An explosion at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility appears to have been a deliberate attack that will set back the country’s ability to manufacture centrifuges.
Speaking at a news conference July 6, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), confirmed that the July 2 explosion occurred in a building at Natanz where Iran produces advanced centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. The explosion did not impact the area of the facility where uranium enrichment takes place and the International Atomic Energy Agency said July 3 that its application of safeguards at the site will continue.
Though the cause of the incident remains unconfirmed by Iranian officials, Nour News, an Iranian media outlet with ties to the country’s Supreme Council of National Security released a commentary July 7 calling the explosion at Natanz “a deliberate attack.”
Construction on the damaged site began in 2013 and the building was inaugurated in 2018. Kamalvandi noted that due to limitations imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the facility was not operating at full capacity before the explosion.
Analyses on the implications of the explosion for Iran’s nuclear program vary, but some estimates suggest Iran’s advanced centrifuge production program could be set back by two years as a result of the damage.
An Iranian dissident group has claimed credit for the explosion, but it is unclear if the group, which calls itself Cheetahs of the Homeland, is actually responsible for the attack.
During a July 10 news conference, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Abbas Mousavi voiced that although media reports allege that Israel was likely behind the explosion, it is too early to publicly confirm the cause. But he said that if foreign agents were involved, they would face severe consequences.
Israel is believed to have been partially responsible for a 2010 attack on Iran’s nuclear program using a computer virus called Stuxnet and the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists. Asked about Israel’s involvement in the Natanz explosion, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi reportedly said, “our actions in Iran [are] better left unsaid.”
The Trump administration has raised concerns about Iran’s production and use of advanced centrifuges. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Security Council June 23 that Iran is “accumulating dangerous knowledge” from its advanced centrifuge program. Iran is currently violating the limitations on production, development, and use of advanced machines put in place by the JCPOA.
The explosion happened amid a slew of other mysterious incidents in Iran. On June 25, an explosion occurred near the Khojir ballistic missile complex. On July 4, an explosion was recorded at a power plant in Ahwaz and a gas leak at a petrochemical plant in Mahshahr. It is unclear whether any of the incidents are related. Only the blast at Natanz appears to have directly impacted the country’s nuclear program.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Iran Responds to IAEA Resolution
Iran’s parliament approved a plan July 11 to halt implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which gives International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors more tools to inspect and monitor the country’s nuclear activities. Iran is implementing the additional protocol voluntarily as part of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The plan follows a June statement signed by 240 Iranian lawmakers that voiced support for reducing cooperation with the IAEA and asking the government to suspend implementation of the additional protocol. The statement was a response to a resolution passed by the agency’s Board of Governors during its June meeting, which calls upon Iran to comply with an agency investigation into its undeclared nuclear materials and activities. The statement called the resolution an “excessive demand” and an example of “structural discrimination” by the IAEA. (For more on the IAEA resolution see, IAEA Board Presses Iran.)
It is unclear if Iran will follow through on the parliament’s plan to suspend the additional protocol. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said June 24 that Tehran is “still ready for legal inspections of the agency and close cooperation with it within the framework of regulations.” It is unlikely, however, that Rouhani is referring to cooperation with the IAEA’s request to access two undeclared sites in the country, as Iranian officials have referred to those requests as “illegal” and said that Tehran already addressed questions about its past nuclear activities as part of the JCPOA.
While the materials and activities in question are from the pre-2003 period and the IAEA did close its investigation into Iran’s past nuclear weapons program in 2015, the agency is still tasked with determining if there are undeclared nuclear materials in Iran and if any nuclear materials are being diverted. Iran is legally obligated under its safeguards agreement, which is required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the additional protocol, to cooperate with the agency’s investigation and allow access to the sites in question.
In a July 15 interview with the Wall Street Journal, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that if Iran does not comply with the agency’s investigation by the end of this month, it “will be bad.”
“I keep insisting on the absolute necessity for us to resolve this issue very soon,” Grossi said, adding that this issue “isn’t going to go away.”
Iranian officials have also reminded the IAEA about the importance of impartiality in the application of safeguards and they continue to blame the U.S. and Israel for influencing the agency’s agenda in Iran. Rouhani said that the “Zionist regime and the United States put pressure on the agency on the agency to study activities of 17, 18 years ago” which have been addressed. He said, “these deceivers contaminate the agency, which must have precise and legal judgment.”
