IAEA Reports on Iran’s Compliance
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its first quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program after the agency certified on Jan. 16 that Tehran met the requirements for formal implementation of the July 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
While light on details, the Feb. 26 report noted that Iran is meeting its nuclear obligations under the deal. Iran briefly exceeded the 130 metric ton limit on its heavy-water stockpile imposed by the nuclear deal, but took steps to reduce the 130.9 tons to under the required limit by shipping out 20 metric tons. The IAEA confirmed that the shipment took place on Feb. 24. Iran’s production plant only produces 16 metric tons of heavy-water per year, so Tehran should remain well below the 130-ton limit through the end of 2016. Tehran will eventually use the heavy water for its reactor at Arak.
The report said that Iran is enriching uranium to 3.67 percent uranium-235 with the 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges permitted under the deal. Its stockpile of enriched uranium has remained under 300 kilograms. Tehran’s research and development activities are in line with the plan it submitted to the agency. The IAEA also noted that Iran has produced centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows, to manufacture centrifuges “only for the activities specified” in the nuclear deal.
The IAEA said in the report it has had “regular access to relevant buildings at Natanz,” where Iran’s enrichment takes place and its excess centrifuges are stored and that Tehran has granted IAEA inspectors working space near locations of the nuclear sites in Iran. The IAEA noted that its on-line enrichment monitors, electronic seals, and other measurement devices are working.
The report also noted that Iran provided the IAEA with early design information for two light water reactors it intends to construct at the Bushehr site. Iran is required to provide the agency with this information as part of its obligations under Modified Code 3.1 of its safeguards agreement. Iran agreed to implement Code 3.1 as part of the nuclear deal.
The IAEA said that Iran has “not pursued” construction on the Arak reactor based on the original design, but did not indicate if any work on modifying the reactor, as specified in the deal, is underway. Iran removed the core of the reactor as part of the nuclear deal and announced in January that it is working with China on the redesign.
The IAEA will continue to report on Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal to the agency’s Board of Governors. The board requested these quarterly reports at a special meeting last December.
—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
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Satellite Launch Vehicle Versus Ballistic Missile
Recent Iranian actions suggest that the country is preparing to launch a satellite from the Imam Khomeini Space Center. In addition to unveiling a new satellite in early February, Iran issued notices to airman (NOMANs) to warn aircraft that may be in the area during launch windows, including March 1-2 and 6-10. Melissa Hanham, Catherine Dill, and Jeffery Lewis from the Monterey Institute acquired satellite imagery that also shows preparations at the site indicative of an upcoming launch.
Iran is not prohibited from launching satellites under the July 14 nuclear deal with the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) or UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which went into effect on Jan. 16, the day that the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 was formally implemented.
Iran’s decision to launch a satellite is not surprising. Tehran has an established space program—it launched four satellites into orbit successfully, the most recent in 2015. All four of these past launches used the Safir space-launch vehicle (SLV), which looks to be a modified Shahab-3 ballistic missile.
For this upcoming launch, Iran may use the Simorgh rocket, a more powerful two-stage SLV. The first stage of the Simorgh is believed to be a cluster of four Shahab-3 rockets, meaning that the more-powerful launch could put a heavier satellite into orbit. Iran recently displayed the Simogh in a parade commemorating the Iranian revolution and news sites have hinted at an upcoming Simorgh launch.
While a Simorgh launch would give Iran information relevant to its ballistic missile development, the Simorgh is not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). To reach the United States, Iran would need to develop a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, estimated at 500 kilograms, over a range of 10,000 kilometers. That range far exceeds the minimum 5,500 kilometer threshold for an ICBM.
Does Iran Even Want an ICBM?
While the Simorgh would have applications for developing an ICBM (range greater than 5,500 kilometers), there are a number of technical challenges that differentiate ICBM’s from SLVs, including a warhead reentry vehicle, and different operational requirements and trajectories.
According to Michael Elleman, an expert on ballistic missiles, neither the United States or the Soviet Union ever converted an SLV into an ICBM. Like Iran converting the Shabab-3 into the Safir SLV, countries are more likely to go from ballistic missiles to SLVs, Elleman says.
There is little hard evidence that Tehran is even pursuing a ballistic missile with an ICBM range. Iranian officials say Tehran intends to focus on its medium-range systems. Iran’s recent testing of Shahab-3 variants with ranges of less than 2,000 kilometers bear that out. Additionally, even if Iran decided to go down the route of developing an ICBM, U.S. officials estimate that it would take Tehran more than a decade to achieve a workable ICBM capability.
