Parties Make Progress on Iran Deal Restoration

The United States, Iran, and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal expressed varying degrees of optimism over the progress made during recent talks in Vienna on the necessary steps to restore full implementation of the accord.

The parties met April 15-20 and are set to return to Vienna next week for further discussions on the steps necessary to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The United States and Iran are still not talking directly, which has slowed the process, but EU political director Enrique Mora tweeted April 20 that progress is being made. He noted that “more hard work” is needed and announced that a third working group was created during the most recent meetings to “address sequencing issues.”

During the first round of discussions in Vienna, the parties created a working group to detail the specific sanctions that the United States must lift and a working group to look at the nuclear steps Iran must take to return to compliance with the deal.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abas Araghchi, said April 19 that work has begun on a “joint draft” detailing the required steps. He said there is “agreement over final goals,” but that path will not be easy.

Russia’s Ambassador to the international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, also said that drafting had begun, noting that the parties have moved from “general words to agreeing on specific steps towards the goal” of restoring the deal.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters April 20 that the United States believes progress has been made, but there have been “no breakthroughs.” He said that “we have more road ahead of us than we have behind us.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered a more optimistic take, saying April 20 that results can be achieved in a short time and that 60-70 percent of the issues have been resolved. He said the United States seems serious “in words” about lifting sanctions and noted that the parties in Vienna discussed how to verify that measures were lifted.

It appears that the sequencing of steps by the United States and Iran remains a difficult issue. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said April 18 in a Fox News interview the United States will not lift sanctions “unless we have clarity and confidence that Iran will fully return to compliance.”

Rouhani said April 20 that the first step is for the United States to lift sanctions, the second for Iran to verify that sanctions have been lifted and, in the third step, Iran will return to compliance with its obligations. Iran has consistently pressed the United States to act first, noting that former President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions in violation of the accord in May 2018, despite Iran’s compliance at the time.

In an April 21 press briefing, a Senior State Department Official said that the Biden administration is "not going to accept a process in which the U.S. acts first and removes all of the sanctions that it is committed to removing before Iran does anything" but that there are "many other forms of sequencing" that can be discussed.

U.S. partners in the Middle East are also weighing in on the prospect of restoring the deal.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to oppose restoring the original JCPOA, Saudi Ambassador Rayd Kirmly, head of policy planning at the foreign minister, said April 15 that Riyadh is “not interest in hindering or blocking the current negotiations.” He said Saudi Arabia wants to make sure that “financial resources made available to Iran via the nuclear deal” are not used for destabilizing regional activities.

Krimly expressed support for including states from the region in future dialogue with Iran.

Iran also held talks with International Atomic Energy Agency experts in Vienna April 18 to discuss the agency’s investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities. The agency said in a February report that Iran has not provided satisfactory, technically credible answers to IAEA questions about the presence of processed uranium at undeclared sites in Iran. 

While the IAEA has made clear that these materials and activities date back to the pre-2003 period, Iran is still required to declare all nuclear material to the agency under its safeguards agreement.

The IAEA issued a statement saying that the agency and Iran began to “engage in a focused process aimed at clarifying outstanding safeguards issues,”—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville fellow

Iran Boosts Enrichment to 60 Percent

Iran boosted enrichment levels to 60 percent uranium-235 in response to an April 11 act of sabotage that damaged its primary nuclear facility at Natanz. The attack – an apparent attempt to set back Iran’s nuclear program and perhaps derail talks between Iran, the other members of the nuclear deal, and the United States – caused a blackout at the facility and damaged several advanced centrifuges that are used for enriching uranium.

Iran attributed the attack to Israel. Anonymous officials quoted in several Israeli newspapers also said Israel was behind the attack. The Biden Administration denied any knowledge of or involvement with the attack.

Iranian deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi broadcast the decision to boost enrichment in Vienna, where he gathered for indirect talks with the United States aimed to facilitate a swift U.S. and Iranian return to compliance with the nuclear deal (see more above). Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) April 13 that it intended to begin enriching to 60 percent using a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Plant and a cascade of IR-4 centrifuges to enrich the tails to 20 percent. The IAEA confirmed that Iran began enriching to 60 percent uranium-235 at Natanz April 17.

The threefold increase to Iran’s uranium enrichment levels—the highest enrichment level produced by Iran—risked complicating discussions toward restoration of the accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). When talks began April 2, Iran’s enrichment levels reached only a 20-percent purity, already in great excess of the deal’s 3.67 percent limit. Aragchi also said the Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) of Iran would install 1,000 new centrifuges at Natanz, marking an additional violation of the deal.

Enrichment to 60 percent poses a more significant proliferation risk and brings Iran closer to the 90 percent threshold that is considered to be weapons-grade. The work required to go from 20 percent enrichment to 60 percent enrichment, however, is much less than the effort required to enrich natural uranium to 20 percent. Enriching to 20 percent is about 90 percent of the work required to enrich to weapons-grade.

Iran has threatened to ratchet up enrichment to 60 percent in the past, justifying the action as necessary for naval nuclear propulsion, but this step appears to be about responding to the sabotage and increasing leverage in talks to restore the nuclear deal.

It is unclear how this development will impact breakout. Accumulating 60 percent material would decrease the breakout, but, likely, a significant number of the centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant were damaged due to the sudden power outage caused by the sabotage. This would reduce enrichment capacity and increase breakout. Ali Salehi, head of the AEOI, said April 20 that several cascades have been restarted.

Although the decision to boost enrichment was a direct response to the attack on Natanz, doing so amid consultative negotiations in Vienna led certain parties, including the United States, to question Iran’s commitment to restoring the deal. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted that the “provocative announcement” called into question “Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks and underscores the importance of returning to mutual compliance” with the JCPOA.

