Iran is “in no rush” to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said March 21, as the United States and Iran remain deadlocked over the sequence of steps to restore the accord.
While neither side wants to make the first move, Washington and Tehran appear to be exchanging views on the JCPOA indirectly.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters March 12 that “communications through the Europeans” enable the United States to “explain to the Iranians what our position is with respect to the compliance for compliance approach and to hear what their position is.”
Zarif also indicated that Iran is also sharing its approach to restoring the JCPOA. He said March 5 that Tehran intends to send a “constructive concrete plan of action” through “proper diplomatic channels.” Zarif, however, reiterated Iran’s opposition to talks in a March 17 interview published by Politico, saying Iran is “ready to agree to a choreography” to coordinate the steps for each side to return to compliance with the deal but a meeting is unnecessary because there is “nothing to talk about.”
Zarif reiterated Iran’s position that the United States go first, saying “the party that has started this process has to go back and Iran will immediately go back,” referring to the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposition of sanctions in violation of the accord.
The Biden administration’s interest in talks raises concerns that the United States is not serious about coming back to compliance and that “[US officials] want to use pressure and coercion in order to extract new concessions,” he said.
The United States still seeks a meeting “in whatever format the Iranian government is comfortable with,” U.S. Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley said March 18 in an interview with BBC Persian. Malley said that U.S. maximum pressure has failed and the United States wants to “get to the position of lifting sanctions" and Iran returning to compliance with its obligations.
The Biden administration, however, continues to oppose any sanctions relief until Iran also takes steps to return to compliance.
With Iran’s presidential campaigning beginning in April, time is short. Zarif said that if progress on restoring the nuclear deal does not come soon, diplomacy would be stymied for months due to Iran’s June 18 presidential election.
President Hassan Rouhani, having served two terms, is not eligible to run again but is attempting to keep the space open for restoring the deal.
In March 17 remarks, Rouhani addressed internal oppositions to reentry of the JCPOA. He stated that “delaying,” even for an hour, the removal of sanctions by any Iranian entity would constitute a “betrayal.” Rouhani also assessed that Iran is in a better position to defeat sanctions than ever before due to the current US administration’s admonishment of its predecessor’s policies and actions.
Khamenei also reiterated March 21 that “[Iran’s policy regarding reentering the JCPOA] will never be violated at all. The US must lift all sanctions. After verifying that sanctions have truly been lifted, we will return to the JCPOA commitments.”—JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Fellow, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
E3 Scraps Gratuitous Resolution
A resolution circulated among the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Governors in early March risked jeopardizing the agency’s access to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as the already uncertain path toward restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Britain, France, and Germany were persuaded from pursuing the gratuitous resolution by the United States and others.
The three European members of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), circulated the draft resolution censuring Iran ahead of the quarterly Board of Governors meeting which was held March 1-5 in Vienna. Their draft resolution expressed deep concern with Tehran’s recent steps to limit its safeguards arrangements with the agency that are mandated by the nuclear deal.
Iran announced Feb. 23 that it would suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and would halt compliance with other monitoring measures dictated by the accord. The additional protocol grants the agency increased tools and access to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
The suspension was required under a 2020 law passed by the Iranian government and the IAEA was notified of Iran’s intent to breach the JCPOA’s monitoring restrictions. Iranian officials have also reiterated that the reduction in monitoring, as well as Iran’s other breaches of the accord, will be reversed if JCPOA sanctions are lifted.
To prevent the suspension from becoming a crisis, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi traveled to Tehran Feb. 21, ahead of Iran’s announcement, to negotiate a temporary bilateral agreement whereby the agency can continue certain additional verification activities in Iran for three months. Iran will gather and store certain information during that time and hand it over to the agency if sanctions relief is granted.
While the suspension of the monitoring measures is still troubling, the special arrangement between Iran and the IAEA averted a monitoring crisis and kept open a door for Iran, the E3, China, Russia, and the United States to coordinate a return to diplomacy and the JCPOA. Pursing a vote on the resolution during the Board meeting would have put that cooperation at risk.
After the Europeans decided not to move forward with the resolution, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman remarked “today’s development can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran & the IAEA, and pave the way for full implementation of commitments by all parties to the [JCPOA].”
(For more on the Europeans’ draft resolution, see: E3 Put JCPOA at Risk, Luckily Cooler Heads in Vienna Prevailed.)
The Europeans’ draft resolution also called on Iran to cooperate fully with the agency’s investigation into certain outstanding issues related to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement without delay. Those outstanding issues and the IAEA’s assessment that Iran’s explanations about the presence of uranium at undeclared sites were “not technically credible” were detailed in a Feb. 23 report stemming from an ongoing multi-year agency investigation into Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities and are separate from the nuclear deal.
Concern over Iran’s noncompliance with agency investigations is not surprising, nor is it unwarranted. Iran needs to provide timely and full cooperation with the IAEA's investigation and should be encouraged to do so. However, the Europeans’ decision to marry the latter issue with Iran’s reduction to monitoring under the JCPOA risked jeopardizing ongoing diplomatic endeavors to coordinate a return to compliance with the deal by both the United States and Iran. For its part, the United States reportedly played a large role in convincing the Europeans to scrap the resolution.
