Biden Officials Express Support for Rejoining Iran Nuclear Deal
Biden administration officials continue to voice support for returning the United States to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but caution that restoring full implementation of the agreement may take time.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the Biden administration’s commitment “to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” during his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said that the United States intends to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran complies with its obligations, but that “we are a long way from there.” Avril Haines, Director for National Intelligence, similarly told the Senate Intelligence Committee during her Jan. 19 confirmation hearing that rejoining the nuclear deal would take time and said that there would be opportunities to consult with Congress about the process.
Blinken also noted that it is “vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and with our partners in the region,” on the process of returning to the deal and future diplomacy with Iran. President Joe Biden is already discussing the JCPOA with U.S. allies. The French readout from Biden’s Jan. 24 call with President Emmanuel Macron indicated that the two talked about Iran’s nuclear program.
Israeli officials have also made clear that they intend to raise concerns about restoring the JCPOA. Israeli news outlets reported that Yossi Cohen, chief of Mossad, will travel to Washington and press Biden to make changes to the JCPOA. Reportedly, Israel wants Biden to push for a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment and its production of advanced centrifuges, to grant full access to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to cease supporting terrorist groups and activities.
While Biden may take Israel’s concerns into account when crafting his approach to follow-up negotiations, it appears unlikely that the JCPOA will be modified. Iran has rejected any renegotiation of the JCPOA, and the Biden administration continues to reiterate that it will seek negotiations with Iran to address a longer-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program and talks on a range of other issues after the nuclear deal is restored. Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, said Jan. 20 that Biden has made clear that the United States will seek to “lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern” after JCPOA compliance is reestablished.
Iran has expressed openness to further diplomacy, once confidence in the JCPOA is restored, but rejected negotiation of the deal.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote in a Jan. 22 essay for Foreign Affairs that any attempt to “demand new terms” will jeopardize the deal. Iran is willing to discuss regional issues, he said, but “neither the United States nor its European allies have the prerogative to lead or sponsor future talks.”
While the recent statements from both Blinken and Zarif demonstrate a strong preference for restoring full compliance with the JCPOA and an interest in further diplomacy in both the Biden and Rouhani administrations, it appears that sequencing and coordination will be critical, as neither will want to be perceived as acting unilaterally.
Zarif said that once Biden removes all sanctions imposed during the Trump presidency Iran would then “reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal.”
Removing all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration would include designations for non-nuclear activities, such as support for terrorism.
When pressed on whether or not the United States should lift terrorism sanctions, Blinken noted he did not see any inconsistencies in restoring the JCPOA and continuing and strengthening the U.S. ability to “push back and deal effectively” with egregious Iranian activities.
Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, also emphasized that Iran is expecting the Biden administration to make the first move toward restoring full implementation of the JCPOA. In a Jan. 25 interview with NBC, he said that Iran has no plans to reach out to the United States and that it is “absurd” for Tehran to take the first steps since it was the United States that violated the deal first by withdrawing in 2018.
The window of opportunity for preserving the deal may be short. Iran has a presidential election coming up in June and its increasingly serious violations of the nuclear deal are jeopardizing support amongst the European parties to the accord.
A law enacted by Iran in Dec. 2020 requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to ratchet up its nuclear program, including more proliferation-sensitive activities, over the course of 2021 if sanctions relief is not granted. According to the law, Iran must resume enriching uranium to 20-percent uranium-235 and produce 120 kilograms of material enriched to that level every year, halt implementation of the additional protocol and other JCPOA verification measures beyond its safeguards agreement in late February, inaugurate a uranium metal plant within five months, install and operate 1,000 IR-2 centrifuges within three months and 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges by the end of 2021, and build a new heavy-water reactor. Iran has already resumed enrichment to 20 percent and has begun preparation for other required actions (see below for details.)
While Iran has emphasized that these activities are reversible and will be halted if sanctions relief under the JCPOA is realized, several of the actions, such as uranium metalwork, will result in irreversible knowledge that could apply to weapons development. Furthermore, any gap in the implementation of the more intrusive monitoring measures will be difficult to reconstruct down the road.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant
Iran boosts uranium enrichment capacity
Iran resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent uranium-235 at its Fordow facility, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed. According to Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the boost in enrichment was executed in early Jan. and was done so under recent legislation passed by the Iranian government (see above for details).
Iran produced uranium enriched to 20 percent in the past, but halted enrichment to that level in 2013 under the interim Joint Plan of Action, which preceded the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran’s resumption of 20 percent enrichment marks the second violation of the 3.67 percent uranium-235 limit set by the JCPOA. When Iran began to violate the JCPOA in 2019, its enrichment level rose to 4.5 percent, a marginal difference from the 3.67 percent limit imposed by the accord.
Tehran alerted the IAEA of its intention to increase to 20 percent in advance, and the agency publicly relayed Jan. 4 that inspectors continue to monitor all enrichment activities at the Fordow facility. The IAEA also released a report Jan. 4 confirming that Iran had reconfigured the enrichment hall at the Fordow facility and was prepared to start the production of 20 percent enriched uranium.