Britain, France, and Germany issued a statement April 14 condemning Iran and noting that “this is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon.”

“Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level,” the Europeans noted.

The United States and the E3 have been less direct in their condemnation of the attack on Natanz. The E3 statement said only that they “reject all escalatory measures by any actor.”

Despite Iran’s announcement, talks in Vienna have remained on track. A European official remarked to Reuters April 16 that while Iran’s enrichment boost “is not making negotiation easier,” the attack on Natanz was “deliberate sabotage.” Iran’s uranium enrichment remains subject to IAEA monitoring, ensuring that no nuclear materials are diverted for illicit use.

An Iranian government spokesman confirmed April 20 that the decision to boost enrichment was “a demonstration of our technical ability to respond to terrorist sabotage at these facilities,” and not a hedge toward weapons-grade fissile material.“This measure can be quickly reversed for a return to the agreed enrichment level in the nuclear accord if other parties commit to their obligations,” he confirmed.

Iran Celebrates Annual National Nuclear Day

Iran unveiled a new, advanced uranium enrichment centrifuge – the IR-9 – April 10 in celebration of its 15th annual National Nuclear Day. According to Iranian officials, technicians have initiated mechanical testing on the machine.

The IR-9 is 50 times more efficient than the IR-1 centrifuge, according to Iranian officials. The IR-1 is the only machine Iran is currently permitted to use to produce enriched uranium under the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the deal, Iran may enrich uranium with no more than 5,060 IR-1 machines at its Natanz nuclear facility. Although Iran has breached that limit through the installation and operation of advanced machines, the new class of IR-9 centrifuges, once operational, will further boost the rate of production and net output of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

Throughout the holiday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exhibited a total of 133 nuclear achievements, including the installation of a new cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz, which is reportedly the most efficient of Iran’s operational machines. Rouhani also ordered the testing of several IR-5 centrifuges, along with numerous other advancements in Iran’s nuclear industry, spanning medical, energy, and agricultural applications.

Iranian officials also confirmed that, as of early April, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran had produced nearly 60 kilograms of 20 percent enriched fuel, marking the halfway point to achieving a stated goal to produce 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity in one year.

As he unveiled Iran’s new achievements, Rouhani stressed that “all our nuclear activities are peaceful and for non-military purposes.”

US Intelligence Says Iran Not Engaged in Weaponization Activities

Iran has not conducted “key nuclear weapons-development activities that … would be necessary to produce a nuclear device,” according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) April 9 report, the 2021 Worldwide Threat Assessment.

The DNI assessed that unless Iran receives sanctions relief, it will consider significant actions like 60 percent uranium enrichment, a step Iran announced days after the report was released, and/or construction of a new 40-Megawatt heavy water reactor.

The report also stated that Iran has consistently reminded that all steps in violation of the nuclear deal are reversible and that “it would return to full compliance if the United States also fulfilled its JCPOA commitments.”

The threat assessment also discussed Iran’s conventional military strategy, which anchors on deterrence and its retaliatory abilities through its ballistic missiles. Despite economic challenges, Iran not only has the “largest ballistic missile force in the region,” but it also continues “to improve and acquire new conventional weaponry.”

As a “regional menace with broader malign influence activities … to US and allied interests in the region,” Iran will remain a problematic epicenter of destabilizing activities, the report said. The DNI’s assessed that Iran, albeit wary of a full-blown conflict, “remains committed to countering US pressure.”

The report highlights that Iran will also continue to hedge against the United States in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Israel, and Afghanistan (depending on US presence), especially through the military and economic support for militant groups like Houthis and Hezbollah. In addition, Iran’s capacity and willingness to conduct aggressive cyber operations (in the form of cyberattacks or disinformation dissemination) against the United States and its allies are major threats to critical infrastructure and future elections, the report noted.

Democrat Senators Support Biden’s “Compliance for Compliance” Approach

In a letter to President Joe Biden spearheaded by Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), 27 Democrats expressed support for the administration’s plan to restore compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Senators strongly endorsed Biden’s plan to return the United States to the nuclear deal using a “compliance for compliance” approach. The letter said that if Iran is willing to return to compliance with the deal, then the United States should provide sanctions relief.

Doing so would also help restore U.S. diplomatic credibility and Washington’s relationships with key European allies that support the JCPOA, the letter argued.

The Senators noted other threats posed by Iran beyond the nuclear program, such as American hostage-taking and unlawful imprisonment, military and fiscal support for destabilizing actors and regional proxies, egregious human rights violations, offensive cyberoperations, and ballistic missile development. The letter called on the Biden administration to promptly engage “in follow-on discussion on a regional diplomatic strategy to restrain Iran” once the deal is restored.

The Biden administration has said it plans to engage Iran on several issues once the nuclear deal is fully implemented.

This letter contrasts with an earlier letter by Senator Robert Menendez (R-NJ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) which included 14 Democrats. The Menendez-Graham letter counters Biden’s approach and calls for the usage of “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.”

The Menendez-Graham letter both echoes former President Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, which not only failed to achieve results but also pushed Iran closer to nuclear weapons development and it calls for a single deal that resolves Iran’s nuclear program, destabilizing activities, and ballistic missile programs. This is an infeasible approach, unlikely to yield results.

The Kaine-Murphy letter characterized the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the accord, and its maximum pressure strategy overall, as a failure that pushed Iran to breach the nuclear deal. The letter further welcomed Biden’s reversal of his predecessor’s “missteps” such as the travel ban, the refusal to provide humanitarian aid, exemptions, and licenses, and needless and recurring brinkmanship.

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