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“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferatio nof weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
Senator
January 28, 2004
Kelsey Davenport

Nonproliferation Experts Warn Biden on Urgent Need for U.S. Reentry into Iran Nuclear Deal

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For Immediate Release:  January 14, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kelsey Davenport, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 102.

(Washington, D.C.)—As Iran continues to threaten to take further steps in retaliation for Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a group of more than 70 former government officials and leading nuclear nonproliferation experts issued a joint statement today on why "returning the United States to compliance with its JCPOA obligations alongside Iran must be an urgent priority" for the incoming Biden administration.

President Trump withdrew the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions that had been waived as part of the agreement. Iran remained in compliance through May 2019, but since then it has retaliated through calibrated violations of the agreement to pressure the remaining JCPOA parties to meet their commitments.

The experts group writes that "[f]ailure to return to compliance with the nuclear deal increases the likelihood that the JCPOA will collapse," and that there exists only "a short window of opportunity following inauguration day for coordinated diplomatic action to fully restore the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s breaches of the deal are concerning. They also appear to be calibrated responses designed to pressure the remaining JCPOA parties to meet their commitments to deliver on the sanctions relief agreed to in the accord."

The experts note that Iran's "uranium stockpile remains far below the pre-JCPOA levels, and Iran continues to cooperate with the more intrusive verification measures put in place by the accord. Almost all the violations reported to date are reversible."

"Restoration of the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions and its economic benefits for Iran stands the best chance of blocking Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons, providing incentive and encouragement not to do so, and creating space for further diplomacy,” the experts conclude.

"We strongly urge the incoming Biden administration to end the Trump administration’s failed policy of JCPOA withdrawal that has resulted in Iran advancing its nuclear program and undermined global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. We urge all JCPOA parties to meet their respective obligations under the terms of the agreement and all states to support full implementation of the accord,” the experts write.

Signatories of the letter include former IAEA Director-General Hans Blix, two former special representatives to the president of the United States on nonproliferation, and several former high-level officials from the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the State Department, among other agencies.

The full text of the statement and list of signatories is available online.

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Signatories of the letter include a former IAEA director-general, two former special representatives to the president of the United States on nonproliferation, and several former high-level officials from the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the State Department, among other agencies.

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Returning to Progress on Iran


January/February 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

President Joe Biden has a narrow window of opportunity after his inauguration to head off a nuclear crisis with Iran by stabilizing the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and laying the groundwork for future negotiations on the country’s nuclear program.

The U.N. Security Council discusses Iran in 2018. Renewed U.S. support for a key resolution on Iran's nuclear program could help stabilize tensions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Biden expressed his intention to return the United States to compliance with the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Iran does likewise. In a September opinion piece for CNN, Biden wrote that “[i]f Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

This is a logical path forward—more than two years of full implementation of the JCPOA demonstrated its effectiveness and its verifiability. Furthermore, restoring the deal and U.S. credibility is necessary for future negotiations with Iran on a longer-term nuclear framework and regional security, which Biden says is his intention.

Biden, however, will need to move quickly. To date, Iran’s breaches of the accord in response to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement and systematic campaign to deny Tehran any benefits of remaining in the accord have increased the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program, but have been carefully calibrated not to kill the deal.

Yet, a new Iranian law enacted December 28 requires Iran to take a number of more serious steps to accelerate its nuclear program over the course of 2021 that close U.S. allies and parties to the JCPOA—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have warned could collapse the deal. If the deal is no longer viable and the Biden administration has to begin negotiations from scratch, it will have less credibility and less international support than when the JCPOA was negotiated.

To demonstrate that the United States is sincere about returning to the JCPOA and acting in good faith, the Biden administration could consider immediately announcing steps to build confidence with Iran as a return to full compliance with the JCPOA is coordinated. These steps, outlined below, could result in Iran delaying implementation of the December 28 law, thus creating time and space to restore the JCPOA.

Waiving sanctions for cooperative nonproliferation projects outlined in the JCPOA. Taking this step benefits both sides. On the Iranian side, nuclear cooperation is a tangible benefit of the JCPOA, and reinstituting the waivers may make it easier for Iran to return to compliance with the accord. Restoring waivers allowing the country to transfer out enriched uranium and heavy water, for instance, could help facilitate Iran’s adherence to its obligations. On the U.S. side, a number of cooperative projects included in the JPCOA benefit U.S. nonproliferation interests, such as conversion of the Arak reactor to a less proliferation-sensitive model. Renewing the waivers also benefits the remaining parties to the deal because they are required to assist Iran on certain projects, such as Arak and the conversion of the Fordow facility.

