Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi has expressed support for returning Iran to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal if U.S. sanctions are verifiably lifted. Raisi’s election, however, appears to be responsible for delaying the resumption of talks in Vienna to restore the accord as the president-elect’s advisers are reviewing the progress that negotiators made in the first six rounds of talks. The sixth round concluded June 20, two days after the election, and it is still unclear when the seventh round will commence.
Raisi’s position on the nuclear deal is consistent with the position taken by the outgoing Rouhani administration and Iran’s Supreme Leader. Before the June 18 election, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, said that if Raisi were elected, “there will be no disruption” in talks to restore the nuclear deal. He said that Iran’s policies are “unchanging, irrespective of different administrations.”
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan similarly suggested that Iran’s position on talks to restore the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is unlikely to change with Raisi’s election. Sullivan told ABC June 20 that the “ultimate decision” to return to the deal will be made by the supreme leader and “he was the same person before the election as he is after the election.”
Raisi’s victory was expected after the Guardian Council, which vets the presidential candidates, disqualified several prominent challengers. Raisi, a conservative cleric and former head of the judiciary, won 62 percent of the vote, but less than 50 percent of the electorate cast ballots and a significant number of voters—about 13 percent—invalidated their ballots, likely in protest. The low voter turnout and number of spoiled ballots suggested that there was little enthusiasm for the election and slate of candidates.
Raisi will take office Aug. 3. It is unclear if talks to restore the deal will be concluded at that point. Less progress appears to have been made in the sixth round when compared to previous talks and Araghchi told the press June 20 that remaining issues “require serious decisions in the capitals.”
In a June 24 press briefing a senior U.S. State Department official also said that there are “serious differences that have not been bridged” covering a “host of issues.” Restoring the nuclear deal “remains possible,” but the “process won’t be open indefinitely” if Iran’s nuclear program continues to progress, the official said.
One of the unresolved issues is Iran’s demand that the United States provide some sort of guarantee that it will not withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions, as former president Donald Trump did in May 2018.
Araghchi told Iranian state TV June 20 that Iran seeks “guarantees that assure” that “what the previous [U.S.] administration did…will not happen again.” He said some progress has been made on this issue, but it requires more work.
The senior State Department official said that “there is no such thing as a guarantee,” but the best thing that the United States can do is to “get back into the deal and to implement it faithfully.”
Another outstanding issue appears to be the Biden administration’s interest in obtaining a commitment from Iran to return to talks after the JCPOA is restored to discuss a range of issues, including building on the nuclear deal, addressing the country’s missile program, and discussing regional security issues.
The senior official said the Biden administration has been clear about its position on follow-up talks and that “we’re in the middle of discussing the nature of what those talks could be.”
In his June 21 news conference, Raisi said Iran seeks a balanced relationship with the outside world and the country’s foreign policy does not begin and end with the nuclear deal.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director of nonproliferation policy, JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Fellow
IAEA Monitoring Agreement in Limbo
A temporary monitoring arrangement reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expired June 24, threatening to further limit the watchdog’s oversight of Iran’s nuclear activities. It remains to be seen whether the monitoring arrangement aimed to support IAEA safeguards activities under the 2015 nuclear deal will be formally extended.
Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei said June 29 that Iran is considering extending the agreement, but that no decision has been made.
Iran and the IAEA first reached their temporary technical understanding Feb. 21. Under the terms of the arrangement, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) agreed to continue collecting and recording certain data, including video footage at specific sites, and pledged to transmit that data to the agency upon restoration of the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The data collection is likely continuing, despite Iran’s refusal to officially confirm that the arrangement is extended.
The special arrangement reached in February staved off a crisis threatened by Iran’s decision to suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement, along with other critical monitoring measures mandated by the nuclear accord. Iran did so under its December 2020 nuclear law, which called on the AEOI to reduce compliance with the JCPOA in an effort to pressure the United States to return to the deal and deliver economic sanctions relief.
While Tehran is obligated to implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA as a state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the additional protocol to that agreement, which is mandated by the JCPOA, gives the agency increased tools and access to verifiably assure that Iran’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful. Rabiei pledged that Iran would continue working with the IAEA “solely based on safeguards,” referring to its NPT safeguards agreement, if the monitoring arrangement is not extended.
