Iran’s hardline approach to recent negotiations in Vienna raised further concerns about prospects for diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Talks resumed Nov. 29 in Vienna after a five-month hiatus, during which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office and assembled his team. While the Raisi administration’s rhetoric ahead of the negotiations suggested a harder line than his predecessor, Iran’s demands for "sweeping changes" to the text of the agreement and its disinterest in honoring progress made during the first six rounds of talks may ultimately jeopardize the likelihood of restoring the JCPOA by undercutting negotiations in Vienna. It is not certain how long the United States and the other parties to the deal may be willing to meet with Iran in Vienna if they are unable to reach common agreement or if Tehran is perceived as not negotiating in good faith.
Adding to that, midway through the weeklong session, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had begun operating 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its Fordow enrichment facility in flagrant violation of the deal, which dictates that Iran enrich and accumulate uranium using only first-generation IR-1 machines at its Natanz plant. (see below for details.)
Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities could soon threaten the practical nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA itself, should it be restored, thereby weakening the agreement. At a Dec. 4 briefing, a senior State Department official remarked that the United States “[cannot] accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy,” and said time is running out to resurrect the agreement.
Iran first began violating the JCPOA in May 2019 – one year after the United States unilaterally withdrew and reimposed sanctions that had been lifted under the agreement. Talks to restore mutual compliance with the accord began in April 2021, in Vienna, but stalled in June after Raisi’s election. In this most recent round, as with the earlier talks, Iran has refused to meet with the United States directly. Rather, the two delegations have engaged in negotiations via the other members of the deal – China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom – and the European Union, whose senior foreign policy chiefs coordinate the talks.
As talks resumed, European Union External Action Service Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora, who is chairing negotiations on behalf of the EU, expressed that he “[felt] extremely positive about what I have seen today,” but his optimism does not appear to be shared by all of the parties.
Negotiating teams departed for their capitals Dec. 3 to prepare for an eighth round of discussions set to begin Dec. 9 and consider two drafts put forth by Tehran aimed to clarify steps for the United States to lift sanctions and for Iran to revert its nuclear activities back to compliance with the JCPOA.
Iran took a hard line when it came to sanctions relief, as was expected, and its draft proposal likely demands that the United States lift all sanctions imposed since 2018, including those separate from the nuclear file. A background briefing released Dec. 5 by a senior Iranian official stressed Tehran’s view that “all sanctions imposed in the framework of the maximum pressure policy are designed with the clear aim of eliminating the JCPOA, and therefore all of these sanctions are related to the JCPOA” and must be lifted. Addressing mounting concerns over Iran’s nuclear activities, the official countered that “one cannot expect [Iran] to stop its compensatory steps – which were not a first step but a response to sanctions – until the manner of lifting sanctions is clarified and implemented.”
The “U.S. reluctance to give up on sanctions altogether is the most important challenge to the progress of the talks,” the Iranian official said.
Initial indicators that Tehran might agree to build upon the progress made during the first six rounds of talks faded throughout the week. Iran’s draft proposals purportedly exemplify a clear divergence between the negotiating platforms of Raisi and his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. After Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani shared Iran’s new draft proposals in Vienna, senior European diplomats assessed that “Iran is breaking with almost all of the difficult compromises reached in months of tough negotiations and is demanding substantial changes to the text.” They said it is “not clear how these new gaps in the negotiations could be closed in a realistic timeframe on the basis of the Iranian amendments.”
Iran’s drafts signify it has walked back “any of the compromises that Iran had floated during the sixth round of talks, pocket[ed] all of the compromises that others and the U.S., in particular, had made, and then ask[ed] for more,” the senior U.S. State Department official remarked at the Dec. 4 briefing. The official noted that several of Iran’s proposals raise issues that are beyond the scope of the JCPOA, suggesting that the Raisi team could aim to renegotiate parts of the deal, including with respect to what sanctions are lifted.
Washington stated in October that the U.S. delegation is prepared to negotiate beyond the JCPOA if Iran’s demands exceed the parameters of the accord. However, the United States is disinterested at the current stage in offering concessions to advance or support talks. Ahead of the seventh round, State Department spokesman Ned Price clarified that the United States is “not prepared to take unilateral steps solely for the benefit of greasing the wheel,” nor is it considering offering Iran confidence-building measures or other incentives for negotiation. The United States has repeatedly stressed that the time left to restore the nuclear deal is not indefinite, particularly as Iran’s nuclear advances threaten the nonproliferation benefits envisaged by the accord.
Despite bleak readouts on the seventh round by U.S. and European officials, sources close to the Iranian negotiating team insist that Iran’s demands are not maximalist but are rather balanced and made largely in accordance with the JCPOA. A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official confirmed Dec. 5 that Tehran “consider[s] the proposed texts as negotiable drafts,” and that it expects the other parties to the deal to return to Vienna with their own “clear proposals.”