Clarifying U.S. support for UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Although the Trump administration’s attempt to snapback UN sanctions on Iran was rebuffed by the Security Council because the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, Trump officials asserted that UN sanctions were reimposed and threatened to sanction any state that did not adhere to them. If the Biden administration were to clearly state that the United States does not view UN sanctions as snapped back and supports Resolution 2231, that would help demonstrate the U.S. commitment to returning to the JCPOA.

Facilitating humanitarian transactions. Humanitarian trade with Iran is exempt from U.S. sanctions, but actions taken by the Trump administration have stymied efforts to facilitate transactions for essential medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. The Biden administration could indicate its support for mechanisms such as the Intrument in Support of Trade Exchanges and Iran's Social Security Investment Co. to process those transactions. Similarly, the United States could drop the U.S. ban on travel to Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the United States and Iran do not need to “negotiate” a return to full compliance with the JCPOA and that both sides can simply take the required steps, but coordination will likely be necessary because neither side likely will want to be perceived as acting unilaterally.

After taking office, the Biden administration could first seek a meeting with its JCPOA allies and then with the full P4+1 (China, France, Germany, the UK, and the European Union) and Iran to discuss the process and sequence of returning to the JCPOA, as well as any issues that might need to be resolved, such as the future status of advanced centrifuges introduced by Iran that are not covered by the JCPOA. The United States and Iran could then agree on a date by which both sides agree to take the steps necessary to return to the deal.

To date, Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA are largely reversible. Although Tehran will have gained some knowledge on advanced centrifuge operations that cannot be undone, Iran could likely reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium to less than 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235, reduce enrichment of uranium to below 3.67 percent, remove excess advanced centrifuges, and halt enrichment activities at the Fordow site within three to four months. Similar to the JCPOA’s implementation day in January 2016, the IAEA could issue a special report on Iran’s nuclear activities that confirms Tehran’s return to the deal’s limits.

In coordination with the release of the IAEA report, the Biden administration could waive sanctions as required under the JCPOA. This may be more advantageous than trying to coordinate an action-for-action approach that draws out a return to full implementation, thus increasing the risk of spoilers.

To coordinate a return to compliance and the strategy for further negotiations, the Biden administration could also:

  • Seek consensus among the P5+1 and Iran to meet within the next several months, perhaps after Iran’s next president takes office in August 2021, to begin negotiations on a longer-term framework to address Iran’s nuclear program after certain JCPOA limits expire or a regional approach to limit certain nuclear activities. This approach could include a commitment to pursue separate tracks of negotiations on other areas of mutual concern, such as regional stability.
  • Reconstitute the office in the Department of State to oversee JCPOA implementation and coordinate with the Department of the Treasury on the process for waiving the sanctions necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA. Given opposition in Congress to the JCPOA, this office could commit to hold briefings for Congress to discuss the Biden administration’s strategy for follow-up negotiations and garner congressional input on a longer-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program and regional security discussions.
  • Take regional nuclear developments into account when considering options for the longer-term framework on Iran’s nuclear activities. With activities and rhetoric from Saudi Arabia indicating that Riyadh may seek to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities and a rising interest in nuclear power in the region, the Biden administration should develop a regional approach to address Iran’s nuclear activities in the long term in addition to or instead of a multilateral agreement that builds on the JCPOA. Pursuing regional restrictions may be more amenable to Tehran and could complement efforts under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Despite bipartisan agreement that it is in the U.S. national security interest to prevent Iran from acquiring the means to build nuclear weapons, Biden’s plan to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA already faces significant opposition. Even supporters of the JCPOA have argued that Biden should use the leverage generated by the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign to pressure Tehran into accepting further limits on its nuclear program.

Despite the significant toll that the reimposed sanctions have had on Iran’s economy, U.S. leverage is limited. By withdrawing from an agreement to which Iran was adhering and that enjoyed broad international support, including from close U.S. allies, the Trump administration significantly damaged U.S. credibility. Returning to the JCPOA is a necessary step to demonstrate U.S. good faith and lay the groundwork for future negotiations.

Arguably, the United States also has significant leverage if it returns to the JCPOA. Full implementation of the JCPOA demonstrated that Iran’s economic growth will remain limited so long as U.S. primary sanctions remain in place. Returning to the JCPOA and restoring U.S. credibility gives the United States leverage to negotiate further limits in exchange for additional sanctions relief.


