Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed March 4 to increase monitoring of the country’s nuclear program. While any additional transparency is a positive step, it is difficult to determine how beneficial the new measures will be as the details of the agreement remain to be negotiated.
According to the statement released by the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Tehran committed to allow the agency to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities” on a “voluntary basis.” The agreement was reached during IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi’s March 3-4 trip to Tehran.
Before his visit, the agency reported that Tehran reconfigured centrifuge cascades at the Fordow uranium enrichment facility in January without notifying the agency as required by its safeguards agreement. Inspectors also detected uranium particles enriched to 84 percent—well above the declared 60 percent level and just shy of the 90 percent considered weapons grade—at Fordow. These incidents highlight the critical importance of increasing monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities, but the timing of the agreement, just days before the IAEA’s Board of Governors met in Vienna, raises questions about whether Iran’s commitments were designed to stave off another resolution of censure or if Tehran intends to increase transparency.
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate told the agency’s Board of Governors March 7 that it would be an “encouraging sign” if Iran follows through, but “we of course need to see if these steps are, in fact, implemented.”
As a result of the enrichment spike and the reconfiguration, Grossi said Iran agreed to a 50 percent increase in inspections at the Fordow facility. The AEOI confirmed the increase in inspections as “in line” with its safeguards obligations.
Grossi also said Iran would reinstall surveillance equipment, such as cameras and an enrichment monitor, that Tehran disconnected in June 2022.
After Iran reduced access for inspectors in February 2021, it allowed cameras and the enrichment monitors at Natanz to continue recording. Iran said it would turn over the stored data to the IAEA if the JCPOA were restored for the agency to reconstruct a history of Iran’s nuclear activities during the period of reduced monitoring.
Since June 2022, there has been no surveillance or accesss at the sites not covered by Iran's safeguards agreement. This includes locations like Iran's centrifuge production facilities and uranium mines. Grossi has warned for months that the gap in monitoring would make it difficult for the IAEA to maintain its continuity of knowledge regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In the Feb. 28 report, the IAEA concluded for the first time that the gap cannot be overcome. The report also warned about the challenges and uncertainty of reestablishing baselines for verifying limits under a restored JCPOA.
Grossi said the agreed upon measures in the March 4 statement, however, put a “tourniquet on the bleeding” in the continuity of knowledge and can be useful in beginning the process for reestablishing baselines. He said on March 15 that an IAEA team will return to Iran within days to follow up on the March 4 agreement.
While Iran could reinstall the equipment relatively quickly, important details regarding the agreed-upon measures are unclear and Iran has contradicted some of Grossi’s description of what was agreed to during his visit to Tehran. It is unknown, for instance, if the IAEA will be able to access the data, included that stored from February 2021-June 2022.
AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said there would be no new surveillance equipment installed, raising questions about monitoring facilities that are new or have been modified since the previous surveillance equipment was installed. He also said Iran would take no actions that contradict its December 2020 nuclear law, which required Tehran to suspend the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and JCPOA-specific monitoring activities in February 2021. The fact certain surveillance equipment continued recording for nearly 16 months after the suspension suggest that the reinstallation of monitoring equipment is not a violation of that law.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said in a March 7 statement that they will “hold Iran accountable for the prompt and full implementation of such agreed actions, considering the seriousness of the continued and increasingly severe escalation of its nuclear programme.” They urged Iran to reinstall all equipment the IAEA deems necessary.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Grossi Suggests Progress on Safeguards Probe
In the March 4 statement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran “expressed its readiness” to provide the agency with “further information and access” to resolve a years-long investigation into past nuclear activities that should have been declared under Tehran’s legally-required safeguards agreement. While Iran has committed to cooperate in the past but failed to follow through, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi expressed optimism that his meetings in Tehran March 3-4 will lead to more concrete results.
To date, Tehran has yet to provide the IAEA with technically credible explanations for the presence of processed uranium at three locations that were never declared to the agency as part of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA detected uranium during visits to the sites in 2019 and 2020. The IAEA was investigating a fourth location but concluded in May 2022 that Iran conducted activities that site that should have been declared to the agency under its safeguards agreement.
