The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reiterated concerns about Iran’s advancing nuclear program and called for diplomacy with Tehran.
During the Jan. 15-19 World Economic Forum in Davos, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Iran is “restricting cooperation in a very unprecedented way” and is punishing the agency for actions taken by the United States and European countries. He said it is “unacceptable” for the IAEA to be held “hostage” to Iran’s “political disputes with others.”
Grossi emphasized that diplomacy is necessary “to prevent the situation deteriorating to a degree where it would be impossible to retrieve it.”
He also noted that Iran’s nuclear program is “galloping ahead” and that the agency’s visibility into the country’s activities must be commensurate. Iran’s activities would be legitimate if Tehran abided by the rules, Grossi said but noted that Tehran is not providing “the whole range of information” and clarifications about its activities that are required.
The IAEA reported in December that Iran increased its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent, which is near weapons-grade. As of late December, production returned to levels consistent with the first half of 2023, before Tehran reduced its 60 percent enrichment by about two-thirds in June 2023. (See below for details.)
Grossi described the situation as a “frustrating cycle” and said the agency does not understand why Iran does not provide “the necessary transparency.”
Iranian officials continue to reiterate that Tehran is cooperating with the agency as required by its safeguards agreement and has accused the agency of bias in its reporting on Iran.
Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, suggested that the IAEA should not expect additional transparency or for Tehran to cooperate with the agency’s years-long investigation into past nuclear activities until sanctions are lifted. Eslami made those comments during a September meeting with Grossi.
While the prospects for revived diplomacy between the United States and Iran appear unlikely as tensions escalate in the region and U.S. forces clash with Iranian-backed militias, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said the environment for talks “still exists” if negotiations occur “within the framework of our redlines.”
However, it is unclear what framework would be acceptable to both sides. The Biden administration no longer views restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal as a viable option and Iran has been more vocal about diminishing prospects for a revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in December that the 2015 nuclear deal is becoming “useless.”
De-escalatory actions to lower tensions appeared feasible in both Washington and Tehran when indirect talks occurred in 2023. However, Naziri Asl, Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA, expressed frustration in December that the United States and the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) did not respond to the voluntary steps Tehran took in 2023.
Asl said that Iran took the measures “based on goodwill” but did not receive “a positive and proportionate response” from the United States and the E3.
Asl was likely referring to Iran’s decision in May to allow the IAEA to reinstall cameras at a centrifuge production workshop and put in place enrichment monitors at Natanz and Fordow. Iran also slowed its enrichment of 60 percent by two-thirds in June 2023, before reversing the move in November.
Iran Ratchets Up 60 Percent Production
Iran increased production of uranium enriched to 60 percent, according to a Dec. 26 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The report said that Iran notified the agency that it increased the rate of 60 percent production at both the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities in late November. In late December the IAEA verified that the combined production of 60 percent enriched uranium from the two facilities was about 9 kilograms per month. According to the report, the growth is a result of Iran increasing the feed of 5 percent enriched uranium into the centrifuges already enriching to 60 percent.
Iran was producing about 9 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent from January-June 2023. In June Iran reduced production to about 3 kilograms per month and maintained that rate through late November.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Mohammad Eslami downplayed the report, referring to it as “propaganda.” Eslami said that Iran has not expanded its capacity to enrich uranium to 60 percent, likely referring to the fact that Iran has not dedicated additional centrifuges to enrichment at that level.
France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States condemned Iran’s action in a joint Dec. 28 statement. The statement said that the increase in 60 percent enriched uranium production “adds to the unabated escalation of Iran’s nuclear program” and “carries significant proliferation-related risks.”
Iran’s decision demonstrates a “lack of goodwill towards de-escalation” and is “reckless” in a “tense regional context,” the four states said. They urged Iran to “immediately reverse these steps.”
The IAEA report also noted that Iran switched its method of 60 percent production at the Fordow uranium enrichment facility back to an earlier design. Iran enriches uranium to 60 percent at Fordow using two interconnected cascades of IR-6 centrifuges, one of which has modified sub-headers.
Iran is now withdrawing the 60 percent enriched uranium from the cascade with the modified sub-headers, a concerning development given that modified subheaders allow for more rapid changes between enrichment levels. Iran used that design previously but modified it in June 2023 so that the cascade without the modified sub-headers was used for withdrawing 60 percent enriched uranium.
IAEA Accesses Cameras in Iran
Iran allowed the IAEA to service surveillance cameras at a centrifuge production facility after several requests from the agency.
According to an IAEA report, inspectors were permitted to access the centrifuge rotor and bellows workshops in Esfahan Dec. 30 to swap out data storage units. According to the report, the IAEA made multiple requests to visit the site as the cameras were overdue for service.