Responding to growing frustrations over the seventh round of talks and the outlook for progress, Russian Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov reminded Dec. 3 that “disappointment seems to be premature.” He stressed that in multilateral diplomacy there is the rule: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”—JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Iran Begins Operating Advanced Centrifuges At Fordow
Iran continued to ratchet up its nuclear activities in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal as talks to restore the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resumed in Vienna.
According to a Dec. 1 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent using a cascade of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuge machines at its Fordow enrichment site Nov. 30.
While Iran had been producing uranium enriched to 20 percent at Fordow with its IR-1 centrifuges, the Dec. 1 report represents the first use of IR-6s to enrich uranium at that location. The IR-6s are significantly more efficient than the IR-1 machines, which means Iran now has the capacity to produce and accumulate uranium enriched to 20 percent more quickly.
A senior U.S. State Department official said in a Dec. 4 press briefing said that if Iran intends to leverage its accumulation of uranium enriched to higher levels and advanced centrifuge development to extract more concessions from the United States “that’s not a negotiating tactic that’s going to work.”
More rapid production and accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium and the operation of the IR-6 centrifuges has implications for Iran’s breakout, or the time it would take for Iran to enrich enough uranium to weapons-grade for one bomb (~25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 uranium). As of the most recent Nov. 17 quarterly report from the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear program, the breakout was about one month. Absent any changes, the estimate will drop with the installation and operation of additional IR-6s. When Iran has produced enough uranium enriched to 20 percent that, when enriched to 90 percent, is enough for a nuclear weapon, the timeline will decrease further. Iran could reach that point early in 2022 if its program remains on course.
As the breakout drops, the risks of military action or further acts of sabotage against Iran’s nuclear program increase. While it could take Iran a further two years to build a bomb after the weapons-grade uranium was produced, the fissile material production stage is viewed as easier to disrupt, given that the sites used for enrichment are known, whereas weaponization would likely be pursued covertly.
The continued decline in breakout could also push the United States and its negotiating partners to determine that the time window is too short to restore the JCPOA, absent steps to stabilize the current situation. This could result in the United States attempting to pivot to negotiate an interim deal targeting some of the most proliferation-sensitive activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief and/or the United States and Iran agreeing to each take steps to buy time for negotiations to restore the accord. Iran, for now, appears unwilling to consider an interim deal. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said Dec. 6 that Iran “do[es] not consider an interim agreement as a good agreement for us… We will not be after Plan B.”
The operation of IR-6 centrifuges also poses a risk to efforts to restore the nonproliferation benefits of the nuclear deal. Iran was limited to testing a small number of IR-6 machines under the deal and could not withdraw any enriched uranium produced by the centrifuges for 10 years. Continued operation of the IR-6s gives Iran knowledge about the machine’s performance that cannot be reversed.
Iran’s operation of IR-6 machines is likely to continue, as Tehran is required to install and operate 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges by the end of 2021 unless sanctions are lifted, according to a December 2020 law. After a hiatus in installing IR-6 centrifuges, likely caused by sabotage to Iran’s centrifuge production sites, Iran resumed installation of IR-6s after the IAEA’s Sept. 7 quarterly report. As of the Nov. 17 report, Iran had about 400 IR-6 machines installed. That number increased to about 470 in the Dec. 1 report, suggesting that Iran is unlikely to meet the 1,000 IR-6 machine threshold set by the December 2020 law.
The Nov. 17 IAEA report noted that Iran continued to breach a number of the JCPOA’s limits. According to the report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to gas enriched to 20 percent grew from 84.8 kilograms (by uranium weight) to 113.8 kilograms (by uranium weight). While any growth in this stockpile is concerning, Iran’s production of 20 percent did slow in comparison to the last quarter.
The stockpile of 60 percent grew from 10 kilograms (by uranium weight) in September to 17.7 (by uranium weight) in the Nov. 17 report. Iran modified its production method for enriching uranium to this level in mid-August, which has led to an increase in its average monthly production of uranium enriched to 60 percent when compared to the last quarterly report.
The Nov. 17 report also noted that, for the first time, Iran has breached the JCPOA’s limit on 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges (arranged in 30 cascades) at its Natanz enrichment plant. The IAEA reported that Iran had installed another cascade of IR-1 machines. The Dec. 1 report noted that Iran had installed an additional two cascades of IR-1 centrifuges, bringing the total number of cascades to 33.
