The fifth round of talks on restoring U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal wrapped up June 2. Negotiators appear optimistic about the prospects for success while acknowledging that some issues remain unresolved.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Abas Araghchi said that the next round of talks, slated to begin June 10, “logically could and should be the final round.” He told the press June 2 that the remaining differences are “not unresolvable.”
Enrique Mora, the EU official coordinating the indirect talks between the United States and Iran, was similarly upbeat about the prospects for success. He told reporters June 2 that he was confident that “the next round will be the one in which we will finally get a deal.” Before the fifth round of talks, which began May 25, Mora said he was “quite sure there will be a final agreement” to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The United States, however, appears less confident that a sixth round of talks will be enough to resolve the outstanding issues. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a June 3 press briefing that there is “every expectation” that there will be “subsequent rounds beyond” the sixth. If multiple rounds are necessary, it is unlikely that the steps to restore the deal would be agreed upon ahead of the June 18 Iranian presidential election (see below for details.)
Price said that progress has been made, but the Biden administration is “neither optimistic or pessimistic” about the prospect of success.
The three European parties to the deal—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—were also cautious in their assessment, noting in a June 3 statement that the “most difficult decisions lie ahead.”
How to address Iran’s advanced centrifuge research and development is reportedly one of the unresolved issues. Iran is building and operating advanced centrifuge machines above the strict limits put in place by the deal. Iran will have gained knowledge on centrifuge performance that cannot be reversed, but the machines can be destroyed and/or dismantled to restore the JCPOA’s limits.
Iran has indicated that many of its concerns about sanctions have been resolved. President Hassan Rouhani said May 20 on state television that the “main” sanctions issues “have been wrapped up,” including those affecting the oil, petrochemical, shipping, and banking sectors. He made a similar comment June 2 and expressed hope that restoration of the JCPOA will be completed prior to the next Iranian president taking office in August.
In May 25 comments to the press, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that the United States views restoration of the JCPOA as the “first step” and that Washington will seek to make the agreement “longer and stronger.” First, however, the United States needs to “put the nuclear program back in the box that we constructed,” he said.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Fellow
Iran, IAEA Extend Special Monitoring Agreement
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed to extend a temporary monitoring arrangement for one month, the agency reported May 24. The agreement will formally expire June 24, delineating a possible deadline by which Iran and the other members of the 2015 nuclear deal will seek to restore the accord.
The Iran-IAEA special monitoring arrangement was reached Feb. 21 to mitigate the effects of a Feb. 23 decision by Iran to suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and other monitoring activities required by the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran suspended compliance with these measures per a December 2020 Iranian law designed to pressure the United States to deliver on sanctions relief by mandating further violations of the nuclear deal.
The additional protocol is a voluntary arrangement that allows IAEA inspectors increased access to sites and information related to a country’s nuclear program to verify that nuclear materials are not diverted for malign purposes. While the agency continues to monitor certain nuclear activities under Iran's comprehensive safeguards agreement, Tehran’s suspension of the additional protocol raised international concerns about the loss of heightened visibility into Iran’s nuclear program. Under the temporary technical understanding reached Feb. 21, Iran agreed to continue recording and collecting certain additional information and committed to transfer that data to the IAEA if the United States lifts sanctions.
The temporary arrangement was originally negotiated for a three-month period and was due to expire May 21, but Iran and the IAEA opted to extend the agreement, likely to support ongoing efforts by diplomats in Vienna to restore the JCPOA.
While the May 21 expiration date threatened to derail diplomacy and create a gap in the agency’s knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities, the extension leaves 30 days for Iran, the other members of the JCPOA, and the United States to finalize the process of restoring the nuclear deal. Commenting on the extension, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted it “will help maintain businesslike atmosphere at the Vienna talks… and facilitate a successful outcome of the diplomatic efforts to restore the nuclear deal.”
In a May 24 note to the agency’s board of directors, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi confirmed that the monitoring arrangement will continue as it did for the first three months, and clarified that monitoring continued throughout the several-day gap between the original arrangement’s expiry and the May 24 extension. Grossi also affirmed that, in negotiating the extension, Iran granted the agency access to the equipment to ensure that it continues to operate properly.
IAEA Reports on Iran’s Nuclear Activities
The act of sabotage against Iran’s main uranium enrichment site at Natanz appears to have slowed aspects of the country’s program, but some of Iran’s most troubling nuclear activities have continued apace, according to data from a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA’s May 31 quarterly report on Iran's nuclear activities contains significantly less detail than prior reports, due to Tehran’s suspension of more intrusive monitoring and verification measures required by the nuclear deal in February (see above for details). As a result, inspectors no longer have the same access to sites and facilities in Iran, complicating the IAEA’s reporting.
