The European Union is making one last push to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In a July 26 op-ed in the Financial Times, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said that the “space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted.” He has “put on the table a text that addresses, in precise detail, the sanctions lifting as well as the nuclear steps needed to restore” compliance with the JCPOA. “Decisions need to be taken now to seize this unique opportunity to succeed,” he said.
Borrell’s warning that time is short does not come as a surprise and reflects growing impatience in Europe with efforts to restore the JCPOA. After indirect talks between the United States and Iran in Doha June 28-29 failed to achieve any breakthroughs, Borrell warned in a July 5 tweet that the political space to restore the JCPOA “may narrow soon” and that “decisions are needed now.” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna also said July 12 that the “window of opportunity will close in a few weeks,” a point that French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a July 23 phone call. Colonna further accused Iran of backtracking on issues previously agreed upon and delaying negotiations while continuing to expand uranium enrichment.
While the Biden administration has not set a specific deadline by which a deal must be concluded, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said in a July 19 interview with CNN that the window to restore the JCPOA “diminishes by the day.”
In an earlier July 5 interview with NPR, Malley said that the United States is prepared to take the deal to restore the JCPOA that the EU put on the table in Doha, but “the party that has not said yes is Iran.” He said the Biden administration assesses that Iran has not “made the fundamental decision whether they are interested or not” in returning to the JCPOA.
British intelligence also raised concerns about Iran’s intentions. Richard Moore, head of the UK’s MI6 said July 21 at the Aspen Security Forum that while Tehran will not want to end the talks, he does not “think the Supreme Leader of Iran wants to cut a deal.”
Publicly, Iran continues to reiterate its support for restoring the JCPOA and is pointing the finger at the United States for failing to make the necessary commitments to restore the accord. Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdolliahian said July 21 that Iran agrees with more than 95 percent of the content of the EU’s draft agreement to restore the JCPOA, but there is a “flaw” in the text. Iran must economically benefit from the deal and the United States needs to accept guarantees to that effect, he said.
Iran’s nuclear advances and the reduction in monitoring are largely responsible for narrowing the window to restore the accord. In a July 22 interview with El Pais, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that “for almost five weeks I have had very limited visibility, with a nuclear program that is galloping ahead.” He said if there is an agreement to restore the JCPOA, “it is going to be very difficult for me to reconstruct the puzzle of this whole period of forced blindness.” A restored JCPOA “will rest on a very fragile basis,” without a reconstructed record of Iran’s nuclear activities, he said.
Tehran is also likely to continue ratcheting up its nuclear program if the JCPOA is not restored, particularly if the United States and its partners increase sanctions pressure on Iran or the country's nuclear program is subject to further acts of sabotage. Kamal Kharrazi, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said July 17 that Iran can “easily produce 90 percent enriched uranium,” a level considered weapons grade. He also said, “Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb but there has been no decision by Iran to build one.”
Iran has long rejected the notion it has any interest in nuclear weapons and continues to deny that it had an organized nuclear weapons program through 2003, so Kharrazi’s comments appear to be a rare acknowledgment from Tehran that it has developed the necessary capabilities to build a bomb. However, Kharrazi’s comments are consistent with other assessments of Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has long concluded that Iran has the capacity to build nuclear weapons, assessing with high confidence in a 2007 unclassified National Intelligence Estimate that “Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Biden, Lapid Commit to Prevent Nuclear-Armed Iran
The United States is “prepared to use all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, according to a July 14 declaration released by U.S. President Joseph Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid during Biden’s trip to Jerusalem.
In a joint news conference July 14, Lapid said that “diplomacy will not stop” Iran’s nuclear developments. “The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table,” he said. Biden said that “diplomacy is the best way” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 TV he acknowledged that the United States will use force as “the last resort” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Biden also reiterated during the interview that his administration will keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. Iran demanded that the United States lift that designation as part of the negotiations to restore the JCPOA, a step that the Biden administration has rejected and views as unnecessary to return the United States to its obligations under the nuclear deal.
In addition to visiting Israel, Biden also traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with the leaders of the Gulf states. Biden discussed “a scenario in which there is not a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA” during that trip, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Part of the Biden administration’s approach for countering Iran is a regional security structure designed to mitigate the risk posed by Iran’s missiles and drones, a plan that has met with some resistance. An adviser to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said July 15 that his country objects to singling out Iran for confrontation. He said that while the UAE is open to ideas that would help defend the country, it is not open “to the idea of creating any axes against this or that country.” The UAE has serious issues with Iran, but it “is not going to be a party to any group of countries that sees confrontation as a direction,” he said.
Iran Expands Enrichment at Fordow
Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency July 7 that it began using a second cascade of IR-6 centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20 percent at its Fordow facility. The agency verified Iran’s actions in a July 9 report.