While the Feb. 21 arrangement was originally set to expire May 21, Iran and the IAEA agreed to a one-month extension May 24.
As the June 24 deadline drew near, Iran, the United States, and the other members of the JCPOA were engaged in discussions in Vienna aimed to restore the JCPOA, which would require Iran to re-implement the additional protocol and thereby negate any need for the temporary arrangement. Without the collected data, however, the IAEA would have to resume monitoring with gaps in its knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi revealed June 20 that he had not yet heard from Tehran about its intention to renew the monitoring agreement. In a June 25 IAEA report, a day after the monitoring arrangement was set to expire, Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors that Tehran had still not responded. He stressed “the vital importance of continuing the Agency’s necessary verification and monitoring activities in Iran, including the uninterrupted collection and storage of data by its monitoring and surveillance equipment,” and said that “an immediate response from Iran is needed in this regard.”
An unnamed Iranian senior official affirmed to CNN July 2 that Tehran will not share that recorded data with the agency unless the nuclear deal is salvaged, suggesting that the data is still be collected. “If talks succeed Iran will surely show the tapes to the IAEA,” that official said, caveating that “sharing the tapes depends on the way that the negotiations will proceed.”
Amid the safeguards standoff, western diplomats reported July 1 that for several weeks Iran has further restricted IAEA inspectors’ access to its enrichment plant at the Natanz facility, citing security concerns. While the access dispute is separate from the temporary monitoring arrangement and discussions toward resolving the access issue are underway, diplomats emphasized their heightened concern with Iran’s failure to cooperate with the agency’s monitoring activities.
Iranian state media announced July 3 that Massimo Aparo, the IAEA’s deputy director, will soon visit Iran for “routine” matters, but with no scheduled plans for formal talks. His visit may be connected to the Natanz access issue.
Iran Pursues Uranium Metal
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported July 6 that Iran initiated the process for 20 percent uranium-235 metal production, which is prohibited under the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
As part of the same nuclear law that required Iran to suspend the additional protocol (see above), the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was required to equip a uranium metal production facility in the first four months of 2021. Prior IAEA reports detailed the installation of necessary equipment at a facility at Esfahan and experiments with the production of small amounts of natural uranium metal. According to those earlier IAEA reports, Iran intended to use a three-step process to produce uranium metal. The July 6 report indicates Iran will use a four-step process. Iran informed the IAEA about its intention to produce the metal using uranium enriched to 20 percent in late June.
Uranium metal can be used for civilian purposes—Iran stated it intends the 20 percent enriched uranium metal to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes—but it is also relevant to weapons design.
In a July 6 statement, ministers from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said that “Iran has no credible civilian need” for uranium metal production and characterized it as a “key step in the development of nuclear weapons.” The statement noted concern that “this also takes place in the context of Iran having significantly curtailed IAEA accesses through withdrawing from JCPOA agreed monitoring arrangements and ceasing application of the Additional Protocol.” The three countries urged a swift return to full compliance with the JCPOA.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a July 6 press briefing that it is “worrying that Iran is choosing to continue to escalate its nonperformance of its JCPOA commitments, especially with experiments that have value for nuclear weapons research.” He said the move will not provide Iran with any additional leverage in talks to restore the deal.
Iran’s decision to covert a portion of its uranium enriched to 20 percent gas into metal may increase the country’s breakout-time, or the time it would take to produce enough nuclear material enriched to above 90 percent for one bomb, by temporarily shrinking its enriched uranium stockpile. But that would likely be a small, short-term gain, as Iran’s continued production and accumulation of enriched uranium will compensate for the deficit. Moreover, the TRR does not require that much fuel, so only a small portion of the existing stockpile may be impacted. The knowledge Iran gains from the uranium metal production process would be beneficial for nuclear warhead development if Tehran ever made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons and negates any short-term breakout benefit.
