No End in Sight for Iran Talks Stalemate

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as “completely stalled” but argued that the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is not dead. In a Jan. 30 article, the Financial Times quoted Borrell as saying that “if the Iranian regime is so bad… we have to try to avoid this kind of regime from having a nuclear bomb” and that “making the JCPOA work” is the only way to do that. Borrell's comments came during the EU debate over whether to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. He said that efforts to restore the deal would "be increasingly blocked" if the designation were to go through. 

Prospects for restoring the JCPOA, however, continue to diminish as the United States and Iran point fingers over who is to blame for the months-long stalemate and take steps to build leverage during the impasse. Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its brutal crackdown on protesters also continue to diminish U.S. and European political will to reach a deal with Tehran.

In a Jan. 30 interview with BBC HARDtalk, U.S. Special Envoy Rob Malley said that Iran “turned down multiple opportunities to end this crisis” and restore the JCPOA, but the United States is “prepared to continue talks with Iran to reach a diplomatic outcome.” Earlier in the month Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Iran “killed the opportunity” to swiftly restore the JCPOA months ago when Tehran rejected “an opportunity that was approved by all who were involved.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Dec. 28 that the window for restoring the JCPOA “is open today” but “will not always be open.” He said that Iran “will move in another direction” if the West continues “their hypocritical and interventionist behavior.”

While talks remain stalled, Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance. In a Jan. 24 briefing to the European Parliament, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi described the JCPOA as “an empty shell” and said that Iran has stockpiled 70 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent and 1,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent. These stockpiles are “enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons,” he said.

Sixty percent enriched uranium can technically be used for an explosive device, but it is much more likely that if Iran decides to pursue nuclear weapons, it will further enrich the material to weapons-grade, or 90 percent.

The IAEA also reported on Feb. 1 that Iran failed to declare a change in its configuration of IR-6 cascades enriching uranium to 60 percent at the Fordow enrichment site. IAEA inspectors reported that during a Jan. 21 visit to Fordow the IR-6 cascades were "interconnected in a way that was substantially different from the mode of operation declared by Iran." Iran's failure to notify the IAEA of the change in advance is "inconsistent" with Iran's safeguards obligations, the report said. The IAEA must be made aware of such changes to for the agency to adjust its procedures to "ensure effective verification." 

Iran made the change to the IR-6 configuration on Jan. 16, just after IAEA inspectors visited the facility. Iran's ability to run IR-6 centrifuges in a different configuration for five days before IAEA detection demonstrates how limited visibility and monitoring compound the threat posed by Iran's advancing nuclear program. 

The growing stockpiles and limited monitoring do raise proliferation risk, but both the United States and the IAEA have recently stated that there is no evidence that Iran is engaged in weaponization-related activities.

While the Biden administration continues to reiterate the U.S. preference for diplomacy to address the Iranian nuclear threat, it also says that all options, including military strikes, remain on the table. Israeli officials also continue to underscore their country's commitment to use force if necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. 

In mid-January the United States and Israel held their largest-ever joint military exercise, Juniper Oak, which was widely perceived as a signal to Iran. General Herzi Halevi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said the exercises convey that “if Iran makes mistakes, offense capabilities are getting ready.”

Malley, however, disputed that Juniper Oak was designed to send a clear message to Tehran that the United States and Israel are preparing for a military option. The exercise was intended to demonstrate that Washington has Israel’s back and that the United States and Israel will work together to defend common interests, he said during the HARDtalk interview. The Pentagon also said that the exercise was not “oriented around any single adversary or threat.”

Israel’s more hawkish approach is not surprising as the new Netanyahu government is more outspoken in its opposition to the JCPOA. Netanyahu told his cabinet Jan. 3 that “we will act powerfully and openly on the international level against the return of the nuclear agreement.” He said Israel will make its view known in talks with leaders “behind closed doors” and “openly in the arena of global public opinion.”

When last in office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated his willingness to sabotage Iranian nuclear sites and assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Iran generally responded to these actions, however, by ratcheting up its nuclear program. This pattern suggests that any future military action against Iran may reduce nuclear proliferation risk in the short term, but will likely spur Tehran to rebuild its nuclear program and could push the government to decide that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter future attacks. —KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

Drone Attack Targets Facility in Isfahan

Israel orchestrated a drone attack against a facility in Isfahan, although the extent of the damage caused by the strike remains in question.

Iran acknowledged that several quadcopters targeted an Isfahan facility on Jan. 29, but the Defense Ministry said they were destroyed by air defense and traps. According to the ministry, the attack caused minimal damage to the building, which Iran said is used for storing munitions.

Unnamed officials quoted in The Wall Street Journal, however, said that the mission was successful and credited Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as behind the attack. The officials also described the site as an advanced weapons production facility. In a Feb. 2 letter to the UN Secretary General, Iran also blamed Israel and said the attack is "goes against international law."

