A top U.S. official said that restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is not a viable option in the current environment, confirming the shift in the Biden administration’s strategy for addressing the risk posed by Iran’s advancing nuclear program.
Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his Dec. 7 confirmation hearing that a return to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is “just not on the table.”
Campbell, currently the National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, also said that the $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets transferred to Qatar for humanitarian trade “has not been spent.” The funds, which were transferred from South Korea to accounts in Qatar as part of a swap in September that freed five Americans detained in Iran, can only be used to pay vendors for humanitarian goods exempt from U.S. sanctions. After the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, the Biden administration said Iran would not be able to access the funds due to its long-standing support for Hamas. The administration is under pressure to more permanently tie up the funds. The House of Representatives passed a bill in November that would require the United States to freeze the money in Qatar.
Campbell said the Biden administration will be “vigilant” regarding Iran’s use of those funds, despite having “full confidence” that the funds can only be used specifically for humanitarian transactions to benefit the Iranian people.
While it has been clear for months that restoring the JCPOA is no longer a viable option, the United States still needs to contend with Iran’s advancing nuclear program. A permanent freeze on the $6 billion risks further undercutting U.S. credibility in negotiating steps to de-escalate the nuclear crisis, which Tehran may be willing to discuss.
Iran did take limited steps earlier this year to reduce its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent and allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to resume monitoring enrichment levels, but these actions did little to reduce immediate proliferation risk. Furthermore, U.S.-Iranian talks on additional de-escalatory steps appear on hold given Iran’s long-standing support for Hamas and escalating tensions between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. But absent steps to stabilize the current nuclear situation, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program will grow, as will the risk of miscalculating Iran’s intentions.
The risk posed by Iran’s nuclear advances is compounded by Tehran’s lack of transparency. IAEA Director General Rafael Marino Grossi warned the IAEA’s Board of Governors in November that the implementation of the March 2023 agreement between the agency and Iran to enhance monitoring and resolve safeguards issues at three undeclared locations “has come to a standstill.” The prolonged gaps in monitoring and Iran’s failure to account for its past nuclear activities make it difficult for the IAEA to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
Iran and the agency made limited progress on the agreement in the months after it was reached, with the agency declaring in a May report that it had no further questions for Iran about one of the undeclared locations. Iran also allowed the IAEA to re-install cameras at a centrifuge assembly facility and hook up enrichment monitors at Fordow and Natanz. But there has been no progress since May, Grossi said in a Nov. 22 statement. The “way forward must include an honest and cooperative implementation” of the commitments made in March, he said.
Grossi also reiterated his condemnation of Iran’s decision in September to de-designate experienced agency inspectors conducting safeguards activities in Iran.
States are permitted to reject IAEA inspectors, but Grossi said Iran’s actions are “unprecedented and contrary to the cooperation that is required” to effectively implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement. He told the press Nov. 22 that the rejection of these inspectors, which include experts on uranium enrichment, dealt a “very serious blow” to the agency’s efforts to implement safeguards in Iran.
Iran continues to defend its decision to reject the inspectors. Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in October that the inspectors in question had “politically oriented agendas.”
Grossi said the agency and Iran are discussing reinstatement.
In a Nov. 23 joint statement, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States accused Iran of doubling down on “its hostile attitude” toward the IAEA by de-designating inspectors. The “independent technical work of the Agency cannot be subject to Iran’s political interpretation of other member states’ views in this way,” the four states told the IAEA’s Board of Governors.
Despite Iran’s failure to make progress on the March 4 agreement and the de-designation of inspectors, the IAEA board did not take any action to censure Tehran during its November meeting.
France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States said the board will “have to be prepared to take further action in support of the Secretariat to hold Iran accountable in the near future, including the possibility of additional resolutions.” Iran cannot refuse to cooperate “without bearing the consequences,” the states said.
The board last passed a resolution censuring Iran in November 2022. In the resolution, the board decided that it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to fulfill its legal obligations and cooperate with the IAEA’s inquiries.
Despite the board’s threat to take further action against Iran, progress on safeguards and additional transparency measures appear unlikely absent any progress on talks between the United States and Iran.
According to a Nov. 17 IAEA report, Eslami told Grossi during a September meeting not to expect progress on the March 4 agreement until sanctions are lifted.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Safeguards Investigation Remains Stalled
The IAEA reported no progress on its yearslong investigation into the presence of uranium at two undeclared locations. According to the Nov. 17 report, Iran has “not provided the Agency with any information” relevant to the agency’s inquiries into past nuclear activities at Varamin and Turquzabad.