The IAEA’s Board of Governors censured Iran twice in 2022 for failing to cooperate with the agency’s probe. After the last censure in November 2022 the United States and the E3 suggested that further meetings between Iran and the agency would be insufficient to prevent further action from the Board. However, Iran’s commitment to cooperate in the March 4 statement was enough to ward off another censure when the Board met March 6-10, despite conflicting descriptions from Grossi and AEOI officials about what Tehran agreed.
In his March 4 news conference, Grossi suggested that Iran committed to allow the IAEA to access information, people, and sites to conclude the investigation that Tehran has stonewalled for years.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, the deputy head of the AEOI, however, said there is no need for the IAEA to access the three sites again and there was no discussion of access to individuals. He said that Iran would have “definitely turned down” any IAEA request to speak with individuals.
When pressed on the AEOI’s contradictions during a March 6 news conference, Grossi said that there is an understanding regarding IAEA access, but that it is “virtually impossible” to have a detailed list of sites and information that the agency will need to access at this time. He said it was of “enormous importance” to discuss the safeguards investigation with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and President Ebrahim Raisi. Iran and the IAEA moved to a “new phase” of the investigation, he said.
In a March 8 statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (E3), said that the IAEA “has heard enough promises” and that it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to provide the IAEA with credible explanations regarding the uranium.
The E3 pointed out that “Iran’s pattern of behavior and increasing disregard for its NPT safeguards obligations is deeply concerning” and warned that the Board will “have to be prepared to take further action” if necessary, “including making a finding, if necessary, on whether the Agency is not able to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material.”
IAEA Reports Iran’s Nuclear Advances
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program demonstrated that Tehran continues to advance proliferation sensitive activities and that the IAEA has lost continuity of knowledge regarding the country’s nuclear program due to the monitoring gaps.
According to the report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent was 87.5 kilograms Feb. 12, up from 62 kilograms in the November report. Uranium enriched to 60 percent can technically be used for a bomb, but the design would be large and inconsistent with Iran’s past weaponization-related work. If Iran were to use its 60 percent stockpile to enrich further to weapons-grade, or 90 percent, its stockpile is now large enough to produce two weapons’ worth of nuclear material. Iran’s production and accumulation of uranium enriched to 60 percent doubled over its past quarterly reports, reflecting Tehran’s decision in November to begin enriching to 60 percent using two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow.
Before that announcement Iran was enriching uranium to 60 percent only at the above-ground Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility using a cascade of IR-6s and a cascades of IR-4s.
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate raised concerns about the acceleration of 60 percent enriched uranium, which Iran has no need to produce, in a statement to Board of Governors March 7. She said Iran should “cease its nuclear provocations and its continued pursuit of steps that pose grave proliferation risk.”
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent grew from 386 kilograms in November to 435 kilograms as of Feb. 12.
If Tehran used its 60 percent and 20 percent stockpiles as feed to produce weapons-grade uranium it could enrich enough material for a bomb in less than a week and enough for four bombs in less than a month. This timeframe, referred to as “breakout,” is unlikely to drop further for the first bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium, but timeframe to multiple weapons will decrease as the stockpiles of 60 and 20 percent material rise, and Iran expands its uranium enrichment capacity.
The IAEA report noted a significant increase the number of installed IR-2 centrifuges in the main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. According to the February report, Iran has 21 cascades of IR-2 centrifuges, up from 15 in November.
Tehran has not, however, made any progress in installing the 14 cascades of IR-6s at Fordow. Iran announced in November that, in addition to enriching to 60 percent at the location, it would replace the existing six cascades of IR-1 centrifuges at the facility with the more efficient IR-6s and install another eight cascades. When completed, Fordow will be equipped with 16 cascades of IR-6s.
The planned expansion of IR-6 cascades and enrichment to 60 percent poses a more significant proliferation risk at Fordow because of its location. Buried into the mountains near Qom, Fordow is more challenging to target with a military strike than Natanz. Israel, for instance, would likely require U.S. assistance to target the facility using conventional explosives.
