cake and eating it,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
Lavrov told Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during a June 17 meeting that Russia “will be doing everything so that no one can destroy these agreements,” referring to the JCPOA and the accompanying Resolution 2231. Lavrov clarified that Russia would counter any efforts by the United States to “manipulate the (United Nations) Security Council.”
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are now seeking a means to partially assuage the Trump administration’s concerns about Iran’s arms activities without supporting a collapse of the deal or undermining efforts by Russia and China to see through the embargo’s expiration. The proposed deal, which was first reported on June 17, will sponsor a limited expiration of the UN embargo and will allow Iran to purchase some but not all of the weapons systems it would have access to absent any restrictions. Although the details are not finalized, the European members of the JCPOA’s objective is to present to the Security Council an option that could placate the Trump administration’s concerns without inviting a Russian or Chinese veto.
It is not yet clear when the United States or the Europeans plan to present their draft resolutions to the Security Council.
U.S. Terminates Waivers for Nuclear Projects
The Trump administration terminated sanctions waivers that previously allowed for cooperative work on critical nuclear nonproliferation projects in Iran.
First issued after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, the waivers were applied on a provisional basis to permit the other members of the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to continue working with Iran on specific nuclear projects required by the agreement without incurring any penalty from U.S. sanctions.
Under the waivers, the United Kingdom and China supported Iran in converting the Arak heavy water reactor into a less proliferation-sensitive model. Russia supplied fuel for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor and aided in the removal of spent fuel, and Iran was permitted to import uranium enriched to 20 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor. Until late-2019, a waiver was also issued to facilitate the conversion of Iran’s Fordow enrichment facility into a stable research and isotope production center, but that waiver was terminated after Iran resumed enrichment activities at the facility in November.
In a May 27 statement to the press, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the waivers covering the conversion of the Arak reactor and the supply of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor would be terminated after a 60-day winddown period. Pompeo noted that the waiver permitting Russian supply of fuel for the Bushehr reactor and support for operating the reactor would remain in place for an additional 90-days, “to ensure safety operations.”
In his statement, Pompeo said “the Iranian regime has continued its nuclear brinkmanship by expanding proliferation-sensitive activities. These escalatory actions are unacceptable and I cannot justify renewing the waiver for these JCPOA-related activities as a result.”
Absent support or oversight by the remaining JCPOA participants, Iran may be inclined to pursue construction of the Arak reactor’s original heavy water design – which could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium – or to enrich uranium up to 20 percent to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor.
The IAEA’s June 2020 quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal notes that the Agency has not observed activity at the Arak reactor or measures consistent with efforts to enrich uranium to 20 percent. The report noted that Iran received a shipment of 20 percent enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor in April 2020, so it is unlikely that Iran would have any need to produce uranium enriched to this level in the near future.
A resumption of enrichment to 20 percent would mark a drastic departure from Iran’s present enrichment levels, which hover just below 5 percent uranium-235. Twenty percent enriched uranium is not suited for weapons, but the process of achieving a 90 percent weapons-grade uranium enrichment level is dramatically expedited after surpassing the 20 percent mark.
In a May 28 tweet, Iran’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi wrote: “now, in further violation of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 [Pompeo] pulls final plug.” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi said June 1 that Iran is “assessing the technical impacts of this event” and if the termination of the waivers “leave any impact” there will be a “more serious reaction.”
The Russian ambassador, Mikhail Ulyanov, criticized the U.S. decision during a June 16 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. Ulyanov called the U.S. failure to renew nonproliferation waivers a challenge to the Security Council and to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
While Ulyanov did not expand upon his accusation that terminating the waivers violates the NPT, Article IV outlines the inalienable right of all parties to the Treaty to engage in peaceful nuclear activities, and details the rights of states parties to participate in the exchange of “equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom also condemned the decision to end the sanctions waivers in a joint statement. “These projects, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, serve the nonproliferation interests of all and provide the international community with assurances of the exclusively peaceful and safe nature of Iranian nuclear activities,” the statement read.
Republican Study Committee Issues Report
A new report by the Republican Study Committee—the conservative caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives—recommends actions to be taken by the Trump administration to strengthen the U.S. maximum pressure campaign against Iran. The report, titled “Strengthening America & Countering Global Threats,” also offers strategies to counter China, Russia, and nonstate actors in the Middle East.
The strategy report contends that “Iran is not a great power or strategic competitor, but it still presents a significant challenge as a rogue regime backed by a military and intelligence apparatus while being the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.” In light of the perceived threats posed by Iran’s military and intelligence apparatus, the report offers several policy actions to support the ongoing U.S. pressure campaign. These actions include urging the administration to pursue a snapback of all UN sanctions on Iran through Resolution 2231, sanctioning additional Iranian military officials, and broadening the scope of sanctions applied to Iran’s economic sectors.
On the embargo, the authors of the strategy report quote Trump’s former Director of Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction, Richard Goldberg, in saying “if America snaps back sanctions at the Security Council, all restrictions on Iran return indefinitely: the arms embargo, missiles, nuclear restrictions, and the demand that Iran halt all enrichment activities on its own soil.”
Following the approach outlined in the report would not only irreparably damage the JCPOA, but it would also complicate a future U.S. administration’s effort to re-enter the deal or engage in new negotiations with Iran.
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