Iran also fed uranium enriched to 20 percent into one single IR-6 centrifuge, one cascade of 10 IR-6 centrifuges, and one single IR-4 centrifuge from Oct. 25-Nov. 8. While Iran did not withdraw any enriched uranium from the production lines, this is the first time Iran has used 20 percent enriched material as feed.
In a Nov. 25 statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom raised concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities, warning that “some of these actions do not have any plausible civilian justifications” and have “irreversible proliferation implications.”
For more details on the Nov. 17 IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities, see: “Iran’s Failure to Cooperate with IAEA is Raising Tensions.”
Iran-IAEA Access Dispute Continues
Amid multilateral efforts to restore the nuclear deal, Iran continues to block International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from accessing a nuclear facility to install new surveillance equipment. Iran reportedly resumed operations at the facility, which produces components for centrifuges used in uranium enrichment, in August and accelerated activities in November, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. Unmonitored activity at the site heightens the concern that Iran could be diverting equipment for malign use and disrupts IAEA efforts to ensure a continuity of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi traveled to Tehran Nov. 23 in an effort to clarify outstanding safeguards issues, including the Agency’s dispute with Iran over access to the Karaj facility, ahead of the Agency’s Board of Governors meeting. He said Nov. 24 that “we must reach an agreement,” given that “the issues are very, very important.”
Grossi told the Board of Governors that Iran’s failure to grant the IAEA access to replace the four cameras at Karaj “is seriously affecting the Agency’s ability to restore continuity of knowledge at the workshop, which has been widely recognized as essential in relation to a return to the JCPOA.”
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said Nov. 25 that an agreement on access would have been possible if Grossi had stayed "a few more hours" in Tehran and that communications with the IAEA are continuing.
Resolving the issue is viewed by the IAEA as essential for restoring the nuclear deal and the nuclear safeguards regime that it imposes on Iran. Agency inspectors have been unable to access the Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing facility since February 2021, when Iran suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and other intrusive monitoring measures mandated by the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran agreed to allow IAEA cameras installed in certain nuclear facilities to collect data and pledged to transmit that data to the Agency upon restoration of the JCPOA.
But after an alleged sabotage attack, Iran removed the four surveillance cameras installed at Karaj and has since stonewalled repeated IAEA attempts to replace them. A Sept. 12 agreement between Iran and the IAEA granted the Agency access to service remote monitoring equipment in Iran, but Tehran claimed that the Karaj facility was not covered by the agreement and prohibited inspectors from accessing the site on Sept. 26.
Iran says that it is investigating whether the cameras installed at the facility aided in the sabotage attack – an accusation which Grossi categorically rejects. Grossi invited Iran to inspect the removed cameras in the presence of IAEA inspectors.
The IAEA’s Nov. 17 report on Iran’s nuclear activities stated that the Agency could not verify whether production had resumed at Karaj. However, officials quoted in the Wall Street Journal article remarked that Iran had produced parts for at least 170 advanced centrifuges since August. The Agency verified the installation of new, advanced machines at both of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, but the November report does not indicate where the centrifuges were produced.
Region Split on JCPOA Restoration
Ahead of the resumption of talks to restore the nuclear deal with Iran, states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) expressed support for full implementation of the accord. Israel, however, continues to warn the United States against returning to the deal.
During a Nov. 18 trip to Saudi Arabia, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley met with GCC members, Egypt and Jordan for discussions that included the JCPOA. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom also participated in the talks. A Nov. 18 statement from the parties noted that “a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA would benefit the entire Middle East, allow for more regional partnerships and economic exchange, with long-lasting implications for growth and the well-being of all people there, including in Iran.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, however, said Nov. 29 that the United States should not give in to Iran’s “nuclear blackmail.” He said that Tehran “deserves no rewards” for its actions and called on the Biden administration to cease negotiations with Iran on restoring the deal.
Malley visited Israel ahead of his trip to Saudi Arabia. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Nov. 15 that Iran is buying time and has no intention of returning to the accord.
Several former Israeli officials, however, have recently stated that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to encourage the Trump administration to abandon the JCPOA has backfired. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Haaretz in November that he opposed the deal when it was concluded in 2015, but “Trump’s decision to withdraw from it — with Netanyahu’s encouragement — was even worse.” He said that U.S. withdrawal gave Iran “an excuse to ahead” with its enrichment program.
Danny Cintrinowicz, former head of the Iran branch of Israel’s Military Intelligence Research and Analysis Division when the JCPOA was negotiated, told The Times of Israel in November that Israel “pushed the U.S. side to leave the agreement when there are no other options” for addressing Iran’s nuclear program. He characterized Israel’s approach to Iran as a “failure” and said that the U.S. pressure campaign weakened more moderate factions in Iran.
