The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program paints a bleak picture of the agency’s current ability to monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities and the new Iranian government’s willingness to cooperate with the agency. Newly inaugurated Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi may think intransigence and ambiguity over the status of Iran’s nuclear program will build leverage in negotiations to bring Tehran and Washington back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal—which would reimpose on Iran the most stringent monitoring regime ever negotiated—but his administration’s failure to get off on the right foot with the agency is not only jeopardizing Tehran’s relationship with the IAEA, but also the prospects for restoring the accord.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi warned in the Sept. 7 report that Iran’s failure to fully cooperate and communicate with the IAEA “is seriously compromising” the IAEA’s ability to maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities, which is necessary if the agency is to resume the monitoring and verification activities required by the 2015 nuclear deal. The agency’s confidence that it can maintain that knowledge continuity “has now significantly further declined” and will continue to do so “unless the situation is immediately rectified by Iran,” the report says.
Specifically, the report notes that the IAEA has been unable to ascertain since June if Iran is still abiding by the special arrangement intended to mitigate the effects of Iran’s February 2021 decision to suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguard’s agreement and other JCPOA-specific monitoring measures. Under a special arrangement reached prior to Iran’s suspension of those monitoring measures, the IAEA and Iran agreed that Tehran would allow certain surveillance to continue, but the agency would not receive any data from the machines until Iran received sanctions relief in accordance with the restoration of the JCPOA. That arrangement was extended May 24 for one month and, at that time, agency inspectors were allowed to service the machines and swap in new data storage. However, since the monthlong extension expired June 24, Iran has failed to officially convey to the agency if the special arrangement is still ongoing and failed to respond to requests from the IAEA to allow inspectors to service the equipment.
Access to the machines is particularly critical now, as the Sept. 7 IAEA report noted that the surveillance equipment “cannot be left for more than three months without being serviced” and that Aug. 24 marked three months since inspectors last accessed the machines and replaced the data storage. Iran’s failure to respond to IAEA requests to service the equipment “is seriously compromising the Agency’s technical capability to maintain continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s nuclear program, according to the report.
Information in the report also points to a serious gap in current surveillance architecture. Iran removed four IAEA surveillance cameras from a centrifuge component manufacturing workshop in late June after a reported attack at that facility. The IAEA has not been able to install new, replacement equipment, according to the Sept. 7 report. Furthermore, when the IAEA was finally granted access to the removed cameras on Sept. 4, inspectors noted that the data storage was not among the debris from one of the cameras, which Iran said was destroyed in the incident. The IAEA requested in an Aug. 6 letter that Iran locate the data storage and recording components.
Inspectors were also not able to determine if data from the other three cameras is recoverable, according to the report. This current gap in monitoring and uncertainty over the status of past collected data could seriously inhibit the IAEA’s ability to reconstitute Iran’s activities at that facility. In addition to the verification challenges this situation poses, the surveillance gap is also likely to increase speculation that Tehran diverted centrifuge components or has something to hide.
The IAEA report also notes, unsurprisingly, that Iran is continuing nuclear activities in violation of limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). (see below for more details)
While Tehran has not installed any new advanced centrifuge cascades at the main fuel enrichment plants at Natanz nor Fordow over the reporting period, Iran has continued to stockpile uranium enriched to higher levels. Tehran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent grew from 63 kilograms noted in the May report to 84 kilograms in the Sept. 7 report. The stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium also grew, from 2.4 kilograms in May to 10 kilograms in September.
While Iran also accelerated its production of uranium enriched from between 2 to 5 percent, the total stockpile of uranium enriched to that level remained at the same amount as was noted in the prior report – about 1,774 kilograms. That stockpile size remained static since the prior report in May because Tehran is using the 2-5 percent enriched uranium as feed for producing uranium enriched to higher levels. Iran’s decision to use its stockpile of less than 2 percent enriched uranium as feed for higher enrichment levels, as opposed to solely using natural uranium, contributed to the acceleration of 2-5 percent enriched uranium production over the past quarter.
Given that the number of centrifuges available to enrich uranium appears unchanged from the prior report and that Iran still has not accumulated enough 20 percent or 60 percent enriched uranium which, when enriched to weapons-grade or greater than 90 percent, is enough for a bomb, Iran’s breakout (the time to produce enough weapons-grade uranium gas for one bomb) of about 2 months remains relatively unchanged from the prior quarterly report. However, Iran continues to gain knowledge about advanced centrifuge performance and higher-level enrichment that cannot be fully reversed. The Sept. 7 report notes, for instance, that Iran reconfigured its 60 percent production lines at Natanz and appears to be enriching to that level more efficiently and consistently, which is unsurprising given it has had more time to work out that process.
Furthermore, as the IAEA noted in an earlier report in August, Iran is continuing its research on uranium metal and produced a small quantity of uranium metal enriched to 20 percent in a research lab. New to the Sept. 7 report is the IAEA’s observation that Iran has nearly completed installation of the equipment for the first stage of its process for producing uranium metal at the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant at Esfahan.