The reduction in monitoring and transparency, combined with the expansion of more proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities—namely the continued operation and installation of advanced centrifuges and the growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent—underscores the critical importance of restoring full implementation of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Given the incomplete data resulting from Iran’s suspension of required JCPOA-monitoring provisions, it is difficult to accurately calculate Iran’s breakout time, or the time it would take to enrich enough uranium to weapons-grade for one bomb. If Iran continues to stockpile 20 and 60 percent material, brings online more advanced centrifuges, and resumes enrichment using the full number of installed IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, the breakout will continue to drop below the previously estimated three months.
According to the report, Iran’s production of uranium enriched to less than five percent dropped significantly compared to the prior quarter, but its production of uranium enriched to 20 percent appears to have remained relatively constant.
As a result of Iran’s reduction in monitoring, the IAEA has not fully verified Iran’s reported uranium production. The agency estimated that Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile is 3,241 kilograms, up about 273 kilograms from the prior quarterly report in February. That stockpile includes 1,367 kilograms of uranium enriched up to two percent, 1,773 kilograms of uranium enriched from two to five percent, 62.8 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent, and 2.4 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 60 percent. Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium is not enough for a bomb if enriched to weapons-grade. If Iran used its stockpile of uranium enriched from two to five percent, it could produce enough weapons-grade material for more than two bombs. The uranium enriched to less than two percent would not be useful, if Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons.
According to Iran’s assessment, the country produced only 335.7 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) enriched to less than five percent over the quarter, which equates to about 223 kilograms of uranium by weight. That is about half of the 500 kilograms of uranium by weight enriched to less than five percent produced between November and February. Some of Iran’s uranium enriched to this level was used as feed to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent.
The slow growth in the five percent stockpile is also likely due in part to the sabotage against the Natanz site in April, which includes Iran’s primary uranium enrichment facility. According to the report, the agency verified that 15 cascades of IR-1 centrifuges were being fed with natural uranium gas. Under the JCPOA, Iran is permitted to use 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges, configured into 30 cascades, for enrichment. The IAEA’s prior report, issued in February, suggested that all 30 cascades were being used at that time. The fact that Iran is only currently feeding 15 cascades may be an indication that some IR-1 centrifuges were damaged when the facility's power supply was sabotaged.
Under full Iranian implementation of the JCPOA-required monitoring provisions, the IAEA monitors and reports on the number of IR-1 centrifuges withdrawn from storage to replace damaged machines. That data is being stored under the temporary special monitoring arrangement reached in February and extended May 24 to mitigate the effects of Iran’s suspension of certain monitoring measures and will only be made available to the IAEA if the JCPOA is restored.
While the stockpile of uranium enriched to five percent slowed, Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium—a more proliferation-sensitive level because it constitutes about 90 percent of the required to work to get to weapons-grade levels—remained relatively constant.
Iran began producing uranium enriched to 20 percent Jan. 4. After six weeks, the country had produced 17.6 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium by weight, according to the IAEA, or about 12 kilograms per month. The 12 kilograms per month would enable Iran to produce 120 kilograms by the end of 2021 if the deal is not restored, in line with a law passed in December 2020.
According to the recent report, Iran has produced about 67 kilograms of uranium hexaflouride gas (UF6) enriched to 20 percent since Feb. 16, of which the agency has verified 51.5 kilograms. Sixty-seven kilograms of UF6 converted to uranium by weight, added to the 17.6 kilograms Iran produced before Feb. 16, brings Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile to 62.8 kilograms, measured by weight. This figure suggests a similar monthly production rate when compared to the prior report. Nearly all of Iran’s enrichment to 20 percent is taking place at the Fordow site, where Iran is using six cascades of IR-1 centrifuges in three sets of interconnected cascades to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent using a five percent feed. Enrichment at Fordow and enrichment using interconnected cascades is prohibited by the JCPOA.
Iran has also produced 3.6 kilograms of UF6 gas enriched to 60 percent, of which the IAEA has verified two kilograms, since beginning enrichment to this level April 17. Iran had never enriched above 20 percent in the past and, based on details shared in the IAEA report, it took Tehran some time to reach that threshold. The IAEA report and analysis includes enrichment levels at 55 and 63 percent during March and April. While this level is still below weapons grade, it represents a new capability for Iran and could enable Iran to enrich to weapons-grade more quickly in the future using a shortened process.
Iran changed its centrifuge set up for producing uranium enriched to this level twice—April 21 and May 10. The current configuration uses five percent enriched uranium as feed for a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges, which produce 60 percent enriched uranium. The tails are then fed into a cascade of IR-4 centrifuges, which produce 20 percent enriched uranium. The tails from the IR-4 line are fed into a small cascade of IR-5 and IR-6 machines, which produce uranium enriched to five percent.