After Grossi met with the Brian Hook, U.S. special envoy on Iran, Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said July 2 that Grossi should “keep both social distance and political distance” from Hook.
U.S. Pushes for Embargo’s Extension
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo continued to push for a renewal of the arms embargo on Iran that is scheduled to expire in October of this year during a June 30 meeting of the UN Security Council. Pompeo said that “renewing the embargo will exert more pressure on Tehran to start behaving like a normal nation.”
The embargo, which blocks arms sales to and from Iran unless approved by the Security Council, is written into Resolution 2231. That resolution endorses and helps implement the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the United States withdrew from in May 2018, and modifies UN sanctions on Iran.
Pompeo’s remarks were made during a Security Council meeting on a report authored by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres detailing evidence of Iran’s likely violations of the arms-related and ballistic missile transfer-related provisions of Resolution 2231. That biannual report on the implementation of Resolution 2231, released to the public June 11, was the subject of the Security Council’s June 30 briefing.
The Secretary-General’s report concludes that arms and arms-related material seized by the United States and examined by the Secretariat “may have been transferred in a manner inconsistent with Resolution 2231.” Those items were seized in Nov. 2019 and Feb. 2020 by the United States and assessed by Washington to be “evidently of Iranian origin.”
The report also details a possible violation of the resolution’s ballistic missile-transfer provisions, but notes “the Secretariat will continue its analysis of this issue.”
The Trump administration has expressed its willingness to pursue a multilateral approach by sponsoring a stand-alone Security Council resolution renewing the arms-related provisions that are due to expire under Resolution 2231. Given that such a resolution will almost certainly be vetoed, the United States has said it will exercise a snapback clause of that same resolution to reimpose all Security Council sanctions, including the arms embargo, onto Iran indefinitely.
While it is unclear if the Trump administration can trigger snapback, given its withdrawal from the JCPOA, the U.S. bid to extend the embargo could force a collapse of the nuclear deal, as Iranian officials have repeatedly stated that Tehran will withdraw from the accord if the embargo is extended. Iran views the arms embargo’s expiration as one of the few remaining benefits of remaining in the accord.
Other Security Council veto-wielding states, including Russia and China, have made clear their intent to block the passage of a stand-alone resolution. All remaining participants of the JCPOA – France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran, the United Kingdom, and the European Union – have also contested the Trump administration’s plan to use Resolution 2231’s snapback provision and reiterated their commitment to the deal.
Days before the Security Council meeting to discuss the Secretary-General’s report, the United States circulated its draft of that stand-alone resolution. Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, Majid Ravanchi, tweeted his impression of a “unanimous call for full implementation of [the JCPOA] and [Res. 2231]” in response to the U.S. briefing June 24. Given the magnitude of dissent from other Security Council members and remaining JCPOA participants, is not likely that the drafted stand-alone resolution will obtain the support needed to pass.
That the Secretary-General noted Iran’s possible violations of the arms embargo is cause for concern, but Guterres’ findings should not be taken as an impetus for extending the embargo at the risk of collapsing the nuclear deal. The arms embargo was written into Resolution 2231 as a result of a broad international effort to pressure Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program. The embargo is, as a result, a nuclear-related sanction. Any attempts by the Trump administration to re-frame the intent of the embargo as a justification for extension further undercut U.S. credibility and continues to isolate Washington.
Since the Trump administration first began its public bid to prevent the embargo’s Oct. 2020 expiration, the JCPOA’s remaining members have decried the illegitimacy of the U.S. plan to resort to snapback to extend the embargo. At the June 30 Security Council briefing, China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations reiterated the lack of legal authority Washington has to invoke the snapback mechanism, given the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
While Britain’s representative to the UN tweeted his shared concern for the potential implications of the arms embargo’s expiration, he said “preservation of the JCPOA will remain our guiding principle as we work to address concerns about regional security.”
It is not yet clear when the Security Council plans to vote on the U.S. draft of a stand-alone resolution to extend the embargo or when the Trump administration will try to exercise the snapback option. The Security Council’s Programme of Work published July 1 indicated “members of the Council may also continue discussions on a draft resolution extending the arms embargo on Iran,” in July.
For more detail on the UN Secretary-General’s June report on the implementation of Resolution 2231, see Iran’s Illicit Arms Transfers Do Not Justify U.S. Snapback.