Haaretz also reported in November that Netanyahu had no plan for how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program after the U.S. withdrawal.
Iran Stonewalls IAEA Investigation
Iran continues to stall an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into its past nuclear activities, according to a Nov. 17 report on Iran’s safeguards activities. The multi-year investigation centers on four locations in Iran where the Agency has identified the presence of undeclared nuclear material dating back to the pre-2003 period when Iran had a nuclear weapons program. Although not tied to any current activities, it is imperative that Iran meaningfully cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation to ensure the correctness and completeness of its safeguards declaration.
As per its safeguards agreement, Iran is legally required to declare all nuclear materials and locations used to store nuclear materials on its territory. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the Agency’s Board of Governors Nov. 24 that “the presence of multiple uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at three locations in Iran not declared to the Agency, as well as the presence of isotopically altered particles at one of these locations, is a clear indication that nuclear material and/or equipment contaminated by nuclear material has been present at these locations.”
Iran has repeatedly neglected to provide full and timely cooperation with the IAEA’s requests for information related to these four locations. Grossi traveled to Tehran Nov. 23 in an effort to clarify outstanding issues, but his efforts “proved inconclusive,” he told the Board.
According to the report, Iran’s lack of cooperation is “seriously affecting the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” The status of the IAEA’s investigation into each of the four locations, according to the Nov. 17 report, is as follows:
Information made available to the IAEA in September 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 February 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 revealed the presence of isotopically altered particles of low enriched uranium. The IAEA shared those findings with Iran and requested clarification but a Sept. 7 report by the Agency noted that it assessed “the explanations provided by Iran for the presence of those particles to be not technically credible.”
The IAEA’s September report detailed the results of environmental sampling, which indicated that containers stored at this location may have contained nuclear material and/or equipment and that while some of the containers were dismantled, others were removed intact in 2018 and transported to an unknown location.
Iran and the IAEA did not share any correspondence with respect to the location during the subsequent reporting period and, according to the Agency’s Nov. 17 report, the issues relating to this location remain “unresolved.”
The IAEA found indications of the possible presence of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc that underwent drilling and processing between 2002 and 2003. When the Agency requested clarification from Iran on the origin of the disc in July and August 2019, Iran neglected to respond. The IAEA conducted verification activities in September 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.
From Nov. 14-16, 2021, the IAEA conducted further verification activities at that same declared facility and, according to the Nov. 17 report, the Agency is currently evaluating the results of those activities.
According to a May 31 report by the IAEA, 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 August 2019 and requested access to conduct environmental sampling at this location in January 2020, but Iran failed to cooperate. Tehran later granted the agency access in August 2020 under a joint agreement reached between Iran and the IAEA, and environmental sampling “indicated the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles that required explanation with Iran.”
The agency shared those findings with Iran in January 2021. A Sept. 7 report by the IAEA stipulated that there were indications that containers removed from Location 3 were subsequently also present at Location 1. However, according to that report, the results of the environmental samples taken from Location 3 in August 2020 “would not explain all of the particles identified by the analytical results of the environmental samples taken at Location 1.” It is not clear from the report whether those containers were the ones removed intact in 2018 (see above).
According to the IAEA’s Nov. 17 report, Iran and the Agency did not exchange any correspondence on Location 3 during the previous reporting period and, for that reason, the issues relating to this location remain “unresolved.”
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 a May 31 report by the IAEA, the Agency observed activities consistent with efforts to sanitize part of this location from July 2019 onwards. While Iran denied an initial August 2019 request for access by the IAEA, it later granted permission under its August 2020 agreement with the Agency. An environmental sampling at the location indicated “the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles that required explanation by Iran.”
On Aug. 24, 2021, Iran provided the IAEA with information pursuant to its questions concerning the use of Location 4. A Sept. 7 report by the Agency detailed the IAEA’s assessment that “there are inconsistencies between that information and other safeguards-relevant information available to the agency” about Location 4. Specifically, the report suggested that Iran claims there was no activity at the location between 1994 and 2018, which is inconsistent with the information made available to the IAEA, including satellite imagery of the location.
The IAEA provided Iran with graphics based on commercial satellite imagery that “illustrated the activities identified by the Agency as inconsistent with Iran’s statement that there had been no activity at this location between 1994 and 2018” on Sept. 9, according to a Nov. 17 report. In an Oct. 13 letter to the Agency, Iran countered that “only the mining activities, which were the main activities at this location, have been stopped during that same period,” and that the activities observed at this location by the IAEA involved guards “to secure the properties.”
According to the Nov. 17 report, “Iran has yet to provide an explanation for the presence of anthropogenic uranium particles at Location 4 and to answer the Agency’s original questions dating from August 2019.”
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