The agency assessed that Iran conducted uranium conversion activities at Varamin before 2004. Materials from Varamin were later transferred to Turquzabad, which the IAEA assessed was used to store nuclear materials and equipment. Iran told the IAEA in August 2023 that it would provide the agency with information regarding the dismantled containers that were removed from Turquazabad, but Tehran did not follow up with that information, according to the Nov. 17 report.
The evidence the IAEA presented to date and Tehran’s failure to provide technically credible explanations for the processed uranium at the two sites suggests that Iran was obligated to declare both locations to the agency under its safeguards agreement.
While Iran committed to addressing these outstanding safeguards issues in a March 2023 statement, the Nov. 17 report suggests that Iran will not cooperate further while it is subject to nuclear-related sanctions. The report noted that during a Sept. 25 meeting, Mohammad Eslami, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi that “he expected there would be no significant progress towards implementing the Joint Statement” from March while sanctions on Iran remain.
In addition to Varamin and Turquzabad, the IAEA is investigating a material accounting discrepancy at Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility. Unlike the two undeclared locations, which were likely a part of Iran’s illicit pre-2003 weapons program, the accounting discrepancy is a safeguards issue connected to Iran’s current program. The IAEA uncovered the issue in March 2022. Iran’s initial response to explain the discrepancy in April 2023 did not meet its safeguards obligations or address the concern, according to IAEA reports.
The Nov. 17 report stated that Iran committed to address the issue before October 2023 and provided the agency with an updated account Nov. 8. The IAEA is currently assessing the information.
The IAEA report noted that until Iran provides “technically credible explanations for the presence of uranium particles at the undeclared locations” and addresses the accounting discrepancy, the agency will not be able to “confirm the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations under its [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] Safeguards Agreement.”
France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States said in a Nov. 23 statement to the agency’s board that “Iran is not only dragging its feet on cooperating with the Agency to resolve the remaining outstanding issues, but it is also willfully hampering the Agency’s ability to perform its verification mandate. Iran’s actions are not only inconsistent with its legal obligations but also undermine the global non-proliferation architecture.”
Iran Continues 60 Percent Enrichment at Lower Rate
Iran’s stockpiles of highly enriched uranium continue to grow, but the rate of 60 percent production remains lower when compared to the first half of 2023.
According to the Nov. 17 report, Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium grew by 6.7 kilograms over the quarter, bringing the total stockpile to 128.3 kilograms. The slower rate of 60 percent production is consistent with the reduction reported by the IAEA in the last quarterly report finalized in August.
The 60 percent material is the only area of enrichment where Iran slowed production. Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched material grew to 567 kilograms, and its stockpile of uranium enriched from 2-5 percent is 2,218 kilograms. The rates of growth are consistent with past quarters.
The stockpile of 60 percent material is the most proliferation-sensitive because it technically can be used for nuclear weapons and can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade levels, or 90 percent. So any slowdown in 60 percent production is positive, even if it does not affect the immediate proliferation risk. Iran can still break out to produce enough weapons-grade material for one bomb in about a week and its current stockpile of 128.3 kilograms of 60 percent enriched material would be enough for three weapons worth if enriched to weapons-grade levels.
By slowing the rate of 60 percent production, the time frame to produce the fissile material for multiple weapons is shrinking less quickly than if Iran continued at the rate of production from the first half of 2023.
U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate reiterated in a Nov. 22 statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors that “there is no reasonable peaceful application” for uranium enriched to 60 percent and called upon Iran to “halt all production.”
Iran did not significantly expand its uranium enrichment capacity over the quarter, according to the Nov. 17 IAEA report and the number of cascades enriching uranium remained unchanged.
Iran did complete the installation of a long-planned cascade of IR-4 centrifuges in the main enrichment facility at Natanz but was not operating it as of the Nov. 17 report. The agency did not report any new centrifuges at the Fordow enrichment facility, despite Iran’s announced plans in November 2022 to double the number of cascades at the facility from eight (six cascades of IR-1s and two cascades of IR-6s) to 16 cascades (a mix of IR-1s and IR-6s). The report said that installation of the necessary infrastructure for the additional eight cascades is “ongoing.”