Grossi also announced at the Board of Governors meeting that the agency would begin technical talks with Iran aimed to resolve the ongoing safeguards dispute in April 2021.
Iran Installs New Centrifuges
Iran began enriching uranium with its IR-4 advanced centrifuge at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. According to a March 16 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 174 IR-4 centrifuges arranged into one cascade are being used to enrich up to 5 percent uranium-235 at Natanz in violation of the nuclear deal.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s uranium enrichment program is limited to output from 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges and it is permitted to test no more than 10 IR-4 centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant until January 2026. Those machines can be fed with uranium, but Iran is prohibited from withdrawing any enriched material.
The installed centrifuges were transferred from the pilot plant to the main enrichment hall at Natanz, where Iran had been using them to produce enriched uranium. Iran alerted the IAEA in July 2020 of its intention to transfer three cascades – one each of IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges – from the pilot plant to the underground enrichment hall. The cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges was transferred and installed in November 2020 and the February report noted that installation of the IR-6 cascade was ongoing.
In the main hall at Natanz, as of March 15, Iran is enriching uranium using 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges, 522 IR-2m centrifuges, and 174 IR-4 centrifuges. Iran plans to further install a second cascade, or chain, of 174 IR-4 machines at Natanz.
Although the cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges was transferred from the pilot plant and installed at Natanz in November 2020, Iran has also taken steps to meet the advanced centrifuge requirements of its new nuclear law, which was passed in December 2020. The law obligates the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to enrich uranium using at least 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges, boost enrichment levels to 20 percent uranium-235, and expedite enriched uranium production, among other things, in violation of the JCPOA. For more details on Iran’s nuclear legislation, see: Iran Passes Nuclear Law.
The IAEA’s latest quarterly monitoring report on Iran, issued Feb. 23, detailed that Iran had installed an additional two cascades of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz and planned to install a third. On March 8, the agency verified in a report circulated among member states that Iran had finished installation and initiated enrichment activities with that third cascade. The agency reported that a fourth cascade of IR-2ms had been completed but the machines were not yet operational, while installation of a fifth cascade was ongoing and installation of a sixth was planned but had yet to begin. As of mid-March, Iran has installed a total of about 870 IR-2m centrifuges arranged into five cascades at Natanz but only three (522 machines) are enriching uranium.
Iran’s new legislation also calls for the AEOI to “optimize and bring into operation” the 40-megawatt Arak heavy water reactor and construct a similar reactor based on the Arak design.
AEOI Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi announced March 19 that Iran will soon conduct a cold test of the reactor, which includes starting the machine to monitor the fluid and support systems. He said, “we have advanced work in the field of fuel, storage, etc.”
Operating the redesigned reactor is within the terms of the JCPOA and does not constitute a further violation of the agreement. Although Iran’s nuclear legislation calls for reverting the reactor to its original design, Kamalvandi has clarified that “our experts believe that the redesigned reactor is more efficient for research and we should complete it.” Tehran plans to use the redesigned reactor for medical and industrial research and isotope production.
As originally designed, the Arak reactor could have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for two nuclear bombs on average, per year. Under the JCPOA Iran agreed to convert the reactor to a more proliferation-resistant design. U.S. withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of sanctions slowed the redesign of the reactor, but Iran continues to collaborate with China to complete the project.
Congress Undermines Biden’s Approach to Iran
A bipartisan letter from 140 members of the House of Representatives calls on the Biden administration to address Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and support for terrorism “from the onset,” undermining President Joe Biden’s approach to first restore the 2015 nuclear deal and then negotiate with Iran on a broader set of issues.
The letter, led by Representatives Anthony Brown (D-Md.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), does not mention support for Biden’s compliance-for-compliance approach to returning to the deal. While several Democrats that signed on to the letter said the text is still consistent with Biden’s approach, Waltz tweeted March 9 that the letter signatories and the Biden administration are “NOT on the same page” on Iran policy. He also said the letter is a “direct response” to a December letter signed by 150 members of Congress supporting Biden’s plan to return the United States to compliance with the nuclear deal alongside Iran, followed by negotiations on a broader range of issues.
Iran has rejected any talks with the United States until the nuclear deal is restored but has said that once the the JCPOA is fully implemented, negotiations on a range of issues are possible.
A similar bipartisan letter undermining Biden’s approach led by Senators Robert Menendez (R-NJ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is being circulated for signatures in the Senate.
That letter argues that the United States "should use the full force of our diplomatic and economic tools in concert with our allies on the United Nations Security Council and in the region to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and meaningfully constrains its destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.” Similar to the House letter, this suggests that all three issues must be addressed at the onset, as opposed to Biden’s plan to restore the nuclear deal first. The Senate letter also suggests that Biden should continue the Trump administration’s failed maximum pressure sanctions campaign against Iran to push Tehran to negotiate on the broader set of issues.
Both letters also fail to mention that Iran violated its obligations under the nuclear deal only after former President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions in breach of U.S. obligations, damaging Washington’s credibility.
Biden can waive sanctions and return the United States to the nuclear deal without congressional support. However, opposition to a compliance-for-compliance restoration of the nuclear deal from Democrats in Congress raises concerns in Tehran that Biden cannot deliver on lifting sanctions or that he may try and use Trump’s sanctions pressure to extract further concessions.
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