Iran’s retaliation for a censure from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors put a ticking clock on efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s decision to disconnect 27 IAEA cameras led the agency’s Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi to declare that the gap in monitoring will be a “fatal blow” to efforts to restore the nuclear deal within 3-4 weeks. At that point, he said that the IAEA’s ability to maintain its continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities will be compromised, which impacts the agency’s ability to conduct verification activities required by the accord.
Despite the severity of Iran’s response and the negative implications for efforts to restore the JCPOA, the June 8 resolution of the IAEA Board was a necessary move after Grossi issued a report May 30 detailing Iran’s failure to provide technically credible answers for the presence of undeclared uranium at three locations in Iran. The report also concluded that Tehran conducted uranium metal activities at a fourth location that should have been declared to the agency. (See below for more details on the IAEA report.)
While the uranium activities under investigation date back to the pre-2003 period when Iran had a nuclear weapons program, Tehran was still obligated to declare the nuclear materials and activities to the agency as part of its legally required safeguards agreement.
The resolution’s language was relatively mild, considering that Tehran has dragged out this investigation for years. It raised concern about Iran’s “systematic insufficient cooperation” and called upon Tehran to act on an “urgent basis” to “resolve all outstanding safeguards issues.” It passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 30-2, with three countries abstaining. Russia and China were the votes against.
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate said in a June 8 statement to the Board that the United States, which co-sponsored the resolution, did not pursue the censure “to escalate a confrontation for political purposes.” She said the United States seeks “credible explanations, consistent with Iran’s safeguards obligations, that can finally put these issues behind us.”
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami said ahead of the Board vote that Iran provided the IAEA with accurate responses, but the IAEA lacked the “will” to find Tehran’s responses convincing. He said the agency’s investigation was based on “fake documents and accounts” provided by Iran’s enemies. In the May 30 IAEA report, the agency noted that Iran alleged that the presence of uranium at three locations, all of which are outside of Iran’s declared nuclear program, could have been a result of third-party sabotage. Iran, however, provided no evidence to support the claim of sabotage, according to the report.
Iran’s decision to retaliate for the resolution was not surprising. Iranian officials had warned that action by the Board would trigger an Iranian response. Tehran began taking action ahead of the Board’s vote, by disconnecting cameras focused on the IAEA’s monitors that track Iran’s enrichment levels. After the vote, Tehran announced that it would unplug the 27 additional cameras surveilling certain nuclear facilities, which Grossi confirmed did occur in a June 12 CNN interview. President Ebrahim Raisi also said June 9 that the censure will not make Iran “take a step back from its positions.”
While the IAEA has not had access to the data collected by the now disconnected cameras since Iran reduced agency access in February 2021, Tehran had committed to turning over the recordings to the IAEA if the JCPOA was restored.
Despite having narrowed the window for concluding an agreement to restore the JCPOA, Iran says it is still committed to restoring the deal, but put the onus on Washington to act. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said June 13 that a deal is still possible if the United States will “leave behind the illusion of leverage-making” and accepts a return to their commitments under the JCPOA.
Unsurprisingly, the United States and the Europeans said the ball is in Iran’s court. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a June 14 press briefing that the United States is prepared to “immediately conclude and implement the deal we negotiated in Vienna” but for that to happen “Tehran needs to decide to drop demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA.” Price was likely referring to Iran’s demand that the United States remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the foreign terrorist organization designation list, the remaining issue that has held up negotiations for the past several months. The Biden administration has said it will not take that step unilaterally.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (E3) also urged Iran to seize the opportunity to conclude the deal to restore the JCPOA. The E3’s June 9 statement said that Iran’s “actions will only aggravate the situation and complicate our efforts to restore full implementation of the JCPOA.” The decision also casts “further doubt on Iran’s commitment to a successful outcome.”—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
IAEA Report Provides More Evidence of Safeguards Violation
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report May 30 that provided the most conclusive case to date that Iran failed to declare nuclear materials and activities from its pre-2003 program.
This report concluded that Iran conducted uranium metal activities at Lavisan-Shian that should have been declared to the IAEA under Tehran’s legally required safeguards agreement. According to the IAEA, a natural uranium metal disc underwent drilling and the flakes produced were subject to chemical processing tests at that site. The uranium metal disc and the activities at Lavisan-Shian “were not declared by Iran to the Agency as required,” according to the May 30 report.
While the IAEA said it has no more questions about Lavisan-Shian (referred to as Location 2 in past reports), the report noted that Iran’s cooperation with the agency’s investigation into three other locations where the evidence points to undeclared nuclear materials and activities was “insufficient.” The IAEA reported that the explanations provided by Iran for the presence of uranium at these locations outside of the declared nuclear program were “not technically credible.”
According to the report, Iran claims that the presence of processed uranium at the three locations still under investigation may be a result of “third party sabotage” that contaminated the sites. Iranian officials have never admitted to pursuing nuclear weapons in the past and they are highly unlikely to fully admit to having done so in formal responses to IAEA questions.