Iran is also continuing its installation of advanced centrifuges in violation of the JCPOA’s limits. While the IAEA no longer has daily access to the enrichment facilities and Natanz and Fordow, agency inspectors can regularly visit these sites under Iran’s safeguards agreement and have verified that Iran’s installation and operation of advanced machines. According to the report, Iran has:
Several activities that the IAEA usually reports on in its quarterly reports to the Board of Governors are not included in the May 31 document because of Iran’s reduction in monitoring and verification.The IAEA, for instance, has not had access to the heavy water production plant to measure Iran’s stockpile of heavy water, nor has it been able to monitor centrifuge production and the withdrawal of IR-1 centrifuges.
While the special monitoring arrangement will provide the IAEA with this data if the JCPOA is restored and mitigates the risk posed by Iran’s suspension of the more intrusive measures required by the JCPOA, it is not sustainable in the long term.
The IAEA has been able to access Iran’s uranium metal production facility under construction at Esfahan. According to the May 31 report, agency inspectors have verified that installation of the equipment necessary for the first step in the production process was complete, but that no nuclear material had been introduced.
Iran Continues to Stall on IAEA Investigation
In a May 31 report, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi relayed his concern that bilateral discussions with Tehran have failed to clarify outstanding questions regarding the correctness and completeness of Iran’s comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement. Grossi warned that the lack of progress toward resolving these issues “seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”
The IAEA’s multi-year investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities is ongoing but has moved slowly due to Iran’s failure to provide full and timely cooperation with agency requests. The agency’s outstanding issues pertain to Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities when Tehran had a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA concluded its investigation into these activities in 2015, but the agency is obligated to follow up on evidence that points to undeclared nuclear materials and activities that Iran should have disclosed under its safeguards agreement.
Grossi told the IAEA Board of Governors June 7 that it is a “requirement for Iran to clarify and resolve these issues without further delay.” In a press conference following his statement to the Board, Grossi said that the Iranian government has “reiterated its will to engage and to cooperate,” but it has not done so.
According to the Agency’s recent report, its investigations have centered on four locations in Iran that are not specifically named in the report.
Information made available to the IAEA in Sept. 2018 suggests this location could have been involved in the storage of nuclear materials and equipment – details that Iran is required to disclose to the IAEA per its safeguards agreement. The Agency conducted environmental sampling at the site in Feb. 2019, yielding evidence of “natural uranium particles of anthropogenic origin [human made], the composition of which indicated that they might have been produced through uranium conversion activities.” Those samples also revealed the presence of isotopically altered particles of low-enriched uranium. The IAEA shared these findings with Iran, but, according to the May 31 report, the Agency assessed Iran’s explanations to be “not technically credible.”
The IAEA found indications of the possible presence between 2002 and 2003 of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc that underwent drilling and processing.When the agency requested clarification from Iran on the origin of the disc in July and Aug. 2019, Iran failed to respond. The IAEA conducted verification activities in Sept. 2020 at a declared facility where uranium metal production had once occurred in an effort to verify whether the uranium disc was present at this facility, but that investigation was inconclusive. Iran has yet to provide further clarification.
According to the May 31 report, this location “may have been used for the processing and conversion of uranium ore, including fluorination, in 2003,” and the Agency has observed significant changes to the location since 2004, including building demolition. The IAEA sought clarification from Iran in Aug. 2019 and requested access to conduct environmental sampling at this location in Jan. 2020, but Iran failed to cooperate. Tehran later granted the Agency access in Aug. 2020 under a joint agreement reached between Iran and the IAEA, and environmental sampling “indicated the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles that required explanation by Iran.” While the IAEA shared these findings with Iran in Jan. 2021, Tehran has yet to provide answers to any of the Agency’s outstanding questions regarding activities at this location.
The IAEA found indications of the possible use and storage of nuclear material “where outdoor, conventional explosive testing may have taken place in 2003” at this undeclared location. According to the May 31 report, the Agency observed activities consistent with efforts to sanitize part of the location from July 2019 onwards. While Iran denied an initial Aug. 2019 request for access by the IAEA, it later granted permission under its Aug. 2020 agreement with the Agency. Environmental sampling at the location indicated “the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles that required explanation by Iran,” but Iran has failed to satisfactorily address Agency questions related to this location.
Grossi and Iranian officials met first in April, then twice in May in an ongoing effort to resolve these outstanding inconsistencies. While Iran provided an oral and written statement addressing activities that had occurred at Location 4, it failed to address Locations 1, 2, or 3, and the IAEA found Iran’s clarification on Location 4 to be insufficient. In a May 27 letter to Grossi, Iran invited the IAEA to another round of bilateral technical meetings beginning the week of June 21. That meeting is due to begin several days after the Iranian presidential election, which is scheduled for June 18. It remains to be seen whether a newly elected Iranian president will be amenable to technical discussions with the IAEA aimed to resolve outstanding issues related to the correctness and completeness of its safeguards agreement.