While Iran’s advance notification to the IAEA and continued transparency is important, the resumption of 20 percent enrichment is concerning. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi remarked Jan. 11 that Iran’s enrichment program is progressing “quite rapidly,” and he estimated that Iran could produce about 10 kilograms of 20 percent enriched fuel per month at Fordow.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent poses a greater proliferation risk than enrichment levels below 5 percent because surpassing the 20 percent mark significantly shortens both the technical process and the length of time that it would take for a country to produce 90 percent enriched fuel, which is considered weapons-grade.
While Iran’s violations of the JCPOA are not indicative of a dash to the bomb, the resumption of enrichment to 20 percent and accumulation of high-enriched uranium does expedite the time it would take Iran to produce weapons-grade fuel, should it choose to do so. That period, known as breakout, was about 3-4 months before Iran ratcheted up enrichment to 20 percent and about 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented. In an interview Jan. 11, Grossi shared his personal belief that the international community has only a matter of weeks – not months – to restore the nuclear deal and ensure Iran’s return to compliance.
While concerning, enriching to 20 percent is quickly reversible. Furthermore, since Iran already possessed the technical know-how and capability to enrich to 20 percent before the JCPOA was implemented, Tehran is not gaining new knowledge as a result of this violation.
Britain, France, and Germany, the European members of the JCPOA, condemned Iran’s enrichment jump and warned it could threaten a restoration of the deal. “This action, which has no credible civil justification and carries very significant proliferation-related risks, is in clear violation of Iran’s commitments… and further hollows out the Agreement,” they wrote in a Jan. 6 joint statement. They urged Iran to stop enriching to 20 percent and abide by the enrichment limits set by the JCPOA.
This development “risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US administration,” their statement continued, referring to newly-inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated intent to return the United States to the nuclear deal.
A European diplomat told Reuters that although Europe is concerned with Iran’s provocative violations, the E3 remains committed to the preservation of the JCPOA. “If we threw the accord out of the window then it would be even harder to put back together again,” they said.
For its part, Iran also appears committed to supporting U.S. reentry to the JCPOA and restoration of the 2015 agreement. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted Jan. 4 that Iran’s measures in violation of the JCPOA, including enrichment to 20 percent, “are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”
Iran Announces Uranium Metal Plans
Iran announced that it is pursuing a new type of uranium metal fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), in violation of the JCPOA. Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its intentions to begin installing and designing equipment and its plans for producing the new uranium metal fuel.
Legislation passed by Iran in Dec. 2020 requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to “inaugurate the metallic uranium factory” at the Isfahan Fuel Fabrication Plant within five months of the law’s enactment (see above for more details on the Iranian law).
Iran first announced its intention to pursue the fuel project in Jan. 2019 and in Dec. 2020 provided the IAEA with updated information about its plans.
According to a Jan. 13 IAEA report, Iran said in December that it would start research and development activities at Isfahan “on the production of uranium metal using natural uranium, before moving to produce uranium metal enriched to 20% U-235” to fuel the TRR. Equipment for the first stage of the project—converting UF6 to UF4— is expected to be designed and installed in 4-5 months, according to the timeline that Iran provided to the IAEA.
The 2015 nuclear deal prohibits Iran from producing or acquiring uranium metals for 15 years because of its applicability to nuclear weapons development. The deal does allow Iran to initiate research and development on uranium metal to fuel the TRR “in small agreed quantities after 10 years” (which would be in 2026) with the approval of the Joint Commission that oversees the JCPOA’s implementation.
The European parties to the JCPOA said in a Jan. 16 statement that Iran has “no credible civilian use” for uranium metal and that the move has “potentially grave military implications.” They urged Tehran to “halt this activity, and return to compliance with the JCPOA” if Iran “is serious about preserving the deal.”
Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said Jan. 19 that the uranium metal is intended for “peaceful uses” and is a requirement for Iran to “provide its patients with the best quality radiomedicine.” The TRR produces isotopes used for medical treatments.
Iran may have produced small quantities of uranium metal in the past, prior to abandoning its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The IAEA did determine in 2005 that Iran had received information from the AQ Khan network on how to produce uranium metal in hemispherical forms, which is directly applicable to developing a nuclear warhead. The IAEA concluded in 2015 that, based on available information, there were no indications that Iran conducted any activities based on the uranium metal document.
An analysis of the archival material Israel stole from Iran in 2018 conducted by the Belfer Center at Harvard University suggests that Iran conducted uranium metallurgy experiments using surrogate materials and was planning to build a facility for that purpose when work was halted.
Iranian officials continue to reiterate that its breaches of the deal will be reversed if the United States returns to compliance with the accord. While Iran could quickly undo the installation of any equipment to produce uranium metal, actually beginning the production process would result in knowledge for Iran that would be irreversible, since it appears that Iran has not conducted uranium metal activities in the past. This underscores the urgency in restoring and fully implementing the JCPOA.