The report did not provide any new clarity regarding the particles of uranium enriched to 84 percent. It noted that Iran explained the presence of the particles as “unintended fluctuations” during the process of beginning enrichment to 60 percent at Fordow in November or when the uranium feed cylinder was replaced.
Grossi said he discussed the 84 percent enriched particles during his trip to Tehran and that further talks on the issue are necessary for the agency to understand what occurred.
Holgate said Iran “must clarify this issue immediately.” She warned that Iran’s actions, whether intentional or inadvertent, continue to “intensify tensions and push unprecedented boundaries.”
As a result of the enriched uranium spike and Iran’s reconfiguration of its IR-6 cascades at Fordow without notifying the agency as required by its safeguards agreement, the IAEA report noted an increase in the frequency of inspections at Fordow. Grossi said the increase, which was negotiated Feb. 23, would result in 50 percent more inspections at the facility.
The IAEA report also said—for the first time—that the gap in monitoring will “prevent the Agency from reestablishing continuity of knowledge” in several areas, such as centrifuge component, heavy water, and uranium ore concentrate. The report concluded that as a result baselines for JCPOA-related verification “would take a considerable time to establish and would have a significant degree of uncertainty.” The agency warned of the consequences of the monitoring gap, but the Feb. 28 report is the first time the IAEA established that continuity of knowledge could not be restored.
If the March 4 agreement implemented as Grossi described, the reinstallation of cameras and monitoring equipment would be beneficial in attempting in the IAEA’s work to begin reestablishing baselines.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said in a March 7 statement to the agency’s Board of Governors that it is “of the utmost importance” that Iran implements the March 4 agreement in a “timely manner” and that Tehran should take “the necessary steps to provide the Agency with the information necessary to rebuilding continuity of knowledge.” The E3 warned that is “more necessary than ever given the increasing seriousness of Iran’s escalations.”
Iran Not Engaged in Weaponization
In the 2023 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the U.S. national intelligence community assessed that Iran is “not currently undertaking the key weapons-development activities” necessary to build a bomb. Iran’s research and development activities, however, “bring it closer to producing the fissile material” for a nuclear device if the decision were made to build a bomb.
The intelligence community made the same assessment in the 2022 iteration of this report. Like last year, the threat assessment also noted that Iran “probably will consider further enriching uranium up to 90 percent” if it does not receive sanctions relief.
In a slight shift, the 2023 report characterized uranium metal as “a key capability” needed to produce nuclear weapons. In 2021 Iran produced small quantities of uranium metal, which it claimed was for a new type of reactor fuel. At the time, the E3 referred to the uranium metal production as a “key” weaponization-related activity, but the United States did not.
The report also noted that Iranian officials “perceive that foreign meddling is prolonging the unrest” that broke out in September and that “even if Iran has contained this round of protests through violence and intimidation, compounding crises in the coming year probably will further challenge the regime’s legitimacy and staying power.” Specifically, the assessment referenced that Iran will probably face an economic downturn as a result of inflation and currency depreciation that “could prolong or reignite unrest and result in greater instability.”
Iran Inaugurates New Uranium Mine
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced the inauguration of a new uranium mine in February. The Narigan Mining and Industrial Complex contains the country’s largest deposit of uranium-molybdenum, according to the AEOI.
In a Feb. 5 statement, AEOI head Mohammed Eslami said that uranium mined at the site, located in the Yazd province, will be shipped to Isfahan for processing and later fabrication into nuclear fuel.
The region where the mine is located was known to possess uranium ore. According to the AEOI, the area was explored from 1995-2003 and specifically studied from 2013 to 2015 to determine what type of equipment would be necessary for mining operations at the site.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors do not have access to uranium mines under a country’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. The JCPOA requires Iran to implement continuous surveillance at its uranium mines, but Tehran is no longer adhering to those obligations. It is unclear if surveillance will begin at Narigan as part of the transparency measures that Iran and the IAEA are implementing.
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