In a Nov. 22 statement to the IAEA board, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said “Iran has deliberately and consistently chosen to escalate its nuclear activities beyond all credible civilian justification and in non-compliance with its JCPOA commitments.”
The three states called on Iran to take steps to de-escalate, including halting enrichment above 3.67 percent (the limit specified in the JCPOA) and reducing its stockpiles of uranium enriched above 3.67 percent. They also called for Iran to return to the JCPOA’s limits on centrifuges.
Concerns Mount Over New Nuclear Facilities
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi repeated his concerns about Iran’s failure to provide the agency with design information for new nuclear facilities at the November meeting of the agency’s Board of Governors.
According to a Nov. 17 IAEA report, Iran “made reference to having decided on the locations for new nuclear facilities,” but has not provided the IAEA with design information despite agency requests.
Grossi reminded Iran that it is legally obligated to implement modified Code 3.1 of its comprehensive safeguards agreement. Modified Code 3.1 requires a state to provide design information about a nuclear facility when the decision is made to construct it. Before the adoption of the modified Code 3.1, states only had to provide information 180 days before nuclear material was introduced. The earlier notification provides the IAEA with more time to design a safeguards approach for the facility.
Iran argues it suspended Code 3.1 and therefore is not obligated to share design information, but the agency maintains that a state cannot unilaterally modify its safeguards obligations.
The Nov. 17 report noted that Iran told the IAEA in a Nov. 1 letter that it is “no longer prepared to work with the Agency to find a mutually acceptable solution to address the issue of new nuclear facilities.”
It is unclear exactly which facilities the IAEA report is referring to as Iran has announced several new locations for nuclear activities. Grossi suggested in his Nov. 22 press conference that the IAEA’s concern about Code 3.1 implementation is not driven by Iran’s announcement of a new nuclear power facility.
The location prompting the IAEA’s emphasis on Code 3.1 could be the new centrifuge production workshop Iran is building at Natanz. The deeply buried facility appears larger than necessary for the intended purpose, raising concerns that it could be intended for uranium enrichment. If Iran does intend to use the facility for uranium enrichment and does not notify the IAEA as required, it would be a violation of Code 3.1.
In a Nov. 23 statement, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States described Iran’s failure to work with the IAEA to address the Code 3.1 issue as “entirely unacceptable and deeply concerning given Iran’s history of constructing covert nuclear facilities.” Iran, for instance, began construction of Fordow in violation of Code 3.1.
The four states questioned if Iran was “attempting to claim a loophole that does not exist to enable construction of clandestine nuclear facilities.”
U.S. Warns Iran on Missile Sales to Russia
The White House warned that Iran may be planning to transfer ballistic missiles to Russia. White House security spokesman John Kirby said Nov. 21 that "Iran may be preparing to go a step further in its support for Russia” by providing Moscow with ballistic missiles for use against Ukraine.
Kirby said Iran would receive "unprecedented defense cooperation” from Russia in return.
Iran has already provided Russia with drones in violation of UN restrictions. Moscow has used the Iranian systems to attack Ukraine, including civilian infrastructure. Statements from U.S. and European officials suggest the two countries discussed missile transfers last year, but warnings of repercussions appear to have deterred Iran from transferring those systems.
However, the provisions in Resolution 2231 that prohibited Iran from exporting missiles and drones without Security Council approval expired in October. While Iran transferred drones to Russia and misssiles to non-state actors while the UN restrictions were in place, Tehran may feel more emboldened now that the prohibitions have expired, even though Resolution 2231 includes a prohibition that allows parties to the JCPOA to snapback Security Council sanctions through October 2025. The reimposition cannot be vetoed. Washington cannot exercise this option to snapback the UN measures given former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, but France or the UK could.
In response to the expiration, the United States and 47 other countries issued a joint statement announcing their commitment to “take all necessary measures to prevent the supply, sale, or transfer of ballistic missile-related items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology” related to Iran’s missile program.
Furthermore, a day before the expiration date of the UN sanctions, the EU states confirmed that they will “maintain sectoral and individual measures, existing under the EU's sanctions regime, notably those related to Iran nuclear proliferation, as well as arms and missile embargoes.” These measures were scheduled to be lifted under the JCPOA.
Russia condemned the European Union and the United States for failing to comply with the JCPOA’s sanctions-lifting requirements. In an Oct. 17 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States and Europe of retaining the sanctions to “settle political scores” with Iran and “demonstrating disdain for international law.”
In Case You Missed It….