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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
Senator
January 28, 2004
Julia Masterson

Parties Make Progress on Iran Deal Restoration

The United States, Iran, and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal expressed varying degrees of optimism over the progress made during recent talks in Vienna on the necessary steps to restore full implementation of the accord. The parties met April 15-20 and are set to return to Vienna next week for further discussions on the steps necessary to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States and Iran are still not talking directly, which has slowed the process, but EU political...

North Korea Policy Review Nears Completion

The Biden administration is wrapping up its North Korea policy review, which is expected to be completed within the coming weeks. The review could mark a shift in Washington’s posture toward diplomacy with Pyongyang that diverges from those of previous administrations, including from his immediate predecessor Donald Trump. When asked whether President Joe Biden’s approach to North Korea would include meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as former President Trump did on several occasions, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said , “I think his approach would be quite different and...

Biden’s North Korea Policy Review: Toward a More Effective Strategy

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Volume 13, Issue 2, April 13, 2021

When former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the outgoing Obama administration warned that North Korea's nuclear program posed one of the most significant security challenges facing the United States. Four years later, the threat has grown.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at their 2019 summit in Hanoi. Two decades of diplomacy, ranging from multilateral negotiations to high-level personal talks, have failed to meaningfully curb North Korea's nuclear weapons development. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Trump’s approach toward North Korea got off to a rough start with exchanges of fiery rhetoric and military threats, followed by high-profile summits that failed to produce lasting results or an effective negotiating process for denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula. In the absence of meaningful diplomatic progress, North Korea has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile arsenals and it remains one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous proliferation challenges.

During his presidential campaign, President Joe Biden criticized Trump’s approach to diplomacy, including his decision to meet directly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” and “to offer an alternative vision for a non-nuclear future to Kim and the people of North Korea.”

Since taking office January 20, the new administration has been conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. To date, key officials have offered few details about their strategy beyond reiterating that denuclearization will remain the end goal and that the United States intends to work closely with allies.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty ImagesThe administration’s North Korea policy review is a critical opportunity to forge a more effective U.S. approach toward the long-running effort to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear progress and reduce the risks of a major conflict. The Biden administration’s policy should take into account the positive and negative lessons from the Trump era as the United States seeks to work with regional allies and the international community to move closer to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Building on the twin goals of denuclearization and peace established by Trump and Kim, Biden should adopt a more pragmatic, step-for-step approach that involves concrete actions on denuclearization in exchange for corresponding measures that address regional security dynamics and sanctions relief for North Korea.

North Korea’s Advancing Nuclear Weapons Program

During the first year of Trump’s presidency, North Korea accelerated its long-range missile testing, introducing three new systems: the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) tested six times (three tests failed), the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), tested twice, and the Hwasong-15, an ICBM tested once. The Hwasong-15 is powerful enough to deliver a nuclear warhead to the entirety of the continental United States, although the accuracy, reliability, and survivability of the warhead during reentry remain questionable after just one test.

North Korea also tested its largest yield warhead—likely a two-stage hydrogen bomb—in September 2017. Since then, North Korea has not conducted any nuclear tests and did take steps as part of its diplomatic overture to the United States to destroy testing tunnels at the Punggye-ri test site in 2018. It is not clear if, or how quickly, North Korea could rebuild that nuclear test site, or if another exists.

There is considerable uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material, but it has likely grown over the past four years. In 2017, North Korea's stockpile was estimated to include 20-40 kilograms of separated plutonium and about 250-500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to Stanford physicist Sig Hecker, who visited North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon in 2010. Leaked U.S. and South Korean assessments put the HEU stockpile close to 750 kilograms in 2017. According to a 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, North Korea’s stockpile of weapons-usable material is enough for up to 60 warheads but Pyongyang has likely only assembled around 20-30 nuclear devices. Satellite imagery suggests continued activity at the uranium enrichment facility and intermittent operations the five-megawatt reactor during the past several years, which was used to produce plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons, at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, suggesting that North Korea continues to produce fissile material. 

