European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed optimism that talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal would resume after the EU’s lead negotiator Enrique Mora traveled to Tehran in an attempt to get negotiations back on track.
Borrell said May 13 that Mora’s trip was “positive enough” to relaunch talks to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The EU continues to act as an intermediary between the United States and Iran, which are not negotiating directly to restore the JCPOA.
Before the trip, Borrell expressed hope that the EU could find a “middle way” between Iran’s demand that the United States lift sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps designating it as a foreign terrorist organization and the Biden administration’s refusal to do so unless Tehran takes reciprocal steps. Talks have remained stalled for months over this issue and Borrell described Mora’s visit as the “last bullet” to keep negotiations alive.
Politico reported that Mora conveyed an offer that the United States might be willing to discuss the IRGC sanctions issue after the deal is restored and reiterated that the Biden administration will not take unilateral action to lift the designation as part of the package to restore the JCPOA. Iranian officials did not indicate if Tehran was willing to accept the U.S. offer but said talks would continue.
While Borrell appears optimistic that the stalemate is broken and there might be a way around the IRGC issue, both the United States and Iran continue to point fingers and insist that the ball is in the other’s court.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said May 16 that Mora’s talks with lead Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani were serious, but that Iran is still waiting on the United States to make the “political decision” to move forward and respond to Iran’s proposals.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a May 17 press briefing that Iran must decide if it will continue to insist on including “conditions that are extraneous to the JCPOA.”
While Price said a deal is “far from certain,” U.S. officials continue to reiterate that restoring the JCPOA is the best way to address the escalating nuclear crisis with Iran.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 26 that the Biden administration continues to believe that “getting back into compliance with the agreement would be the best way to address the nuclear challenge posed by Iran, and to make sure that an Iran that is already acting with incredible aggression doesn’t have a nuclear weapon or the ability to produce one on short notice.”
He also criticized the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, saying it “produced a more dangerous nuclear program.”
Restoring the JCPOA is the best possible option to roll back Iran’s nuclear program and guard against a future nuclear weapons effort, but the timeframe for doing so is rapidly decreasing. Iran’s advancing nuclear program risks diminishing the nonproliferation benefits of the accord and reaching the point where the Biden administration no longer believes the deal is in the best interest of the United States (see below for details on Iran’s nuclear advances).—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Iran’s Nuclear Program Advances as Talks Remain Stalled
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent is estimated to be 42 kilograms, according to Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Grossi reported that estimate to the European Parliament on May 10. He said Iran’s enrichment to 60 percent is “cause for serious concern” and noted that no other non-nuclear weapon state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty enriches to that level.
Crossing the threshold of 40 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium is significant because that is sufficient material to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to above 90 percent. Being able to go directly from 60 percent to 90 percent further decreases Iran’s breakout, or the time it would take to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium, likely to be below 10 days. This puts Iran near the threshold where it could attempt to breakout between inspections by the IAEA. If Iran were to breakout, it would still take another 1-2 years to build a bomb, but that process would be more difficult to detect and disrupt.
Grossi did not specify what quantity of the 60 percent material remains in gas form, which is suitable for further enrichment. The IAEA reported in March that Iran moved about 23 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent to its conversion facility and converted about 2 kilograms to powder form. If Iran converted more of its 60 percent gas stockpile, the breakout time will be slightly longer.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz also raised concerns about the stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent during a speech at Reichman University. Gantz said Iran is “just a few weeks away from accumulating fissile material that will be sufficient for a first bomb.”
He also drew attention to Iran’s advanced centrifuge program, saying that Iran is “making an effort” to produce 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges, including at a new underground facility near Natanz. Iran notified the IAEA of its intention to build the new facility last year and confirmed in April 2022 that the agency had installed cameras at the site, indicating it is now operational. If the JCPOA is restored, the IAEA will have access to the data collected by the cameras.
Iran’s continued production of IR-6 centrifuges is expected, as a December 2020 law required Tehran to begin enriching uranium with 1,000 IR-6 machines by the end of 2021. Iran did not meet that target, likely due to sabotage at its centrifuge production facilities.
