Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached a temporary agreement to mitigate the effects of Tehran’s decision to suspend certain monitoring provisions required by the 2015 nuclear deal.
After a visit to Tehran Feb. 21, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced that Iran and the agency reached a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” that will allow the agency to “continue with its necessary verification and monitoring activities” for three months.
Grossi described the technical arrangement as a “reasonable result” that will “stabilize” an unstable situation. He noted that inspectors will still be present in Iran and “snap” inspections will still be permitted.
The arrangement was reached two days before Iran suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and certain specific monitoring mechanisms included in the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The additional protocol is a more intrusive set of monitoring and verification mechanisms that gives inspectors greater access to sites and information about a country’s nuclear program to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities. It builds on a country’s comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA), which is required by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. According to the Feb. 21 announcement Iran will continue to implement its CSA, so inspectors will have access to sites where Iran produces and stores nuclear materials.
Iran also suspended certain JCPOA-requirements that go beyond the additional protocol and a safeguards agreement, including continuous monitoring at key sites and real-time monitoring of enrichment levels.
Details of the Feb. 21 technical arrangement were not released, but the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) said it will continue recording and collecting certain information and will hand over that data to the IAEA if sanctions relief is granted. The data will be erased if JCPOA sanctions are not fully removed within the three months, the AEOI said Feb. 21.
The IAEA does have technologies that can be used to prevent tampering with monitoring equipment, but it is not clear if these will be used to ensure that the data collected has not been altered. Grossi, however, appears to have confidence in the agreement, noting that it will allow the agency to “bridge this period in the best possible way.”
A Feb. 23 statement from the French, German and British Foreign Ministers called Iran’s decision to suspend the verification measures “dangerous” and said it will “constrain the IAEA’s ability to monitor and verify” Iran's nuclear program. The ministers urged Iran to “reverse all measures that reduce transparency.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during a Feb. 22 briefing that the United States is concerned about Iran’s decision, but that “we fully support the IAEA director general’s efforts.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Feb. 22 that it welcomed the temporary arrangement between the IAEA and Iran. Spokesperson Wang Wenbin urged all relevant parties to “remain calm and exercise restraint” and to “leave room for diplomatic efforts.”
While any loss of monitoring is concerning, the temporary arrangement does mitigate the damage caused by the suspension of the additional protocol and other measures and should keep open the window for diplomatic action to restore full implementation of the JCPOA. Receiving the data from the temporary arrangement should help the IAEA reconstruct a record of Iran’s nuclear activities if and when the agreement is restored.—JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and SANG-MIN KIM, Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow
The United States said Feb. 18 that it would accept an invitation from the EU to participate in talks with Iran and the other participants of the 2015 nuclear deal if such a meeting were arranged.
Earlier that day Enrique Mora, EU political director for foreign policy, expressed his willingness to convene “an informal meeting to discuss the way forward” with Iran, the P4+1, and the United States. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said Feb. 23 that Iran is “considering” participating in such a meeting with the parties to the nuclear deal and Washington.
Before the State Department’s confirmation of its willingness to accept an invitation from the EU, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, met with his E3 ministerial counterparts: Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas, Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Dominic Raab, United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, to discuss Iran. That meeting resulted in a Feb. 18 joint statement reaffirming the “centrality of the transatlantic partnership” and the goals of upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime and “ensuring that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon.”
The statement welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden’s and his administration’s “intention to return to diplomacy with Iran” and the interest in “consultations and coordination” with China and Russia. The ministers also expressed concern over Iran’s recent action to produce uranium metal and uranium enriched up to 20 percent uranium-235. They also urged Iran to “consider the consequences” of its decision to limit IAEA access (see above for details.)
No date has been set for a meeting between the JCPOA parties and the United States. U.S. officials say that the first meeting would be at the political directors’ level, so the United States would be represented by the Special Envoy for Iran, Rob Malley. Department of State officials have affirmed that there will be no unilateral moves by the United States before that discussion. State officials have noted that the actions taken so far, such as rescinding the U.S. notice to snapback sanctions at the UN Security Council (see below for details), are not concessions to Iran but rather common sense.
Both Russia and China continue to express support for restoring the JCPOA. Rob Malley had an "in-depth exchange of views on the Iranian nuclear issue" Feb. 21 with a Chinese vice-minister.
Biden himself has recently reaffirmed his position toward conducting principled diplomacy with Iran to restore full implementation of the JCPOA. During the February 2021 Munich Security Conference, Biden stated that “we’re prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted in a Feb. 23 report that it found processed uranium particles at two sites that inspectors accessed in August and September 2020. According to that report, the IAEA informed Iran of the results Jan. 14 and requested explanations from Iran about those particles.
The IAEA report said that one of the locations may have been used for processing and converting uranium ore and the other could have been used for testing conventional explosives applicable to nuclear weapons development and storing nuclear materials. The IAEA report notes that the activities and materials in question date to pre-2003, when the IAEA assesses that Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program, and are not current activities. Regardless, if Iran failed to declare nuclear materials, it would be a violation of its safeguards agreement.
The IAEA first requested access to inspect the two sites, which are not part of Iran’s declared nuclear program, in January 2020. Iran stalled the request until an agreement was reached between Tehran and the agency in August granting access.
The initial request for access in January 2020 came after the IAEA detected traces of uranium at an undeclared site in 2019. The IAEA’s investigation into these facilities likely stems from information that Israel stole from Iran which was then vetted by the agency in 2018.
Iran continues to provide answers that are “not technically credible” to the agency’s questions about traces of uranium found at another undeclared site that the agency visited in 2019 and inspectors are also looking into the whereabouts of a uranium metal disc produced before 2003, according to the report.
While this investigation is about past activities, it is critical for Iran to provide full and timely cooperation with the IAEA’s investigation to maintain the integrity of the safeguards regime and for the agency to continue pressing Iran for answers.
An IAEA report released Feb. 23 details that Iran continues to grow its uranium enrichment program, including by producing 17.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran enriched to that level before negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but is prohibited from enrichment above 3.67 percent by the deal for 15 years.
Iran’s stockpile now totals 2,967.8 kilograms – up 524.9 kilograms since the last reporting period and roughly 14 times the JCPOA’s limit of 202 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent. Of that stockpile, 2,933.1 kilograms are in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). Of Iran’s stockpile in the form of UF6, 1,025.5 kilograms are enriched up to 2 percent uranium-235, 1,890 are enriched between 2 and 5 percent, and 17.6 kilograms are enriched up to 20 percent. The material enriched to between 2-5 percent would be enough for about two bombs if enriched to weapons-grade. Iran's accumulation of uranium enriched from 2-5 percent may slow in the coming months, as Tehran is using some of that material as feed for producing uranium enriched to 20 percent.
The size and sophistication of Iran’s uranium enrichment program has accelerated under the country’s new nuclear legislation–passed in December 2020–which obligates the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to boost enrichment levels to 20 percent, install and operate advanced centrifuges, and accumulate 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium annually, among other things. For more details on Iran’s nuclear legislation, see: Iran Passes Nuclear Law.
The 20 percent enrichment does not come as a surprise. In December 2020 Iran notified the IAEA of its intent to resume enriching to 20 percent, and the IAEA confirmed Jan. 4 that Iran had reconfigured the enrichment hall at the Fordow facility and was prepared to start the production of 20 percent enriched uranium. Since then, Iran’s accumulation of 17.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, as reported in the IAEA’s Feb. 23 report, suggests Iran remains on track to meet or exceed the provisions of its new law.
Iran maintains the 20 percent enriched material is intended to provide fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Uranium enriched to that level, however, constitutes about 90 percent of the effort required to enrich to weapons-grade (above 90 percent uranium-235), so it poses a more significant proliferation risk than uranium enriched to less than five percent.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced Feb. 22 that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile would match the country’s technical needs. “Iran’s uranium enrichment level will not be limited to 20 percent,” Khamenei said, adding “We may increase it to 60 percent.” While emphasizing that Iran will not bow to international pressure absent a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA by the United States, Khamenei noted that Iran has no intention of weaponizing its highly enriched uranium.
Iran has threatened to enrich to levels above 20 percent in the past but has not followed through.
Iran has also taken steps to meet the advanced centrifuge requirements of the new law, which dictates that the AEOI enrich uranium using at least 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges. The IAEA’s Feb. 23 report details Iran’s recent installation of two cascades, each containing 174 IR-2m centrifuges, at the Natanz facility and notes the ongoing installation of a third identical cascade. The report further details Iran’s stated intent to install an additional two identical cascades at Natanz, which, once installed, will bring the total number of installed IR-2m cascades at Natanz to six (or about 1,044 centrifuges). As of Feb. 21, Iran is enriching uranium at Natanz using 5,060 IR-1 and 348 IR-2m centrifuges.
Iran has also installed a cascade of IR-4 centrifuges and is in the process of installing an IR-6 cascade, both transferred from the pilot fuel enrichment plant to the enrichment hall at Natanz. Iran alerted the IAEA of its intention to transfer three cascades—of IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges—from the pilot plant to the enrichment hall in July 2020. The cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges was moved in November 2020, and the decision to move those machines was not tied to Iran’s December 2020 law.