Kelsey Davenport is director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

President Joe Biden has a narrow window of opportunity after his inauguration to head off a nuclear crisis with Iran by stabilizing the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and laying the groundwork for future negotiations on the country’s nuclear program.

Iran Enriches Uranium to Higher Levels


January/February 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran began enriching uranium to a higher purity level in January, despite warnings from European countries that taking such a step would jeopardize efforts to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced on Jan. 11 that Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent "quite rapidly." (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiyee said on Jan. 4 that “the process of [uranium] gas injection started” at the Fordow facility and that the first “product will come out within a few hours.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that same day that Iran began enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent uranium-235 at the Fordow facility and had notified the agency of its intention to do so in advance, consistent with its past breaches.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on Jan. 11 that Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent was proceeding “quite rapidly” and could likely produce about 10 kilograms of uranium enriched to that level every month.

Enriching uranium to 20 percent is a significant violation of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limits Iran to uranium enrichment up to 3.67 percent U-235. Iran breached that restriction slightly beginning in July 2019, when it ratcheted up enrichment to 4.5 percent U-235 in response to the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

A law enacted on Dec. 28 mandated that Iran produce 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent every year. The bill passed despite the objections of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who described it as narrowing the space for future diplomacy.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a statement Dec. 7 warning Iran against following through on the activities specified in the nuclear law, saying that if Tehran “is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps.”

They said such action “would jeopardize our shared efforts to preserve the JCPOA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming U.S. administration.”

Iran produced 20 percent-enriched uranium prior to negotiations on the JCPOA. Under the deal, Iran is prohibited from enrichment activities at Fordow and is limited to enriching uranium to 3.67 percent for 15 years. Twenty percent-enriched uranium poses a more significant proliferation risk because it constitutes about 90 percent of the required work to enrich uranium to weapons grade, which is uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent U-235.

Despite the move, officials in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, continue to signal that Tehran is open to returning to compliance with the accord if the United States does likewise. Khamenei said on Dec. 16 that Iran “should not hesitate for even an hour” if sanctions can be lifted in a “correct, wise” manner.

The law does say that the required actions can be suspended if certain sanctions relief envisioned by the nuclear deal is granted.

U.S. President Joe Biden has made clear his intention to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA, alongside Iran. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

In a Dec. 2 interview with The New York Times, Biden reaffirmed his intention to return the United States to the JCPOA if Iran adheres to its obligations. He said the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program” first.

Biden’s plan to rejoin the JCPOA and use it as a basis for further diplomacy with Iran differs significantly from the Trump administration’s approach, which relied on sanctions pressure to try and push Iran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Iran’s nuclear law in a Dec. 11 statement, describing it as a “ploy to use its nuclear program to try to intimidate the international community.” He said countries “must not reward the regime’s dangerous gamesmanship with economic appeasement.”

The law would also require Iran to halt implementation of the more intrusive inspections in the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, enrich uranium using at least 1,000 advanced IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz facility within three months, complete the Arak heavy-water reactor, construct a new heavy-water reactor, and inaugurate a uranium-metal facility within five months.

Iran notified the IAEA on Dec. 2 that it intends to install additional advanced IR-2 centrifuges at Natanz.

Despite passage of the legislation, Iran in a Dec. 21 joint statement with the remaining parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the EU) reiterated that the “full and effective implementation of the JCPOA by all remains crucial.”

The statement, which was released after a ministerial meeting of the Joint Commission, the body set up to oversee implementation of the JCPOA, “acknowledged the prospect of a return” of the United States to the JCPOA and “underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort.”

Iran has begun to produce 20 percent-enriched uranium, significantly reducing the work needed to make nuclear weapons material.

Iran Passes Nuclear Law

Iran Passes Nuclear Law Iran’s parliament and Guardian Council passed legislation Dec. 2 requiring Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its nuclear activities in 60 days if certain sanctions relief measures are not met. The Nov. 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, regarded as among Iran’s top nuclear scientists, likely accelerated the legislation. The legislation, which is expected to become law in the coming days, will require the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to cease implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement 60 days after enactment if certain...

Biden Victory May Save Iran Nuclear Deal


December 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election increases the likelihood that the United States and Iran will quickly return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but Tehran says any formal U.S. reentry into the deal will need to be negotiated.

Vice President Joe Biden visits members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. As president, he may seek to reverse the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, but the agreement does not contain provisions for such a move. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed sanctions on Iran. (See ACT, June 2018.) Iran was abiding by the agreement’s nuclear restrictions at that time, but took steps beginning one year later to breach certain JCPOA’s limits in response to the U.S. sanctions campaign. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Although the Trump administration claimed its maximum pressure campaign was designed to push Iran to negotiate a new deal that addressed Tehran’s nuclear program and a range of other activities, Biden has stated a clear preference for restoring the JCPOA.