The IAEA installed the cameras at the facility in May as part of a March 2023 agreement between the agency and Iran to increase transparency of the country's nuclear program. The agency, however, does not have access to the data, which is stored in Iran under IAEA seals.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi continues to press Iran for access to the data collected by the surveillance cameras, but Iran argues data access is not covered by the March 2023 agreement.
Iran is also holding sealed data storage units from surveillance equipment operating at several sites from February 2021 to June 2022. Iran and the IAEA agreed to the surveillance after Tehran suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, which allowed the agency access to those facilities, in February 2021. Iran said it would not turn over the data recorded unless the 2015 nuclear deal was revived. Iran disconnected the equipment in June 2022 after the IAEA Board of Governors censured Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s safeguards inquiry.
The agency needs access to the data to reconstruct a history of Iran’s nuclear activities and establish new baseline inventories for certain materials, such as centrifuge components.
Grossi also continues to urge Iran to fulfill the March 2023 agreement and allow the agency to install surveillance equipment at additional sites where inspectors are no longer permitted access.
U.S. Warns Iran Missile Deal with Russia is Advancing
The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed U.S. official in a Jan. 4 piece saying that negotiations between Moscow and Tehran on the purchase of short-range ballistic missiles are “actively advancing” and that Russia intends to purchase the systems.
This is not the first time that the United States has raised concerns about Iranian missile transfers to Russia. The Biden administration has warned for more than a year that Tehran may transfer systems to Moscow in exchange for military support and defense cooperation.
While U.S. and European warnings may have initially deterred Iran and Moscow from reaching a missile deal, there are new indications that the two countries are planning to proceed with the deal. In the Jan. 4 piece, The Wall Street Journal noted that a Russian delegation visited an Iranian facility to observe ballistic missiles in mid-December. The U.S. official quoted in the piece said the visit is a further step toward acquiring Iranian missile systems.
Iran and Russia may be emboldened to proceed with the missile transfer since UN Security Council restrictions prohibiting Iran from exporting certain missiles, drones, and relevant technologies expired in October 2023. The restrictions were included in Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal and modified UN sanctions on Iran. Resolution 2231 allows a party to the nuclear deal to reimpose the sanctions on Iran using a veto-proof mechanism, referred to as snapback, through 2025.
It is not clear if reimposing the UN sanctions would deter Iran from transfering missiles to Russia. Russia was already using Iranian drones against Ukrainian targets and those systems were transferred to Moscow before October 2023 in violation of Resolution 2231.
Russia denied that it received any assistance from Iran that violated Resolution 2231 during a Dec. 18 Security Council meeting to discuss the UN Secretary-General’s biannual report on the implementation of that resolution.
Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said “there were not and could not be any deliveries to circumvent” the resolution.
During that meeting, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran of “deliberately supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine” and knowingly transferring drones for use against Ukrainian civilians.
They described Iran’s “continued and long-lasting contempt” for Resolution 2231 and urged Tehran to “cease its reckless proliferative activities in the region and beyond.”
While it is unclear if or when Iran will transfer missiles to Russia, Tehran is continuing to supply missile components to the Houthis. U.S. Central Command confirmed that the Navy boarded a boat in the Red Sea Jan. 11 and seized guidance systems and warheads compatible with the medium-range ballistic missiles used by the Houthis, as well as anti-ship cruise missiles. The systems were of Iranian origin, the statement said.
While restrictions on Iran’s export of armaments and missiles under Resolution 2231 are expired, separate resolutions prohibit weapons transfers to the Houthis.
Resolution 2231 also included non-binding language calling upon Iran to refrain from activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable, but that provision expired in October. Iran's recent use of ballistic missiles against targets in Pakistan and Iraq and launch of a satellite on Jan. 20 would be inconsistent with the intent of that language if it were still in effect. Satellite launches are included because the rockets include technology relevant to ballistic missile development.
Iranian Official Rejects Nuclear Weapons
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) said that nuclear weapons are not part of Iran’s security and defense strategy.
During a Jan. 13 interview, AEOI head Mohammad Eslami was asked if it was time for Iran to develop nuclear weapons to respond to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Eslami said that Iran has the capability to develop nuclear weapons but that “we do not want to do it.” He emphasized that Iran has achieved deterrence without nuclear weapons, which are forbidden under a fatwa issued by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The U.S. intelligence community has long assessed that Iran has the capabilities necessary to develop a nuclear weapon if the political decision is made to develop the bomb. In a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. intelligence community assessed with “high confidence” that Iran “has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”
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