While Iran claims that the uranium metal is necessary to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes, the IAEA noted in the Sept. 7 report that the initial 20 percent enriched uranium metal produced is not suitable for that purpose. The knowledge, however, is applicable to weapons development.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has not waived sanctions reimposed by former President Donald Trump targeting the transfer of uranium to Iran, including fuel for the TRR. The nuclear deal requires the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom) to ensure Iran can import fuel for that reactor. While Iran would likely have pursued uranium metal anyways as part of its strategy to press the United States into returning to the JCPOA, granting waivers would have removed Tehran’s justification that the uranium metal fuel for the TRR is necessary for its functioning.
In sum, the Sept. 7 IAEA report paints a bleak picture. While Iran has not accelerated certain violations, such as the further installation of advanced centrifuges, the current monitoring situation is of serious concern and uranium stockpiles of 20 and 60 percent material continue to grow. While Iran’s violations can mostly be reversed quite quickly— centrifuge machines can be disassembled and uranium stocks shipped out or blended down to return Iran to compliance with the limits put in place by the nuclear deal—the knowledge Iran is continuing to gain from activities such as advanced centrifuge operation, enrichment to 60 percent, and uranium metal production cannot be undone. This knowledge, combined with the risk that the IAEA will not be able to recreate a record of Iran’s nuclear activities, threatens the prospect of restoring the 2015 nuclear deal: the Biden administration has made very clear that talks to return to compliance will only continue so long as the United States assesses that the nonproliferation benefits of the accord can be reestablished. Just two days after the Sept. 7 report, U.S. Secretary of States Antony Blinken said "we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved." While Blinken did not put a date on when the window for talks to restore the nuclear deal would close, the timeframe will undoubtedly continue to decrease if Iran does not change course.
Raisi may believe that he is building leverage, but if Tehran’s nuclear program remains on its current trajectory, he risks overplaying Iran’s hand. Raisi’s administration must return to talks in Vienna without delay and build off the progress made between the Biden and Rouhani administrations during the first six rounds of talks. It also behooves Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA by addressing the status of the special monitoring arrangement and allowing inspectors to service surveillance equipment. Failure to do so risks prospects to restore the deal and could ignite a new nuclear crisis.
Key Details from the September Report
The IAEA’s Sept. 7 quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities, like its May 31 report, contains significantly less detail than prior reports, due to Tehran’s suspension of more intrusive monitoring measures required by the nuclear deal in February 2021. As a result, inspectors no longer have the same access to sites and facilities in Iran, complicating the IAEA’s reporting. The IAEA notes in the Sept. 7 that if the gaps in its monitoring persist for too long and it cannot maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities, it could inhibit the agency’s ability to resume verification of Iran’s JCPOA’s commitments in the future.
The IAEA does not determine Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but the Agency’s most recent report indicates that Iran continues to violate the following restrictions on its nuclear activities that were agreed to in the JCPOA:
According to the IAEA’s Sept. 7 report, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile equates to 2,441.3 kilograms of uranium by weight, representing a 799.7-kilogram decrease from the last reporting period. The decrease is due to Iran having used a significant portion of its uranium enriched to less than 2 percent, which would not be useful if Iran were to decide to pursue a nuclear weapon, to produce uranium enriched to 2-5 percent.
Of the 2,441.3 kilograms, 2,372.9 are gas form, 34.5 kilograms are in the form of uranium oxides, 21.1 kilograms are in fuel assemblies and rods, and 12.8 kilograms are in liquid and solid scrap.
Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile in the form of UF6 (measured by uranium weight) is comprised of
Iran’s stockpiles of 5 percent enriched uranium remained the same, as it was used as feed to produce uranium enriched to higher levels. Iran’s stockpiles of 20, and 60 percent enriched uranium grew by 21 and 7.5 kilograms respectively from the last reporting period.
The IAEA’s Sept. 7 report notes that Iran continues to test, operate, and accumulate enriched uranium from advanced model centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. However, the agency did not report the installation of any new, advanced centrifuges in the planned cascades at the main fuel enrichment facility over the last quarterly period. Specifically, the IAEA found that:
At the Natanz fuel enrichment plant:
At the Natanz pilot fuel enrichment plant:
The agency’s Sept. 7 report confirms that Iran’s work on the main production line at the Esfahan fuel fabrication plant is ongoing, and that, as of Aug. 29, the installation of equipment for the first stage of the three-stage process, the production of uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) from uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, was almost complete. Iran previously informed agency inspectors that uranium metal would be produced at the second stage of the process.
Iran is continuing its uranium metal production research and development activities. According to the IAEA, the agency verified Aug. 14 that Iran used 257 grams of UF4 enriched up to 20 percent uranium-235 to produce 200 grams of uranium metal enriched to the same level.
According to the Sept. 7 report, the IAEA wrote a letter to Tehran July 9 requesting confirmation on the status of the four surveillance cameras that were installed at a centrifuge component manufacturing workshop at Iran’s TESA Karaj complex. Tehran granted the agency access on Sept. 4. Inspectors found that of the four cameras, two remained intact while one had been severely damaged and the other destroyed. The agency noted that the data storage and the recording unit from the destroyed camera were not present in the remnants provided to inspectors.
The IAEA was able to recover the data storage components from the two intact cameras and the damaged camera but has been yet unable to read and interpret the data. According to the Sept. 7 report, “until the Agency is able to access the storage media from the other three cameras, which have been placed under Agency seal, it will not be in a position to determine whether the data from the storage media is recoverable.”