Iran also announced plans to pursue a new heavy-water reactor. Abolfazl Amouyee, the spokesman of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said Jan. 11 that the AEOI submitted a plan for the reactor that is based on the original design of the heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak.
The JCPOA requires Iran to modify the Arak reactor, as the original design would have produced enough plutonium for about two nuclear warheads per year. The JCPOA also prohibits Iran from building any new heavy-water reactors for 15 years, but the Dec. 2020 nuclear law requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to planning work for a new heavy water reactor, which is being called the IR2M reactor.
The AEOI also reported Jan. 11 that it is working on plans to install additional IR-2 centrifuges in line with the December 2020 law.
Pursuant to its Dec. 2020 nuclear legislation, Iran plans to suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement in mid-February, if its demands for sanctions relief have not been met. If enacted, a suspension of the additional protocol would mark Iran’s first breach of the monitoring provisions in the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and would be a significant escalation in Tehran’s violations of the accord.
Iranian leaders have made clear that while access under the additional protocol would be suspended, Iran would not expel International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. The additional protocol grants the agency authority to expand its safeguards monitoring and verification activities in Iran, but where Iran voluntarily implements the additional protocol as part of the JCPOA, it is obligated to uphold its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the agency as a State Party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, noted Jan. 12 that Iran will continue to welcome IAEA inspectors for regular visits to its nuclear sites under that safeguards agreement.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, reiterated Khatibzadeh’s statement and underscored the importance of IAEA inspections.
Khatibzadeh and Kamalvandi’s comments came in response to an inflammatory statement issued Jan. 9 by former U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, wherein Pompeo falsely asserted that Iran’s nuclear legislation requires “expulsion of [IAEA] nuclear inspectors unless all sanctions are lifted.” In his last days as the United States’ top diplomat, Pompeo urged that “Iran’s expulsion of international inspectors must be met by universal condemnation.”
Ali Rabiee, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s spokesperson, also relayed the administration’s assurance Jan. 11 that while the “level of inspections will be reduced” if the additional protocol is suspended, less-intrusive IAEA inspections will continue.
Nevertheless, a suspension of Iran’s implementation of the additional protocol would be highly concerning insofar as it would reduce the IAEA’s capacity to verify that Iran’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful in nature and limit its verification tools. It would also create gaps in the agency’s monitoring that would be difficult to re-create, thus driving speculation about illicit nuclear activities.
While Iran’s frustration with the former Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is understandable, it is vitally important that Iran refrains from any further provocations and that it upholds its implementation of the additional protocol. Failure to do so risks the future of the JCPOA and could result in the European parties to the accord taking steps to reimpose sanctions, including at the UN.
Iran Tests New Missiles
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) test-fired a slew of ballistic missiles during a two-day exercise Jan. 15-16. According to the IRGC, missiles of “various classes” were tested during the drill targeting “the enemy’s battleships” which were destroyed from 1,800 kilometers away.
Iranian Armed Forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri remarked that Iran’s use of “long-range missiles for maritime targets indicates that if the enemies… show any ill will towards our national interests, maritime trade routes or territory, they will be targeted and destroyed by our missiles.”
“We do not intend to carry out any attack,” he added, noting that Iran’s exercises are meant to shore up its defense capabilities. Iran can now “respond to any hostile and malicious act in the shortest time,” he said.
The exercise came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States.
The IRGC also revealed a new underground missile base along the Gulf coast Jan. 8, which is reportedly among “many” such bases in Iran.
The drills marked Iran’s fourth military exercise in a two-week span, which began two days after the anniversary of IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani’s death.
Nonproliferation Experts Support JCPOA Return
More than 70 nuclear experts and former officials signed on to a statement expressing strong support for President Joe Biden’s plan to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA, alongside Iran, and pursue further diplomacy.
The Jan. 12 statement said that "restoration of the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions and its economic benefits for Iran stands the best chance of blocking Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons, providing incentive and encouragement not to do so, and creating space for further diplomacy.” The statement concludes that “failure to return to compliance with the nuclear deal increases the likelihood that the JCPOA will collapse, possibly triggering destabilizing nuclear competition in the region and increasing the likelihood of military confrontation” and will “make it more difficult to reduce the long-term nuclear proliferation risks in the region and beyond.”
The experts warned that “attempting to leverage the U.S. sanctions put in place by the Trump administration to pressure Iran to accept additional commitments beyond what was agreed to in the JCPOA as a condition for U.S. return to compliance would be a risky, imprudent strategy.” Restoring full compliance with the JCPOA, however, provides “a solid basis for pursuing follow-on negotiations on a longer-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program.”
Signatories of the letter include former IAEA Director-General Hans Blix, two former special representatives to the president of the United States on nonproliferation, three former UN Undersecretary Generals for Disarmament Affairs, several prominent physicists, and former high-level officials from the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the State Department, among other agencies.
The full text of the letter and the signatories is available here.
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