(UPDATED March 5) As the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal hangs in balance, a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reveals that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile continues to expand. According to that report, "Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015), GOV/2022/4, March 3, 2022," Iran is now closer than ever to having enough highly enriched uranium-235 that, when further enriched, would be enough for a nuclear bomb.
The deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lengthened Iran’s breakout window–or the time it would take to amass enough fissile material for one bomb—to over a year, when it was fully implemented. But that window has shrunk since Iran began violating the deal in 2019, in retaliation for U.S. withdrawal and sanctions reimposition.
Although Iran is a non-nuclear state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has forsworn the development of nuclear weapons, the IAEA’s latest report is very concerning.
The IAEA reports that Iran has about 33 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 60 percent purity. According to The Wall Street Journal, Iran would need about 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, which if further enriched to 90 percent uranium-235, would constitute a significant quantity (approx. 25kg) of bomb-grade HEU for one nuclear bomb.
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Per the IAEA’s new report, as of Feb. 19, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile amounts to 3197.1 kilograms, which represents an increase of over 700 kilograms since the previous quarterly report, which was released in November 2021. Throughout that reporting period, Iran has been immersed in intensive talks with the other parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom), and the United States, indirectly, with an aim to restore mutual U.S. and Iranian compliance with the deal.
As negotiators scramble to resurrect the 2015 accord, the IAEA’s report reveals worrisome increases to Iran’s higher-enriched uranium stockpiles, including a 68.3-kilogram increase to its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, and a 15.5-kilogram increase to its 60 percent enriched uranium stockpile, further demonstrating the urgent need to restore stringent limits to Iran’s nuclear program under the deal.
Reviving the JCPOA would impose a 3.67 percent uranium-235 enrichment cap and a 300-kilogram stockpile limit to Iran’s enrichment program, among other restrictions.
Agreement on restoring mutual U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA has been delayed, in part, over Iran’s demand for the agency to scrap a long-standing probe into its past nuclear activities. The IAEA’s investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities began several years ago after evidence surfaced that Iran may have failed to declare certain activities and materials associated with its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program to the agency. In March 2020, the IAEA released a report detailing additional efforts by the Agency over the past year to investigate three sites in Iran associated with possible undeclared nuclear activities and the storage of nuclear materials that are presumed to be related to Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear weapons research.
Iran has argued that the IAEA’s probe is politically motivated and has repeatedly demanded that the agency drop the investigation as a precondition for restoring the JCPOA. Yet Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA–and the IAEA’s due diligence efforts to ensure its completeness–are entirely separate from the JCPOA issue. Iran is legally obligated to implement and comply with its safeguards agreement under the NPT.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi pushed back on Iran’s demand in a March 1 news conference, claiming that necessary inspections at sites of concern in Iran should not be used as a “bargaining chip” to revive the JCPOA.
Grossi said, “the IAEA will never abandon a process that it launched because of the necessity of clarification of certain situations in Iran because of a political reason. That is not how the IAEA works.” He confirmed that “the only way that these issues will go away is if they are clarified to the full satisfaction of the IAEA.”
Ahead of the agency’s Board of Governors meeting, which is set to begin March 7, Grossi traveled to Tehran to met with Iranian officials March 5, with an aim to resolve the outstanding issues. Boarding the plane, he tweeted, “this is a critical time but a positive outcome for everyone is possible.”
On March 5 Iran's nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami told a joint news conference with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi: "We have agreed to provide the IAEA by the end of (the Iranian month of) Khordad (June 21) with documents related to outstanding questions between Tehran and the agency."
"It is important to have this understanding ... to work together, to work very intensively," Grossi told the televised news conference. "Without resolving these (outstanding) issues, efforts to revive the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) may not be possible."
The IAEA’s March 3 report has not been made public, but a copy of the report was obtained by the Arms Control Association March 4.
Additional details from the IAEA's March 3 report:
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 nuclear deal:
According to the IAEA’s March 3 report, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile equates to 3,197.1 kilograms of uranium by weight, representing a 707.4-kilogram increase from the last reporting period.
Of the 3,197 kilograms, 2883.2 kilograms are in gas form, 249.5 kilograms are in the form of uranium oxides, 37.8 kilograms are in fuel assemblies and rods, and 26.6 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 stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium decreased in size over the last reporting period because about 668.7 kilograms were converted into uranium oxides and used as feed to produce uranium enriched to higher levels
The IAEA’s March 3 report notes that Iran continues to test, operate, and accumulate enriched uranium from the advanced model centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. Specifically, the IAEA found that:
At the Natanz fuel enrichment plant:
At the Natanz pilot fuel enrichment plant:
A Nov. 17 report by the agency confirmed that Iran had completed the four-stage process to produce new fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor and that it had manufactured two fuel plates using uranium silicide containing 0.25 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent.
According to the March 3 report, “since the previous report, no uranium metal has been produced by Iran,” and “no nuclear material had been introduced into the production area.”
The Agency verified that as of Feb. 19, Iran had produced 17 fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor, 10 of which had already been transferred to the reactor.
In July, the IAEA wrote a letter to Tehran requesting confirmation on the status of the four surveillance cameras that were installed at the 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 November report, “the remnants of the destroyed camera – minus the recording unit and storage media or any fragments thereof – and the three other cameras previously installed in the workshop have been placed under Agency and AEOI seal.”
Seeking to replace the cameras at Karaj, the IAEA sent Iran a letter indicating that the access agreement reached Sept. 12 did not exclude the Karaj workshop and requested immediate access to the facility. According to the Nov. 17 report, the Agency sought access to the Karaj facility on two separate occasions in October, but Iran neglected to cooperate.
In December, after continued deliberations, Iran agreed to allow the IAEA to reinstall cameras at the Karaj workshop. The IAEA confirmed in January 2022 that the cameras had been successfully reinstalled, on planned timing.
In late January, Iran alerted the IAEA of its intention to close the Karaj workshop and to relocate centrifuge component manufacturing activities to another location, near Esfahan. According to the IAEA’s March 3 report, cameras were installed at the new workshop Jan. 24, and the Karaj site has been closed.
The March 3 report also suggests that Iran continues to meet the following provisions of the accord: