Biden Administration JCPOA hopes fading?

Jul 17, 2021 | AIJAC staff

Map of the main sites of Iran's nuclear program (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Map of the main sites of Iran's nuclear program (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Update from AIJAC

07/21 #03

This Update is devoted to analysis of reports that the US Biden Administration may be coming to the conclusion that its declared policy of restoring the 2015 JCPOA (“Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) nuclear deal with Iran, and then negotiating a “longer and stronger” agreement, may not be achievable – and the reasons why.

These doubts have been strengthened by recent reports Iran has ruled out any additional nuclear talks until after hardline new President Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August, while Teheran continues to escalate violations of the JCPOA”s terms in the meantime, as discussed below. Of especial concern are Iranian plans to make enriched uranium metal plates, a key component of nuclear weapons, which drew widespread condemnation.

We lead with a report from Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams on these reported doubts within the Administration and what different Washington experts are saying about the situation. Some experts cited stress that recent Iranian moves in violation of the JCPOA are essentially irreversible, and simply returning to the JCPOA cannot put Iran’s nuclear program “back in a box.” Others note that the selection of Raisi as Iran’s President had put paid to any hopes that a JCPOA return would open the way for the better, more comprehensive deal the Biden Administration has pledged to seek. For all the vital details, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Israeli academic expert Oded Brosh reviews all the findings of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports into Iran’s nuclear program. Brosh notes that those reports show not only an escalating pattern of nuclear violations, but that IAEA ability to monitor those violations has been rapidly eroding in the face of new Iranian restrictions. He says that IAEA monitoring in Iran may soon become effectively worthless, and Iran appears to be moving toward a nuclear weapon swiftly and with determination. For all the details of his analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, former senior US officials Anthony Ruggiero and Richard Goldberg argue that Biden Administration mistakes are being exposed in Iran’s recent rapid nuclear escalation, and the limited options to stop it. In particular, they focus on the failure of the IAEA Board of Governors to condemn Iran’s blatant violations at its meeting in March out of US and European hope that this forbearance would keep Iran in the negotiations over the JCPOA. Ruggiero and Goldberg note that this decision allowed Iran to not only continue violating the JCPOA, but also to break key commitments made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They also suggest some measures to take now to help correct this error, and to read it all,  CLICK HERE.

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U.S. Frets That Time Is Running Out to Revive Iran Nuclear Deal

By Nick Wadhams

Bloomberg, July 9, 2021

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi outside the Bushehr Nuclear Plant. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

President Joe Biden’s team is beginning to grapple with the possibility that the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran he promised to revive may soon be beyond saving.

Hopes for a quick re-entry to the accord that Donald Trump abandoned have dimmed after six rounds of negotiations in Vienna, with little sign of when a seventh might start. The stalemate is compounded by Iran’s technological advances and the election of a new hard-line president, raising doubt about whether the agreement reached in 2015 would be sufficient to constrain the country’s nuclear ambitions anymore.

This week provided another example of just how far Iran has advanced in the three years since then-President Trump renounced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 and began his “maximum pressure” campaign with its array of sanctions. On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has taken steps to make metal fuel plates with uranium it has enriched to 20% purity. That’s banned by its deal with world powers and marks a significant step toward production of a nuclear bomb.

The more knowledge Iran gains, “the more difficult it becomes to ensure that the JCPOA can be the same bulwark against nuclear weapons development as it was in 2015,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation at the Arms Control Association. “It’s a dangerous game. Iran is putting the Vienna talks at risk by pursuing nuclear activities that cannot be fully reversed.”

Arms control expert Kelsey Davenport: Iran is pursuing nuclear activities that cannot be fully reversed (Photo: Twitter). 

The election of Ebrahim Raisi as president in June also makes it more difficult: A key strategy for the U.S. has been to rejoin the accord and then reach what it calls a “longer and stronger” deal addressing issues such as extending restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, some of which are set to expire as soon as 2025. The U.S. also would seek to open negotiations to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for groups the U.S. considers terrorists.

Raisi has made clear that his government, which will take office in August, will entertain no such discussions.

“That illusion is gone now,” said Richard Goldberg, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposes the nuclear accord. “It’s been taken away by Raisi.”

‘Breakout’ Time

Iran would receive some clear benefits from finding a way to get back into the JCPOA with the U.S.: the end of many punishing sanctions that hobbled its economy, before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The harshest restriction was the effective ban on the legal sale of oil abroad, once Tehran’s biggest source of external revenue.

But three years in, Iran’s government has managed to weather those sanctions, as well as other crises such as its own military’s downing of a passenger plane following the U.S. killing of a top general early last year.

Hovering over the efforts to revive the old deal is a fundamental question: A central goal of the 2015 agreement was to constrain Iran’s nuclear program tightly enough that it would need a full year to build a bomb if it chose to “break out” of the accord. But if Iran already has gained the ability to produce a bomb in a few months, and eventually a few weeks, is there any point in trying to get back into the deal?

Even as Iranian leaders insist they have no intention of building a bomb, they have booted out many international inspectors and are developing centrifuges that can enrich uranium 50 times faster than previously. Its nuclear “breakout” time has shrunk to “perhaps a few months,” according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.

“We are conscious that as time proceeds Iran’s nuclear advances will have a bearing on the view of returning to the JCPOA,” Price told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday. “One of the chief advantages of the JCPOA was the elongation of that breakout time. If those advantages start to disappear, we’ll have to reassess where we are in this process.”

That’s forced some creative thinking, according to one person familiar with the matter. One idea is to require Iran to store its most advanced centrifuges under IAEA seal until the accord permits them to be used in 2025 under the deal’s “sunset” provisions.

Another idea is for Iran to reduce the number of centrifuges it has. People familiar with the matter say those technical talks have gone on while the broader negotiations take place.

But skeptics of the deal — including Republicans and some Democrats in the U.S. Congress — have long argued that the accord at best simply delayed Iran’s nuclear program.

“Much has unfolded since the 2015 Iran nuclear deal,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. “The world is a different place.”

Lost Cause

Now, denying Iran the technology to build a bomb may be a lost cause.

“That ship has sailed — Iran today is in possession of nuclear weapons-grade material and advanced centrifuges” said Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Anybody who thinks that getting back to the JCPOA puts Iran’s nuclear program back in a box has no precise understanding of the box.”

Ray Takeyh, Iran expert at the US Council on Foreign Relations: “Anybody who thinks that getting back to the JCPOA puts Iran’s nuclear program back in a box has no precise understanding of the box.”

There’s also the knowledge on both sides that any accord reached now could be fleeting anyhow. If a Republican wins the White House in 2024, a revived deal would probably be scrapped again. That’s resulted in short-term thinking on both sides, trying to extract gains now and leave the future to resolve itself later.

For now, though, there simply may be no other choice. Biden administration officials remain determined not to adhere to the Trump approach of provocation heaped on provocation. They are looking for some way to ease the tension and get back into a nonproliferation deal.

And they still argue that, for all its flaws, the JCPOA remains powerful. According to one person familiar with the U.S. team’s negotiating stance, returning to the deal would have nonproliferation benefits — at least for the time being.

“The approach reconstituting what we had and then trying to make as much progress after that is the right way to proceed — I really don’t see any other alternative,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s important to look at the JCPOA not only as a sound nonproliferation agreement but also as a mechanism for de-escalation.”’

— With assistance by Golnar Motevalli, Jonathan Tirone, and David Wainer.

IAEA Inspection Reports Mostly Bad News

By Oded Brosh

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 2,091,

July 8, 2021

IAEA reports indicate a continuing escalation in prohibited nuclear activities by Iran. (Photo credit: grynold. Shutterstock.com)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The latest IAEA inspection reports on Iran show a continued escalation in a wide array of nuclear activities prohibited by the JCPOA, including accumulation of enriched uranium in quantities that exceed the limits set in the agreement as well as increasing levels of enrichment. Moreover, the reports complain that the Iranian regime is constantly hindering the Agency’s verification measures, leading to an ever more significant decline in its ability to ascertain and report on the details of Iran’s nuclear activities. The IAEA’s access, already limited, was further curtailed on June 24, when temporary agreements reached by the Agency with Iran expired. In the background is the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential election and the ascendance of a more extremist government than that of Rouhani.

On June 9, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a series of reports by the Secretary-General dated April and May 2021 on Iran’s nuclear activities. Most are short notifications about Iran’s increasing use of advanced centrifuges and increasing levels of enrichment, both of which are prohibited by the JCPOA.

The most important of the reports issued is the detailed quarterly report, dated May 31, which discusses all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program with special emphasis on uranium enrichment activities and facilities. It shows that while the production of low enriched uranium at the Natanz FEP (fuel enrichment plant) appears to have been curtailed by about half—probably due to the “accident” in early April—most of Iran’s other activities are increasingly worrying.

Iran’s current stock of low enriched uranium at the 5% level is almost 1,800 kilograms, about six times the 300 kilograms allowed by the JCPOA and slightly above the 3.67% enrichment level that it permits. In addition, there are another 1,300+ kilograms of uranium enriched to the 2% level. While that might seem insignificant on the face of it, it brings Iran’s total quantity of enriched uranium to more than 3,200 kilograms, or more than 10 times what is allowed by the JCPOA.

It is true that the 1,800 kilograms of 5% enriched uranium are only about a sixth of the quantity that was in Iran’s possession on the eve of the implementation of the JCPOA in 2015, but this is not particularly reassuring. At the Natanz facility, the Iranians are in the process of installing and deploying for use more and more advanced centrifuges, the IR-2m and the IR-4, for the enrichment of uranium. This activity is not permitted by the JCPOA during the first 10 years’ duration of the agreement; i.e., until 2026 (this is in addition to replacing damaged IR-1 centrifuges, which is allowed).

There is more mostly bad news about the PFEP (Iran’s above-ground pilot fuel enrichment plant), which was not affected by the April incident. At that facility, the Iranians are using advanced IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges to enrich uranium to the 60% level. The quantity enriched so far is only about two kilograms, which is not yet significant per se—but this activity is prohibited by the JCPOA for the first 10 years other than for R&D.

It would appear that at least in its first phase, this step was taken as a provocation in response to the sabotage at the FEP, as well as to increase pressure on the Biden administration in the ongoing negotiations to hurry up and capitulate to Iranian demands before the situation worsens. The 60% level is very near the level of highly enriched uranium (HEU) required for nuclear weapons, and is therefore alarming.

The Fordow facility (FFEP, or Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant), which is located inside a mountain on an IRGC military reservation, is continuing to produce 20% enriched uranium (as well as 5% enriched uranium). According to the report, Iran has produced about 60 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium so far (current to May 24; since then more may have been produced). This would be about a fifth the quantity in Iran’s possession on the eve of the October 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPA) interim agreement, in which Iran agreed to cease enrichment to the 20% level and dispose of its existing stockpile. It did both in the ensuing months, using about half to produce fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and downblending the other half into natural uranium oxides.

The accumulation of significant stocks of 20% enriched uranium is an ominous milestone on Iran’s path to producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons. Moreover, it should be noted that the Fordow facility was allowed by the JCPOA to continue operations with the explicit understanding and stipulation that it no longer be used to enrich uranium, and that the small number of IR-1 centrifuges allowed to remain would be converted to civilian use with Russian assistance.

The Fordow facility is now using prohibited types of centrifuges to engage in prohibited enrichment to prohibited levels. The fact that Fordow was allowed by the JCPOA to continue to exist rather than be closed down and dismantled is telling. It is now clear why Iran insisted on its preservation as an indispensable part of the agreement.

Another disconcerting aspect of the IAEA report is the theme of frustration, and the long list of substantive complaints, about Iran’s increasing undermining of verification, transparency, and access, and its evasiveness at providing the Agency with information requested regarding suspect sites. The latter was always part of the IAEA’s quarterly reports, but this is now extending to more and more sites, including those that were previously accessible to Agency’s IAEA inspectors.

Iran is also increasing its restrictions on the ongoing monitoring of the enrichment facilities in such a way that the IAEA is reduced to estimating the quantities of the various stockpiles of enriched uranium. The report states that at this stage it is confident that these estimates are reliable as they correlate with verified findings, but intimates that this may not be the case in the future.

Over the past three months, Iran has increasingly restricted IAEA access, and the temporary extensions (or what remained of them) expired on June 24. The IAEA’s verification access is so eroded that it is becoming essentially worthless. At the Agency, work is ongoing to agree with Iran to an arrangement that will facilitate some kind of continued access in parallel to the continuing negotiations to renew adherence to the JCPOA.

The selection of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new President bodes poorly for hopes that the IAEA will be able to restore credible monitoring of Iranian nuclear activities (Photo:  Wikimedia Commons | License details). 

It is not clear what position the new government in Tehran will take after the installation of the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and his government, which will take place on August 3. There is no doubt that it will be more radical than Rouhani’s and more in line with the extremist position of the Supreme Leader, the IRGC, and the other hard-line factions of the regime. It will be interesting to see whether Russia and the European partners to the JCPOA are able to successfully exert pressure on Iran to at least continue to enable IAEA monitoring of some of the crucial elements of the nuclear program, such as uranium enrichment.

The bottom line is the question of how far Iran now is from the ability to manufacture its first nuclear weapon.

According to the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, a worst-case analysis would put Iran at two to three months from the capacity (given that a decision to do so has been made) to produce enough weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon. the Institute assesses that had the April incident not taken place, Iran would be less than two months away from this capacity.

But the Institute emphasizes that this is a worst-case scenario, and that most assessments are less dire. Still, Iran is evidently, barring a return to the JCPOA commitments, moving forward toward a nuclear weapon relatively swiftly and with determination, and will continue to do so unless other events like the April incident slow it down. The coming months will inevitably see a series of crises in which the Biden administration, the new Israeli government, important Western European leaders, and perhaps others on the regional or international scene will be heavily invested.

Oded Brosh is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, IDC Herzliya.

Iran’s Latest Nuclear Escalation Exposes Biden’s Failed Iran Policy

Anthony Ruggiero and Richard Goldberg

FDD Policy Brief, July 8

IAEA Head Rafael Grossi: Warning about Iran’s new steps to turn enriched uranium into uranium metal (Photo: IAEA.org). 

Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Tuesday informed the IAEA Board of Governors that Iran will use indigenously enriched uranium to produce uranium metal. This is the latest nuclear provocation from Tehran as the Biden administration offers to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and lift economic sanctions.

The Islamic Republic informed the IAEA that it would convert into uranium metal some of the 20 percent-enriched uranium-235 that it began producing in January, which Tehran would then use to make fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Iran’s actions are a transparent attempt to manufacture a justification for its increased uranium enrichment activities and its previously announced production of uranium metal. Both activities develop crucial knowledge that Tehran can use in a nuclear weapons program.

The E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) were disturbed by this development and issued a strong statement that called Tehran’s actions a “serious violation of Iran’s [JCPOA] commitments.” The group also noted that the Islamic Republic has “no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price called Tehran’s actions “another unfortunate step backwards for Iran.”

Iran also curtailed the IAEA’s monitoring of Tehran’s nuclear program when it did not extend an IAEA-Iran access agreement brokered in May. The Islamic Republic, meanwhile, has reportedly restricted IAEA inspectors’ access to its main enrichment plant while refusing to resolve outstanding IAEA questions about undeclared nuclear activities at several facilities in Iran. Importantly, Iran’s failure to comply with IAEA safeguards investigations constitutes a material breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — something that would not be resolved by rejoining the JCPOA.

Unfortunately, these developments were predictable when the E3 and the Biden administration decided to accommodate Iran’s stonewalling of the IAEA during the March 2021 IAEA Board of Governors meeting. The appropriate response would have been a resolution condemning Iran’s refusal to answer the agency’s legitimate questions. But the efforts to return to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal took precedence and, in the process, the E3 and United States signaled that the IAEA safeguards mission was a secondary priority.

These concessions weakened Grossi’s standing and made it more difficult for him to get Tehran to cooperate. Furthermore, the United States and E3 have perversely incentivized the director general to avoid disputes with Iran — instilling a fear inside the agency that a confrontation could be blamed for any failure to revive the JCPOA — which gives Iran greater latitude to extort the IAEA. Time will tell if the E3 and the United States have irreparably harmed the IAEA’s integrity, but they have likely weakened safeguards beyond the Iran case.

To address Iran’s latest violation, the E3 and United States should immediately call for a special Board of Governors meeting. The E3 statement hints that their patience is waning. However, by proposing the lifting of sanctions on Iran as a solution to this crisis rather than insisting on accountability at the IAEA board, the group signals weakness to Tehran.

By letting blatant Iranian violations slide at the March 2021 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, the US and Europeans effectively signalled to Iran that it could commit further violations with impunity (Photo: IAEA.org). 

A special Board of Governors meeting would be an opportunity to adopt a resolution that reinforces the board’s confidence in Grossi, condemns Iran’s nuclear escalation, and reaffirms that concerns related to Iran’s compliance with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement remain separate from any negotiated return to the flawed 2015 deal.

The Biden administration and America’s E3 partners made a serious mistake by appeasing Iran’s nuclear extortion under the misguided notion that Tehran would moderate its behavior following concessions. JCPOA proponents now know that the Islamic Republic is determined to proceed with its nuclear program and will exploit any weakness. The Biden administration should restore its leverage and deal with the incoming Raisi administration from a position of strength.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor. Anthony previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. Richard previously served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the National Security Council. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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