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Jan. 29 that the attack was “cowardly” and would not stop Iran’s “peaceful nuclear advancement.” While Iran described the facility as a storehouse for ammunition, Amirabdollahian’s comments suggest that Iran views the attack or facility as connected to the country’s advancing nuclear program.

Consistent with past attacks on military and nuclear installations, Iran said it will retaliate. Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Iran “will give a regrettable and firm response to aggressors.”

The U.S. officials denied any involvement in the attack. When asked about it Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it is “very important that we continue to deal with—and work against, as necessary—the various actions that Iran has engaged in, through the region and beyond the region.”

No Progress on IAEA Investigation

An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team traveled to Iran Dec. 18-19, but the trip does not appear to have spurred Iranian cooperation with the agency’s years-long probe into undeclared nuclear activities from the pre-2003 period.

Iran and the IAEA team, led by the agency’s deputy director general and head of safeguards, Massimo Aparo, discussed the investigation but announced no new measures to address the IAEA’s outstanding questions. The IAEA is seeking technically credible explanations for traces of processed uranium found at three undeclared sites in Iran. Tehran is obligated under its legally required safeguards agreement to declare all nuclear materials to the agency.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said the talks were “constructive.”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi expressed his intentions to travel to Tehran in February for “much needed political dialogue.”

Mohammed Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran confirmed that Tehran is discussing arrangements for Grossi’s visit. He did not mention a specific timeframe for the trip, but Iran may be aiming to host Grossi ahead of the next IAEA Board of Governors meeting in March.

At the previous meeting in November, the IAEA board passed a resolution censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation. In the past, Iran signaled a greater willingness to cooperate with the agency in the lead-up to the board’s quarterly meetings, presumably in an effort to stave off censure.

However, even if Grossi does travel to Tehran ahead of the March board meeting, it is not clear that the visit alone will be sufficient to prevent further condemnation by the board. Eslami continues to describe the IAEA investigation and the evidence of undeclared nuclear activities as “propaganda,” underscoring how politically challenging it will be for Iran to provide the IAEA with the information necessary to address the outstanding questions.

During the November IAEA board meeting, the United States and the E3 said in a joint statement that “last-minute promises from Iran to hold additional meetings in the future after years of delay and denial are late and inadequate,” and that during the course of the IAEA’s investigation “we have seen numerous meetings fail to produce substantive progress.”

Saudis Plan to Pursue Enrichment

Saudi Arabia intends to pursue the “entire nuclear fuel cycle,” including the production of low-enriched uranium, according to Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman.

Bin Salman made the comments Jan. 11 during a mining industry conference, noting that Saudi Arabia would “utilize its national uranium resources” in “accordance with international commitments and transparency standards.”

Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans for nuclear power generation. Developing full fuel cycle capabilities, however, gives Riyadh the option to produce nuclear material for weapons, which officials have threatened to do. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in March 2018 that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

To date, Saudi Arabia has also failed to update its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will be necessary for an expanded nuclear program. Saudi Arabia’s current safeguards are based on an outdated and inadequate agreement known as the Small Quantities Protocol. The IAEA has urged states, including Saudi Arabia, with safeguards based on that document to negotiate and implement new agreements.

States Spar at UN Over Drone Transfers

During a December UN Security Council meeting France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States called on the Secretary-General to investigate evidence that Tehran transferred drones to Moscow in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, prohibits Iran from transferring missiles and UAVs capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, as well as certain technologies and materials necessary for those systems, without Security Council approval. The UN Secretary-General is charged with reporting biannually to the Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 2231.

Iran has acknowledged selling drones to Russia but denies that the transfers violate Resolution 2231. In two letters to Guterres in October, Iran said that it “has never produced or supplied” materials and technologies that “could contribute to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems” and argued that Resolution 2231 only restricts the transfers of items that could contribute to such systems.

The United States, the E3, and Ukraine, however, argued that Resolution 2231 does prohibit the transfer of the drones in question and urged an investigation. In a Dec. 12 report on the implementation of Resolution 2231, Guterres said only that the UN Secretariat is “examining the available information” and will report any findings to the Security Council “as appropriate.”

Robert Wood, U.S. alternative representative to the United Nations, said during the Dec. 19 Security Council meeting that “there must be some degree of accountability for openly violating” Security Council resolutions. He accused the Security Council of “turning a blind eye” to violations of Resolution 2231 and said that the failure of the Secretary-General to investigate the sale of drones to Russia “is not acceptable.”

Russia disputes U.S. and European assertions that Guterres has the authority to investigate the drone sales. Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said Russia shared its legal analysis regarding this issue with the secretary-general. Nebenzia said during the Dec. 19 meeting that any “pseudo-investigations are legally null and void” and that Guterres must not “succumb to pressure of Western states.”

It is unclear why Russia is questioning the legality of an investigation. The Secretary-General investigated evidence of missile transfers in violation of Resolution 2231 and reported on them in the past.

A statement on behalf of the E3 warned Iran against transferring additional weapons to Russia, particularly short-range ballistic missiles, “which would constitute a serious escalation.”

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