Abbas Qaidaari, director of the Defense and Security Studies Department at the Center for Strategic Studies in the Offices of the Iranian President, wrote in a Feb. 11 column for the Atlantic Council that “Iran’s strategic defense plan currently sees no justification” for ranges higher than 2,000-2,3000 kilometers.
Qaidaari said that although Tehran is committed to developing its “deterrent conventional defense capabilities,” it will limit its ballistic missiles to that range.
After the intelligence community long asserted that Iran could test an ICBM by 2015 with “sufficient foreign assistance” revised estimates put such as system as over a decade away.
On July 29, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in congressional testimony that the U.S. government’s Iranian ICBM estimate had been revised. Carter said, “I wouldn’t rule out that in 10 years, Iran could progress to an ICBM.”
Adm. William Gortney, chief of Northern Command, answered for the record a question on the issue from a March 19 congressional hearing with a similar estimate, saying that “Iran will not be able to deploy an operational ICBM until later this decade at the earliest.”
Full implementation of the nuclear agreement also significantly reduced the threat posed by Iran’s missiles because it eliminated their potential to deliver nuclear weapons. If the United States is seriously concerned about Iran’s conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, there are a number of options Washington can take to stem the program.
GAO Assesses IAEA’s Capability to Implement Iran Deal
IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano estimated in August that the enhanced agency role in monitoring and overseeing the Iran deal would cost an additional 9.2 million euros (about $10.1 million) per year. Amano said that the additional costs for fiscal year 2016 would need to be met by extra-budgetary contributions, but for 2017 and beyond funding would be built into the IAEA budget.
The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, which was released Feb. 9, includes an assessed contribution of $101 million for the IAEA and a voluntary contribution of $89.8 million to support a number of IAEA programs, including nuclear safeguards and verification activities. The voluntary contribution request is a $2 million increase over the fiscal year 2016 request.
U.S. and IAEA officials have expressed confidence that the agency will received the extra-budgetary contributions necessary to fund the verification-related work in Iran in 2016.
Some members of Congress, however, remained concerned about the IAEA’s capacity to oversee the Iran deal. At the request of Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the resources available to the IAEA to implement the nuclear deal with Iran. Their preliminary observations are reflected in a February 2016 report.
The GAO’s preliminary observations “indicate that the IAEA has estimated the financial, human, and technical resources necessary to verify Iran’s implementation of nuclear-related commitments” under the deal. The report noted that the IAEA will need an additional $10 million per year, consistent with Amano’s estimate, for 15 years, although over half of this cost will be wrapped into the regular budget after fiscal year 2016. The GAO also reported that the IAEA will transfer 18 experienced inspectors and close to twice that number of other staff members to its Iran team.
The GAO report did identify some potential challenges for the IAEA in implementing the deal. These challenges targeted three areas in particular:
Later this year, the GAO will issue a report with specific recommendations to ensure that the IAEA has the capacities necessary to implement the deal.
While its important to have a clear understanding about the challenges the agency will have in verifying compliance with the JCPOA, it is critical to remember that without the nuclear deal, inspectors would have less access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and key monitoring provisions, such as continuous surveillance on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility, would not be in place. It would behoove Congress and the Administration to take the GAO’s recommendations seriously to ensure that the IAEA has the funding and resources necessary to implement the agreement for the next several decades.
It's Not Just the IAEA Watching Iran
While the IAEA’s capacity to implement the monitoring and verification under the Iran deal is a primary focus of discussion, the national intelligence communities of the United States and other countries will also be keeping a close watch on Iran’s nuclear activities. This provides an extra layer assurance, beyond the multi-layered IAEA inspection and verification regime, that if Iran deviates from the nuclear agreement it will be quickly detected.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper weighed in on the value of the Iran nuclear agreement, appropriately noting that it enhances transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, but cautioning that vigilance and proper implementation are critical moving forward. Clapper’s statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 9 concludes that as a result of the enhanced monitoring and verification the international community “is well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities” and that the deal provides the IAEA with tools to “investigate possible breaches of prohibitions.”
Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan commented last year on the monitoring and verification regime required by the deal and called it “as solid as you can get.” And in January 2014, prior to implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Actin, Clapper commented on the benefits of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and the additional information about Iran’s nuclear program generated from enhanced monitoring.