Iran Triggers Dispute Resolution Mechanism
Iran triggered the dispute resolution mechanism of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), July 3, citing allegations that the European parties to the agreement are falling short on their obligations to implement the accord.
According to the procedure set out in the JCPOA, the Joint Commission, the body set up to oversee implementation of the agreement, will now have 15 days to resolve the issue, unless that timeframe is extended by consensus.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a series of photos June 19 depicting the failure of the EU-Iran Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) special-purpose vehicle, which was established to facilitate trade between Iran and the European Union without incurring a financial penalty from the U.S. sanctions regime.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and re-imposition of sanctions on Iran in 2018, the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) have sought to preserve the financial benefits for Iran’s participation in the nuclear deal. The INSTEX mechanism made its first successful transaction March 31 but appears to have not been used since then.
In his tweet, Zarif said the “E3 must stop public face-saving & muster the courage to state publicly what they admit privately: their failure to fulfill even [their] own JCPOA duties due to total impotence in resisting US bullying.”
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi said July 13 that Tehran is awaiting consultations with the Joint Commission. “We have activated the mechanism to inform the joint commission on Iran’s opinions with regard to the fact that the E3 committed a breach of JCPOA commitments,” he added.
In January, the E3 also triggered the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism in an effort to initiate dialogue to bring Iran back into compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA. The dispute resolution mechanism laid out in the deal’s text includes a series of time-bound steps to internally resolve issues of non-compliance, but each step can be extended by consensus – in theory indefinitely. The JCPOA Joint Commission, which oversees the implementation of the nuclear deal, has met only once since Europe triggered the mechanism in January to work through the process. It is not clear when they plan to meet again, or whether Iran’s trigger of the mechanism will lead to an independent resolution process.
Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted his dissatisfaction with Iran’s move, noting that attempts by the E3 and Iran to initiate the mechanism from different perspectives are “not a good idea.”
“Instead of fruitless and potentially damaging disputes of this kind, all [JCPOA] participants need to think together how to preserve the nuclear deal which is in very bad shape,” Ulyanov said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who heads the Joint Commission, did not comment on Iran’s decision, but he addressed Tehran’s concerns in a July 14 article commemorating the five-year anniversary of the nuclear deal. “Iran, for its part, must return to full compliance with its nuclear obligations; but it also needs to be able to reap the economic benefits envisioned in the agreement,” Borrell wrote.
“Having already established measures to protect our companies against extraterritorial US sanctions, we in Europe can do more to satisfy Iranian expectations for legitimate trade,” he concluded.
For more on the dispute resolution mechanism see: IAEA Head Notes No New Breaches by Iran | The P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert.
Rouhani Lists Conditions for U.S. Talks
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated his country’s conditions for future negotiations with the United States. In a June 24 address, Rouhani said that Tehran will engage in talks with Washington “when the United States announces its return” to the 2015 nuclear deal and “regulations of the United Nations,” perhaps referring to full implementation of Resolution 2231, which endorses the agreement and modifies UN sanctions on Iran.
Rouhani also said that Iran is not waiting for the U.S. presidential elections and is ready for talks at any time if its conditions are met.
Rouhani’s remarks indicated that Iran may pursue some type of compensation from the United States to address the consequences of sanctions reimposed by U.S. President Donald Trump in violation of the accord. Rouhani stated that the United States must “apologize and make up for harms caused to the Iranian people.” It is unclear if that is a condition for Iran’s return to full implementation of the JCPOA or if it applies to future negotiations.
State Department Assess No Nuclear Weapons Activities in 2019
The State Department assessed that “Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon” in 2019, according to its annual report assessing global compliance with a range of arms control and nonproliferation treaties and agreements.
The report, however, reiterated U.S. concerns about Iran’s failure to cooperate with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into possible undeclared nuclear material. The report said that Tehran’s failure to provide “a credible answer” about the origin of uranium participles found at an undeclared site in 2019 “raises signification questions” about Iran’s compliance with its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards obligations. The report stated that “Iran’s intentional failure to declare nuclear material would constitute a clear violation of Iran’s [comprehensive safeguards agreement] required by the NPT, and a violation of Article III of the NPT itself.”
The State Department also concluded that Iran’s “efforts to retain files, documents, and personnel related to its pre-2004 nuclear weapons program” suggests that Iran may be attempting to “preserve technical expertise relevant to a nuclear weapons capability and potentially to aid in any future effort to pursue nuclear weapons again, if a decision were made to do so.”
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