Nevertheless, Iran’s claim of third-party interference strains credulity, so it is unsurprising that the IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi was dissatisfied with Iran’s cooperation. Grossi initially hoped to wrap up his investigation and present his conclusions to the Board after reaching an agreement with Iran in March on a process to address the agency’s outstanding questions.
For the first time, the IAEA named the locations in question and provided more evidence as to the activities that may have occurred at each location.
The report said that the IAEA “remains ready to engage without delay” to resolve the investigation. It also concluded that unless Iran provides “technically credible explanations” for the presence of uranium at the three sites and discloses the current location of the nuclear material in question, the IAEA “cannot confirm the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations” under its safeguards agreement.
Iran Continues to Ratchet Up Nuclear Program
Iran’s stockpiles of highly enriched uranium grew over the past quarter, according to a May 30 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
According to the report, Iran is estimated to possess 43 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent—an amount that if enriched to weapons-grade (greater than 90 percent) would provide enough nuclear material for one bomb.
Being able to use the 60 percent stockpile as feed to produce weapons-grade material further reduces Iran’s breakout time, or the time it would take to produce enough material for a bomb, to under 10 days. This short breakout timeline significantly increases the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program because Tehran could try to produce the weapons-grade material between IAEA inspections. While weaponization would still take another 1-2 years, that process is more difficult to detect and disrupt.
Technically, Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent enriched material could be used for a bomb without further enrichment. Such a device, however, would be unwieldy and inconsistent with the weapon designs Iran has pursued in the past.
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent also grew over the past quarter, from 182 kilograms in February to 238 kilograms in mid-May. To produce uranium enriched to higher levels Iran has been using its stockpile of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent as feed, so while Iran continues to enrich to that level, the stockpile continued to decrease since the last IAEA report, from 1,278 kilograms to 1,055 kilograms in May.
The IAEA notes that Iran has moved the majority of its 60 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium stocks to the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant. In total, Iran transferred 38 kilograms of uranium gas enriched to 60 percent to the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (23 kilograms in January and 15 kilograms in April) and converted 2 kilograms into uranium powder in March, to produce HEU targets for the Tehran Research Reactor. The IAEA reports no further conversion of 60 percent gas to powder. The stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium transferred to the fabrication plant is about 209 kilograms (33 kilograms transferred in November, 147.8 kilograms transferred in January, 11.7 kilograms in April, and 16.6 kilograms in May).
Transferring this material—which poses a more significant proliferation risk than the stockpile enriched up to five percent because it can be more quickly enriched to higher levels—does suggest that Iran has no immediate intention to produce weapons-grade uranium, as it would need to bring the uranium gas back to its enrichment facilities for further enrichment, adding time and increasing the likelihood of detection.
The May 30 report noted that Iran had not made any progress on installing additional cascades of advanced IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges planned for Natanz. However, after the report was released, Iran notified the IAEA that it began installing the IR-6 machines in the planned cascade at the Natanz enrichment facility and intended to add an additional 2 cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at that site. When completed, this would bring Iran’s installation of IR-6 cascades to 6, or about 1,000 machines. Iran is obligated to install and operate that many IR-6s under a December 2020 law.
Iran continues to test other advanced centrifuge models at its pilot facility at Natanz, but the report does not indicate that Iran has introduced any new models in the last quarter. Iran did inform the agency that its new advanced centrifuge production facility would begin operations in April. Iran moved its equipment from an existing centrifuge production facility at Karaj, which was attacked last summer, to the new facility at Natanz. Iran allowed the IAEA to install cameras at that location.
On uranium metal production, the IAEA verified that Iran completed the installation of the equipment for the first stage of its declared large-scale three-stage process May 17. The report says Iran has yet to begin testing the first stage and notes that Iran has not produced any additional uranium metal in the research lab since the prior report.
Regional Missile Defense to Counter Iran?
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation that would require the United States to assist Middle Eastern states with a regional missile defense system to protect against Iranian systems.
The DEFEND Act, sponsored by Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), and Corey Booker (D-NJ), would require the Secretary of Defense to work with Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other allies and partners in the Middle East to on the development and acquisition of “an integrated air and missile defense capability to protect the people, infrastructure, and territory of such countries from cruise and ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned aerial systems, and rocket attacks from Iran.”
While Iran continues to diversify its missile capabilities and develop more accurate systems that can target U.S. assets in the region, pursuing a regional missile defense system to counter such a broad range of Iranian systems would be a waste of money, ineffective, and risk driving Iran to develop more advanced missiles capable of evading defenses. Iran’s view that its missiles are integral for its national security and compensate for the more advanced military hardware that its rivals possess, makes it likely that Tehran will respond by ratcheting up its missile program. U.S. missile defenses, for instance, have driven China, Russia, and North Korea to develop more sophisticated systems capable of evading U.S. defenses.
Defense systems like Israel’s Iron Dome have proved successful, but the rockets that Iron Dome targets lack the sophistication of Iran’s missile inventory. Furthermore, several of the systems that the bill says a defense system would need to counter are maneuverable in flight, making defense all the more difficult to design.
In Case You Missed It….