The report also noted that the cascade is set up in a way that would allow Iran to switch enrichment levels more quickly. The ease with which Iran could change enrichment levels with this configuration poses a more significant proliferation risk, particularly given that Iran suspended JCPOA provisions allowing inspectors to access Natanz and Fordow, Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, on a daily basis in February 2021. Now inspectors only access Fordow about once a week.
Iran had informed the IAEA of its intention to set up one of the two IR-6 cascades with the modified sub-header configuration and the agency verified that Tehran had undertaken that work in November 2021. However, as of the May 30 report, only the IR-6 cascade with the fixed configuration at Fordow had been used to enrich uranium, although it was not being fed with uranium at that time.
UK and US Disclose Seizure of Iranian Missiles
The British Royal Navy disclosed that it seized Iranian-origin missiles and related components, including cruise missile engines, in January and February 2022. According to a July 7 press release, the HMS Montrose interdicted speedboats in international waters south of Iran that were carrying Iranian-origin missiles and components in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which prohibits Tehran from transferring missiles and related technology. The cruise missile engines were for a system with a range of about 1,000 kilometers that the Houthis use to strike targets in Saudi Arabia, the press release said.
In a separate July 7 press release, the U.S. Navy said it supported the operation and provided a helicopter to support the interdiction. The release said that the weapons were confiscated “along routes historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to Yemen.”
Guterres Supports JCPOA, Investigates Missile Activity
In the latest biannual report assessing the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the United States and Iran to “demonstrate the flexibility required to reach a compromise” on the remaining issues preventing a return to compliance with the JCPOA. He said it remains his “steadfast belief” that the JCPOA is the best option to address proliferation and provide economic benefits for Iran. The delay in restoring the deal “may undermine confidence” in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, Guterres said.
The June 23 report noted that, since the last report in December 2021, there have been no new proposals submitted for approval under the procurement channel set up by the JCPOA to monitor Iran’s import of dual-use materials and technologies. There were, however, five notifications to the Security Council regarding nuclear-related activities that do not require procurement channel approval.
The report also assessed that missiles and UAVs used by the Houthis to attack Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were consistent with Iranian-designed systems or included Iranian-origin components, but that the Secretariat could not conclude if the parts were transferred after January 2016, when Resolution 2231’s eight-year prohibition on exporting missiles and related technologies without Security Council approval went into effect.
According to the report, the debris of nine ballistic missiles were similar to missile parts examined in the past and had “key design features unique to the Iranian Qiam-type” missile. The Secretariat assessed that the systems were modified Borkhan-2H ballistic missiles.
The six cruise missiles examined by the Secretariat had similar design characteristics to the Quds-II, a missile displayed by the Houthis in March 2021. Subcomponents from the debris were exported between February 2016 and June 2020. The UN is continuing to investigate the supply chain of the components, the report said.
The report also noted that the gyroscopes found amongst the UAV debris were of Iranian origin and will continue to be investigated.
Guterres included excerpts in the report from letters submitted by the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Israel describing Iranian missile and spaces launches that are “inconsistent” with Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran to refrain from developing and testing systems that are designed to be nuclear-capable. The letters, similar to those submitted in response to past missile and space launch activity, noted that Iran fired systems that exceed the definition of a nuclear-capable missile under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): a system capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload over 300 kilometers. Iran responded to the claims by arguing that the states offered a “misleading interpretation” of Resolution 2231 and noting that it makes no mention of the MTCR. Iran’s missile and space programs fall “outside of the purview” of Resolution 2231, according to the letters. Russia submitted a letter supporting Iran’s position that the MTCR standards had “never been intended to be used in the context of the resolution.”
Scientists Support JCPOA Reentry
A group of prominent scientists expressed support for restoring the 2015 nuclear deal in a June letter to President Joseph Biden. The June 20 letter, which was first shared publicly by Politico July 22, noted the advances in Iran’s nuclear program and argued that “[t]he best way to address this dangerous situation is a quick return to the JCPOA, with its strict limits on Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium and enrichment capacity, continuous monitoring, and daily access of inspectors to key facilities. We strongly support diplomatic efforts to achieve this end."
The 24 scientists also warned that “If recent history is any guide, the alternative to returning to the JCPOA—increasing economic pressure on Iran—will result in its production of larger quantities of highly enriched uranium, possibly even enriched to 90%.”
Signatories included Richard L. Garwin, recipient of the National Medal of Science (2002) and Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016), Princeton University professors Frank N. von Hippel and Robert J. Goldston, Allison MacFarlane, Professor at the University of British Columbia and Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2012-2014, and Steve Fetter, Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland and Principal Assistant Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2015-2016.
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