IAEA Probe Stalled
“We are on a ventilator” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi warned June 20, referring to the agency’s longstanding effort to clarify outstanding safeguards issues related to Iran’s past nuclear activities. In addition to several ongoing disputes over inspector access (see above), Tehran continues to stonewall the IAEA’s investigation into its possible undeclared nuclear activities, which date to before 2003, when Iran had a known nuclear weapons program.
Grossi detailed the investigation’s lack of progress in a May 31 report to the agency’s Board of Governors, lamenting that the failure to clarify the outlined inconsistencies “seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” He told the Board of Governors when they met June 7-11 that it is a “requirement for Iran to clarify and resolve these issues without further delay.”
At the June meeting, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Louis Bono relayed the U.S. position that “robust IAEA verification and monitoring – based on equally robust cooperation from Iran – is essential to providing confidence that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful uses, and to providing assurances that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.”
“Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA is essential, and must be nothing less than full and immediate,” Bono added.
Representatives from Britain, France, and Germany delivered a joint statement to the Board calling on Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation. “In limiting IAEA access, Iran makes it harder for the international community to assure themselves that Iran’s activities remain exclusively peaceful.”
“We know that our very serious concerns at Iran’s actions are widely shared among members of this board,” they noted.
Asked about the IAEA’s safeguards probe in a June 20 interview, Grossi emphasized his commitment to resolving the issue during his tenure as IAEA chief. “Let’s clear it up,” he said, “if there is nothing behind it, there is no problem, and Iran’s confidence and trust will only increase.”
Iran reportedly invited the IAEA to a round of technical talks to discuss the safeguards issue June 21, but those discussions never came to fruition, Grossi said. He expressed optimism that cooperation will increase before the Board of Governors next meets in September. At that meeting, the Board could pass a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate with the agency, and also has the authority to refer the issue to the Security Council.
Since the publication of the May report, the agency has so far stopped short of formally referring Iran’s lack of cooperation to its 35-member Board. The Board of Governors adopted a resolution in June 2020 pursuant to the same safeguards investigation that called on Iran to cooperate fully and in a timely manner with the agency.
While the IAEA’s multi-year investigation pertains to past activities and materials that should have been declared under Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, which it is obligated to implement as a state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it is one of several issues currently complicating the agency’s relationship with Iran. A successful outcome of the negotiations aimed to restore the 2015 nuclear deal could inject momentum into talks between the IAEA and Iran to address the outstanding issues. However, Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA and its decision to reduce additional IAEA monitoring pursuant to the deal and to limit inspector access risk disrupting that diplomatic process.
UN Reports on Resolution 2231 Implementation
In his biannual report assessing the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the 2015 nuclear deal, the UN Secretary-General expressed his support for ongoing negotiations in Vienna to restore the accord.
In the June 21 report, Antonio Guterres appealed to the United States and Iran to return to compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and said that the accord “remains the best way to ensure” that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. He said all UN member states “should promote a conducive environment for the ongoing diplomatic efforts and avoid provocative rhetoric and actions that may have a negative impact on those efforts.”
Guterres also called on states to “work effectively,” including by using the INSTEX mechanism, to engage in legitimate trade with Iran. He said this is particularly important “given the current economic and health challenges posed by” the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his assessment of the implementation of Resolution 2231, Guterres noted that there were no new allegations of the illicit transfer of missiles or related technology to or from Iran in the period covered by the report. Iran is prohibited from importing or exporting certain technologies without prior approval. With the arms embargo having expired in October 2020, this report did not cover allegations of illicit transfers of conventional arms as prior reports did.
Resolution 2231 also requires pre-approval for the procurement of any dual-use nuclear materials and technologies. According to the report, there were no new allegations reported of illicit dual-use transfers during the reporting period and only one request was submitted through the procurement channel. There were eight notifications of dual-use transfers for JCPOA-specific projects, such as the operations of Bushehr and the modifications to the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which require notification to the Security Council but no pre-approval.
The report also noted a letter from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom noting that Iranian missile launches in January and space launch test in February were consistent with category 1 systems under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which are defined as carrying a 500-kilogram payload over 300 kilometers. The letter said these systems were therefore “capable of delivering nuclear weapons” and inconsistent with Resolution 2231. Russia and Iran both noted in separate letters to the Secretary-General that the MTCR guidelines were not intended to be used in the context of Resolution 2231 and Resolution 2231 does not prohibit Iran from developing missile and space programs.
Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran to refrain from developing ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” In addition to the language being non-binding, there is not a recognized definition of what the description “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” constitutes.
Both the E3, Russia, and Iran have made similar arguments about the interpretation of Resolution 2231’s language on missile developments in response to past tests.
Iran’s Nuclear Plant Back Online After Shutdown
Iran’s sole nuclear power plant resumed operations July 4 after a two-week emergency shutdown to address “technical issues,” according to a state-run news outlet. This took place while top U.S. and Iranian diplomats have sought to reach an agreement on how to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The Bushehr nuclear power plant’s emergency shutdown began early in the day June 20 when it was disconnected from the national electric grid. The shutdown was supposed to last “for three to four days,” according to state electric company Tavanir.
Details of the technical issues are still largely unknown, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced June 21, two days after the shutdown began, that the agency was in contact with Iran about the situation.
Earlier this year, in March, Mahmoud Jafari, a deputy at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said that the plant could be shut down because of the banking sanctions imposed in 2018 by the United States. Banking sanctions have prevented Iran from procuring necessary parts and equipment from Russia, thus hampering the plant’s operations and maintenance, Jafari noted.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the AEOI, told Iran’s parliament news website that the delays in repaying Russia €500 million for the owed construction fees of its two additional nuclear reactor units and fuel at Bushehr were due to U.S. sanctions.
Bushehr is Iran’s 1000 megawatts nuclear power plant, which went online in 2011 with Russia’s assistance, and has generated more than 48,5000 million kilowatt-hours of electricity to the national grid. The plant contributed 1.84 percent of the national electricity production in 2019, according to the IAEA.
Russia provides the uranium fuel for the Bushehr nuclear plant. The AEOI runs the plant as it is responsible for the state’s nuclear technology developments, including electricity development. As part of the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran is required to send spent fuel rods from the reactor back to Russia.
The plant currently has a single reactor, but Tehran and Moscow signed a deal in 2014 to build two more reactor units at Bushehr. The second reactor unit is under construction and is expected to be completed in 2025.
Tehran Seeks Russian Satellite Capabilities
The Iranian military is trying to procure a high-resolution satellite system from Russia to advance its space capabilities after its own recent failed space launches in mid-June. If this alleged acquisition occurs, it would enhance Iran’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) abilities.
The alleged transaction involves a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite matched with a 1.2-meter resolution camera, which would significantly upgrade Iran’s current capabilities. The acquisition has reportedly been in the works at least since 2018, and Russian experts trained Iranian personnel earlier this spring, according to anonymous officials cited by The Washington Post. Officials and experts interviewed for that piece further stated that the upgraded military reconnaissance ability is worrying as it allows for targeted and “continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, denied the alleged transaction, characterizing it as “fake news,” in a June 11 interview with NBC.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to develop its own satellite systems and rockets and announced three space launches this year using its Simorgh space launch vehicles (SLVs).
Its latest launch failed June 12, which the U.S. Space Command tracked and later confirmed to CNN. The reasons behind the latest failure remain unclear, but past attempts have failed either on the launchpad (like in August 2019) or at a later stage, according to a Pentagon official. While Iran has succeeded in putting satellites in orbit in the past, it is unclear if they are all functioning properly. Pentagon Spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland told CNN that the latest space launch by Iran in April 2020 placed a microsatellite (NOUR-1) in orbit that seems “uncontrolled and not operational.”
Tehran is reportedly getting ready for another rocket launch at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Spaceport based June 20 satellite imagery, according to tweets from Middlebury Institute of International Affairs professor, Jeffrey Lewis. Lewis, an expert on Iran’s space program, said that the testing rate of space rocket launches reflects the Iranian military’s desire for success in its space programs.
The development of Iran’s space program is an area of concern for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which noted in its 2019 report that “progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because SLVs use inherently similar technologies.” However, Dr. Lewis suggested that if Iran plans to pursue intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), then it would develop a different rocket as the Simorgh vehicle’s engines and size are too inefficient.
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