Despite the lack of progress, it does not appear that the IAEA Board of Governors will pursue any action against Iran during its quarterly meeting June 7-11. Ahead of the last meeting in early March the three European members of the 2015 nuclear deal, Britain, France, and Germany, pursued a resolution censuring Iran reducing JCPOA-required monitoring and for the lack of progress made toward clarifying outstanding safeguards issues. They dropped the resolution under pressure from a number of states concerned that such a resolution would backfire on efforts to restore the deal and could jeopardize the special monitoring arrangement reached in February.
While this investigation is clearly about past activities, it behooves Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation and meet its safeguards obligations. Failure to do so will likely increase speculation that Iran has something to hide and could undermine the sustainability of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran’s Presidential Candidates Announced
Iran’s presidential campaign began after the official candidates were announced May 25. While the slate includes several conservatives who were skeptical of negotiations on the 2015 nuclear deal, all of the candidates appear to support returning to compliance with the agreement if the United States lifts sanctions.
Iran’s Guardian Council, the 12-member body of jurists and clerics that vets candidates’ qualifications, approved only seven men out of 592 individuals who registered for the presidential candidacy. While the council approved no prominent reformists or moderates including former Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, five conservatives, one centrist, and one reformist made the list.
Each of the conservative candidates believes that Iran should rejoin the nuclear deal only after it has verified the lifting of all U.S. sanctions, a position espoused by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This includes the front-runner Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who currently serves as the judiciary chief. Raisi has said that his administration would prioritize lifting U.S. sanctions and thus backed the ongoing negotiations. Not only as a close ally to the Supreme Leader would Raisi closely deliver Khamenei's position on the deal, but he also said in the 2017 presidential campaign debate that “any administration that comes to power should be committed to the JCPOA … The nuclear deal, despite its shortcomings, is a national document.”
Other approved hardline, conservative candidates, some of whom are allegedly going to withdraw in Raisi’s favor, have been critical of the nuclear deal or the ongoing talks in Vienna.
Alireza Zakani, who is a conservative member of parliament and was disqualified from the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, called the deal at his May 29 news conference “incomplete and broken” and said that Iran should rejoin only after Tehran has verified the lifting of all U.S. sanctions. Zakani also called for the implementation of the Dec. 2020 nuclear law, which was passed in the Iranian Parliament to counter United States’ sanctions through further violations of the deal,and he criticized that “Iran is giving many concessions for free in the ongoing Vienna talks.”
In a similar tune, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, another conservative member of the parliament. stated at a May 19 interview with IranPress that “if the outcome of the Vienna talks only leads to the signing of two texts, this agreement is worthless.” While not opposed to negotiating, Hashemi also supported the Dec. 2020 nuclear law in order to convey the message that “if [non-Iran members] fail to live up to their commitments, Iran will not accept any restriction in the context of JCPOA.”
The former Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili tweeted June 1 that while he was not inherently opposed to negotiation, Iran should not “put all eggs in one basket.” Jalili has been a critic of the current President Hassan Rouhani and his team, saying May 8 that Rouhani has no solution over the nuclear issue or sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
The fifth conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaei, who is the secretary of the Expediency Council and competed in three unsuccessful presidential campaigns, has also taken a hardline approach vis a vis the nuclear deal. He demanded earlier this year for the United States and European members to lift sanctions and make amends with Iran.
Some experts believe that the Guardian Council set a largely “ceremonial election,” designed to elect conservative candidate Raisi.
Abdonaser Hemmati, a centrist candidate on the council’s list who ran on a pro-economy platform, was dismissed May 30 as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. Hemmati told Bloomberg May 9 that to restore the deal, the removal of sanctions against Iran’s fiscal institutions must be verified. This is why he supports measures in line with removing sanctions, like the adoption of the Financial Action Task Force’s action plan, and pushes for “an agreement to lift sanctions and improve relations with the world and the region” with the improved livelihood of Iranians as the objective.
Former senior Atomic Energy Organization official Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh is the only reformist candidate remaining in the Iranian presidential race. The Reformist Front, the main Iranian reformist political party, announced that it will not endorse any candidate for the first time in protest of the mass disqualifications of prominent reformist figures, indicating a different direction for the deal than Rouhani’s.
Khamenei endorsed the current listing on state television May 27, saying that “the honorable Guardian Council, in accordance with its duty, did what it had to do and what it deemed necessary to do and identified the candidates.”
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