In a Sept. 13 CNN commentary, Biden wrote that “[i]f Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Iranian officials have rejected Trump’s push for negotiations on a new deal, but have said consistently that if Washington returns to full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, Iran will do likewise.

After Biden was projected the winner of the election, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran “has always adhered to its commitments when all sides responsibly implement” their JCPOA obligations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered more detail on the Iranian position on Nov. 17, saying that a return to full implementation by the United States and Iran can be “done automatically” and “needs no negotiations.” However, Zarif said that if the United States wants to rejoin the JCPOA, Iran will be “ready to negotiate how” Washington can reenter. U.S. reentry, however, is “not a priority,” Zarif said.

The nuclear deal does not contain any provisions detailing what, if any, steps a state must take to rejoin the deal.

Zarif’s comments appeared to imply that Iran would be satisfied in the short term with Washington and Tehran fully implementing their obligations under the JCPOA without the United States being a state party and that Iran may try to impose conditions to a formal U.S. return.

Formally rejoining the JCPOA would give the United States certain privileges, such as participating in meetings of the Joint Commission, which oversees the agreement’s implementation, and having the power under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 to unilaterally trigger a reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran in the event of a violation.

Zarif’s comment about negotiating a return to the JCPOA may be motivated in part by concern that the United States would abuse the UN snapback privilege in the future. The Trump administration attempted to snap back sanctions on Iran earlier this year, despite having withdrawn from the JCPOA, but was opposed because the United States was no longer a participant in the nuclear deal. (See ACT, November 2020.)

It appears that each Biden and Rouhani have the authority to return their respective countries to compliance with the JCPOA, but some of the details and determining the sequencing may pose challenges.

For the United States to return to full compliance with the accord, the Biden administration would need to waive sanctions reimposed when Trump withdrew from the accord and determine if any of the additional sanctions imposed on Iran since May 2018 should be waived.

Iranian officials have called for all of the sanctions put in place by Trump since May 2018 to be lifted, including those imposed for non-nuclear issues, such as support for terrorism.

Nothing in the JCPOA prohibits the United States from imposing sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear activities, but Trump administration officials have indicated that some of these sanctions were put in place to complicate any future return to the JCPOA, suggesting that some of the designations may not have been made in good faith.

Despite this, the Biden administration may face opposition from Congress if it lifts designations on individuals and entities sanctioned under executive orders designed to prevent terrorism, for example.

The Biden administration may also need to make clear that it views Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and helps implement it, as intact. The Trump administration attempted to use a provision in Resolution 2231 to reimpose all prior UN sanctions on Tehran lifted as a result of the JCPOA in order to prevent the UN arms embargo on Iran from expiring in October. While Security Council members rejected the U.S. argument that it was entitled to snap back the UN sanctions, the Trump administration maintains that the measures were reimposed.

Rouhani appears to have support from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to return to compliance with the JCPOA, if the United States does likewise.

Saeed Khatizbadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, summarized Khamenei’s thinking about the future of the nuclear deal, noting that the United States must accept that it made mistakes, end its “economic warfare” against Iran, “implement [its] commitments” and then “compensate for the damages.” It is not clear what compensation Iran will seek, but the order of Khamenei’s steps and Zarif’s comments suggest that Tehran may seek compensation in the negotiations over U.S. reentry into the JCPOA, rather than as a condition for returning to compliance.

For Iran to return to compliance it will need to reverse its violations of the JCPOA. Most of the steps necessary could be accomplished quickly and must include shipping out or blending down uranium enriched in excess of the JCPOA’s limit on 300 kilograms of uranium-235 gas enriched to 3.67 percent, halting enrichment above 3.67 percent, halting enrichment at Fordow and removing all uranium from that location, and dismantling advanced centrifuges installed and operating in excess of JCPOA limits.

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Axios on Oct. 30 that Iran could take those steps in about four months.

A potentially more challenging question is how to address new advanced centrifuges Iran installed over the past year that are not covered by the JCPOA. The JCPOA allows Iran to introduce new centrifuges with permission of the Joint Commission, the body that oversees implementation of the JCPOA, but Iran did not seek such approval.

It is unclear if the parties to the JCPOA will ask Iran to dismantle the new machines or if Iran will be permitted to test them in restricted numbers.

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated his support for the 2015 nuclear deal, but going back may be complicated.

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