According to the IAEA’s Feb. 23 report, Iran also intends to install two new IR-6 cascades at the Fordow enrichment facility to aid in the production of 20 percent enriched fuel.
Unlike Iran’s other breaches of the JCPOA, such as resuming enrichment to 20 percent, Iran did not operate or test its advanced centrifuges in large numbers before the JCPOA. The knowledge Iran has gained from operating these machines is not reversible.
Key Details from the Feb. 23 Report:
The IAEA does not determine Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but the Agency’s most recent report indicates that Iran has violated the following restrictions on its nuclear activities that were agreed to in the JCPOA:
The Feb. 23 report also notes areas where Iran continues to meet its obligations under the accord:
The United States rescinded a request by former President Donald Trump to re-impose all United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran that were lifted per the 2015 nuclear deal. Re-imposition of sanctions—a process known as snapback—would have irreparably damaged the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but the Security Council determined that the United States could not trigger the process since it was no longer a party to the deal.
While Trump’s efforts failed, U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to officially rescind the request was suggestive of the significant shift between Biden’s and his predecessor’s postures toward diplomacy with Iran. Demonstrating U.S. support for Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and contains the snapback provision, is an important signal of Biden’s intentions and a step toward restoring the JCPOA.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills announced the decision in a Feb. 18 letter to the Security Council’s 15 members. That day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also told allies in Europe that Biden is prepared to discuss U.S. re-entry to the JCPOA.
The Trump administration triggered the process of snapping back Security Council sanctions on Iran in mid-2020, about two years after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018. The administration’s effort was driven by its intent to indefinitely extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which expired in October 2020. The arms embargo (and its expiration date) is written into Security Council Resolution 2231, which outlines the restrictions and sanctions on Iran that were lifted in exchange for its participation in the deal. Had the United States succeeded in its attempt, all restrictions and sanctions outlined in Resolution 2231 would have been promptly re-imposed, and the UN arms embargo on Iran would have continued in perpetuity.
In August the United States circulated a standalone resolution extending the UN arms embargo on Iran. After that failed to gain the support needed to pass, the Trump administration triggered a provision of Resolution 2231 which dictates that any JCPOA participant (originally China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union) can notify the Security Council of Iran’s “significant non-performance” and initiate a 30-day process during which the Security Council must pass a resolution to “continue the sanctions lifting” before all UN sanctions are re-imposed. But when that 30-day window expired and the Trump administration declared all sanctions had been re-imposed on Iran on Sept. 19, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council he would not take any steps to implement those measures.
The United States’ authority to even trigger the deal’s snapback mechanism was widely disputed given that it ceased participation in the JCPOA two years prior. Nevertheless, and despite the Security Council’s efforts to disavow Trump’s request, his administration upheld the notion that UN sanctions were reimposed on Iran on Sept. 19.
The Biden administration has expressed interest in rejoining the JCPOA. While Biden has not yet definitively announced U.S. re-entry to the deal, and while revocation of his predecessor’s snapback request was a largely symbolic gesture, it did signal a changing U.S. policy toward Iran.
“Rejoining the Iran Deal Benefits US National Security,” 41 former national security officials wrote in a Feb. 5 letter advocating U.S. re-entry to the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“We are clear-eyed about the threats posed by Iran to U.S. national security,” the group – comprised of former U.S. military officials and ambassadors – wrote. “The most threatening would be the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Preventing a nuclear-armed Iran must be the paramount objective of our Iran policy, and the [JCPOA] remains the best path to achieving this objective.”
In their open letter, the retired national security officials outlined the consequences of U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and noted the increased proliferation risks posed by Iran’s subsequent violations of the nuclear accord. They also highlighted how a commitment to damaging U.S. relations with Iran affected the security of American soldiers abroad. “This policy, characterized by a rejection of diplomacy and reliance on empty, belligerent rhetoric, has induced increased attacks against our troops and allies in the region, and increased the likelihood of conflict in the Middle East,” they said.
They argued that rejoining the JCPOA and lifting certain sanctions against Iran will create an opportunity for substantive follow-on negotiations while also restoring U.S. credibility and strengthening U.S. national security. “We encourage policymakers to act quickly to bring both Iran and the United States back into compliance with the nuclear accord,” they concluded.
The 41 retired national security officials who signed the letter joined dozens of other prominent American and European experts who have advocated for a swift U.S. return to the JCPOA. For more, see: Nonproliferation Experts Warn Biden on Urgent Need for U.S. Reentry into Iran Nuclear Deal.
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