That Iran chose to build new facilities for producing centrifuges underground is unsurprising. Iran has typically responded to acts of sabotage against its nuclear facilities by ratcheting up activities and hardening its nuclear sites. This demonstrates that efforts to buy time in the short term have been counterproductive in the long run. Despite this record, Israel is conducting military exercises simulating an attack on Iran. Israeli media reports that the United States will participate in the drills by providing in-air refueling capabilities for Israeli fighter planes.
Iran Fails to Address IAEA Concerns
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned that Iran has not provided the necessary information for the agency to conclude its multi-year investigation into possible undeclared nuclear activities and materials.
In remarks to the European Parliament on May 10, Grossi said “Iran has not been forthcoming in the type of information we need” and that the “situation does not look very good.”
The agency is still trying to “clarify a number of still open matters,” Grossi said and that he is “extremely concerned” about Iran’s lack of cooperation.
The IAEA has sought cooperation from Iran regarding evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities at four locations, three of which the agency has visited and detected traces of processed uranium. While the materials and activities in question date back to pre-2003, Iran is still obligated to declare them under its legally binding safeguards agreement. The presence of uranium at these sites strongly suggests that Tehran did violate its safeguards obligations by failing to inform the IAEA about the materials and locations under investigation.
Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement March 5 to try and conclude the agency’s multi-year investigation by the June meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) confirmed in April that Tehran handed over documents to the agency regarding the investigation, but Grossi’s comments imply that the materials were insufficient to address the agency’s concerns.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the AEOI, expressed surprise at Grossi’s comments and told the press May 12 that Iran is cooperating with the IAEA.
Unless the level of Iran’s cooperation changes, it looks increasingly likely that the IAEA’s Board may pursue a censure against Iran for failing to comply with the IAEA's investigation. The Board took a similar step in June 2020. A censure could harm efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has warned in the past that Iran would respond to any censure by the IAEA’s Board. However, the Board must also consider the broader safeguards implications of failing to act to support the IAEA.
State Department: Iran is Not Undertaking Weapons Work
The State Department assessed that Iran is “not currently undertaking key nuclear weapons-development activities” necessary to produce a nuclear device, according to an annual report.
The April 2022 report, which assesses compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements, did, however, note that Iran is experimenting with uranium metal production and noted that Tehran has produced uranium fuel plates using uranium metal enriched to 20 percent. While Iran claims its uranium metal production is only for civil purposes, the State Department report referred to that as a “key nuclear-weapons-related capability.”
The report also raised concerns about Tehran’s obligations with its safeguards commitments.
The report summarized the International Atomic Energy Agency’s yearslong investigation into the presence of uranium at several locations that were not declared by Iran to the agency. Processed uranium found at the sites suggests that Iran violated its safeguards obligations.
The report said that Iran must “immediately provide the IAEA nothing short of full cooperation and comply with its nuclear safeguards obligations.”
Experts and Europeans Stress the Importance of Restoring the JCPOA
High-profile former European officials and a group of nuclear experts expressed support for restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.
The April 26 statement from former European officials noted the success of the JCPOA and said “it would be a grave mistake for US and European leaders to let slip the opportunity to defuse a nuclear crisis in the Middle East.” They urged “Biden and the Iranian leadership to demonstrate flexibility in tackling an issue of vital significance to the global non-proliferation regime and regional stability, and to see these negotiations through to a successful conclusion.”
The leaders warned that if the deal is not quickly restored the “parties enter a state of corrosive stalemate that would serve neither side’s interests, risk devolving into a cycle of increased nuclear tension, and inevitably be countered by the further application of coercive tools.”
The full statement is available here.
More than 40 nonproliferation experts and former officials signed an April 21 statement arguing that “[a] prompt return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is the best available way to deny Iran the ability to quickly produce bomb-grade nuclear material.” Restoring the deal “would reinstate full IAEA international monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear facilities, thus ensuring early warning if Iran were to try to acquire nuclear weapons,” the experts said.
The experts “strongly encourage the prompt and successful conclusion of negotiations involving U.S. and Iranian diplomats in coordination with the other parties to the JCPOA to restore Iranian and U.S. compliance with the 2015 agreement.”
The full statement and list of signatories are available here.