Following a spate of testing and increased U.S.-North Korea tensions in 2017, Kim claimed in his 2018 New Year’s address that North Korea’s nuclear forces are “capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States” and announced that North Korea would mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for deployment. He also opened the door for diplomacy with South Korea and later the United States—perhaps assessing that recent long-range missile tests would give him greater leverage in negotiations.

As part of the diplomatic overture, Kim declared an official testing moratorium for long-range missiles and nuclear explosive devices from April 2018. While that moratorium ended in December 2020, the country has not since tested any nuclear devices or long-range systems. North Korea resumed short-range ballistic missile testing in May 2020, after talks with the United States appeared to stall.

Since then, Pyongyang has introduced and tested several new short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea also displayed a new ICBM during an October 2020 parade that is larger than the Hwasong-15 and introduced two new ballistic missiles likely designed for a submarine, one during the October 2020 parade and one in January 2021. Kim also said in December 2020 that the country intends to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, indicating that North Korea will continue refining and developing new nuclear capabilities to meet the perceived security threats.

Lessons Learned from Trump-Kim Diplomacy

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs expanded significantly during the Trump presidency, the diplomatic exchanges between Trump and Kim offer critical insights into North Korea’s approach to negotiations and what the country may be willing to put on the table in future talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they sit down with their respective delegations for the U.S.-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore, June 12, 2018.  (Photo:  Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)During his time in office, Trump met with Kim three times: first in Singapore in June 2018, then in Hanoi in February 2019, and briefly at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in June 2020. Although tension eased and North Korea has refrained from further long-range ballistic missile flight testing and nuclear testing since 2018, these summits, and the intermittent rounds of working-level talks between the leader-to-leader meetings, did not yield any sustained progress toward achieving the goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the peninsula. The United States did, however, gain further insights into North Korea’s negotiating position that should be useful for future diplomatic efforts.

During the first summit, Trump and Kim signed a four-point Joint Statement, whereby the United States and North Korea agreed to establish new bilateral relations, build a “lasting and stable” peace regime, work toward complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and recover the remains of soldiers missing in action. Trump also unilaterally announced additional commitments in a news conference that day, including the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

While the Singapore summit established the broad parameters and goals of the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic negotiations, it soon became apparent that Washington and Pyongyang preferred different processes to make progress. North Korea expressed a preference for a step-by-step approach, whereas the Trump administration appeared most focused on denuclearization and wanted North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program before any sanctions were lifted. The two parties also did not share the same understanding of the agreed-upon goals, including what constitutes denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The differing interpretations over the processes and goals were compounded by mixed messaging and failure on both sides to sufficiently empower their negotiating teams. Despite the lack of progress and concrete action, Trump and Kim met for their second summit in Hanoi with cautious expectations for progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

In what appeared to have been a shift in the U.S. position, Steve Beigun, former deputy secretary of state and the U.S. special representative for North Korea, stated ahead of the second summit that the United States was prepared to move step-by-step with North Korea toward denuclearization while promoting peace on the peninsula.

Despite that shift, the Hanoi summit ended early and without agreement on subsequent steps. In a debrief of the meeting, Trump and Pompeo shared that the two sides had made progress, but said Trump rejected Kim’s call for sanctions to be entirely lifted in exchange for partial denuclearization. Pompeo remarked that Kim was “unprepared” to do more.

Countering the U.S. account of the meeting, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho stated that North Korea had requested the partial removal of sanctions in exchange for a permanent halt of nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the full, verifiable, dismantlement of facilities at North Korea’s primary Yongbyon nuclear complex. Trump reportedly demanded “one more thing” atop North Korea’s proposal, which some have speculated could have been a facility outside of Yongbyon that is part of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.

In April, Trump remarked that while he preferred a “big deal” with North Korea to “get rid of the nuclear weapons,” the door for “various small deals” remained open. Kim told the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly April 12 that he would be willing to meet with Trump “one more time” if Washington proposed the summit, but said the United States would have to have the “right stance” and “methodology.” He called for Trump to “lay down unilateral requirements and seek constructive solutions.”

Trump and Kim met briefly one final time in June 2019 at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and agreed to restart working-level negotiations. Following that meeting, in September 2019, North Korea’s First Vice Minister Choe Son Hui issued a statement suggesting that North Korea was interested in continuing talks, provided that the United States offered “a proposal geared to the interests of the DPRK and the U.S.” Trump remarked shortly thereafter that he was open to a “new method” for talks with North Korea, suggesting a softening of the U.S. stance toward sanctions relief.

Working-level talks began in October 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden, and ended shortly thereafter. Ahead of the meeting, North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil praised Trump for taking a more flexible approach and suggested that “second thought” be given to the possibility of a “step by step solution starting with the things feasible first while building trust in each other,” likely referring to North Korea’s preference for an incremental approach that exchanges steps on denuclearization for actions by the United States to lift sanctions and address Pyongyang’s security concerns. After talks commenced, however, he said the U.S. came with “empty-handed” proposals that “greatly disappointed [the North Korean delegation] and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”

Trump administration reportedly offered North Korea time-bound, limited sanctions relief in exchange for concrete, verifiable steps to halt activities at Yongbyon during the meeting, but talks fell apart on the second day and North Korea did not accept the invitation to resume negotiations. Kim said the U.S. position demonstrated the United States’ unwillingness to “solve the issue”

Nearly two years of off-and-on summit diplomacy between the United States and North Korea were ultimately unsuccessful in leading to concrete action to advance the goals agreed to in Singapore. Disagreements over sequencing, particularly if and when sanctions relief should be offered, and the scope of each sides’ respective actions could not be resolved at the leader-level summits.

The Trump-Kim diplomatic process also failed because the two sides did not establish and maintaining a regular dialogue between high-level meetings. Such working-level engagement provides a greater opportunity to share and test concrete proposals and to pave the way for leadership-level summits to produce more tangible outcomes.

Consistent working-level talks are also necessary to build trust and rapport between negotiating parties. Working-level negotiating teams must also have the support from leadership to be effective, but critical mixed messages from Trump and other senior administration officials, including his National Security Advisor John Bolton, about the goals of the negotiations undercut the credibility of working-level negotiators, like Steve Beigun. On the North Korean side, Kim Jong-un did not appear to empower the negotiating team to discuss in any level of detail the country’s nuclear program slowed preparation for the Hanoi meeting.

Recommendations for a More Effective U.S. Policy

The North Korea policy review that the Biden administration is undertaking is not simply a new U.S. administration’s opportunity to set the stage for future talks and signal to Pyongyang the U.S. approach for the next four years—it is much more. Given that North Korea may be on the cusp of significant advancements in its capability to deliver nuclear weapons using a variety of short- and long-range ballistic missiles, the next four years may be the last best chance to freeze and begin to roll back its growing nuclear capabilities and the threat they pose to regional and international security.

The mixed results of the United States’ policies toward North Korea throughout the Obama and Trump administrations offer four sets of key lessons for reshaping the approach under Joe Biden in ways that produce more meaningful and lasting outcomes.

1. The Limits of Sanctions

Sanctions have played a significant role in Biden’s predecessors’ North Korea policy. Former Presidents Trump, Barack Obama, and George Bush have all used sanctions to try to deny North Korea of the materials and funds necessary to pursue its nuclear and missile programs and to punish Pyongyang for violating its international nonproliferation obligations. While sanctions will likely remain a part of U.S. and United Nations Security Council policy toward North Korea, they are but one tool in a broader strategy.

North Korea has demonstrated a considerable tolerance for economic pain and skill in evading sanctions. In recent years, North Korea has become increasingly more adept and creative in its efforts to sidestep sanctions and it has shown that it is unwilling to make unilateral concessions in response to tougher U.S. or UN sanctions.

Furthermore, enforcement and implementation of UN and U.S. sanctions measures have been spotty, especially after Trump prematurely declared that he had achieved success in erasing the North Korean threat following his first summit with Kim Jong-un.

As a result, Washington cannot depend on sanctions pressure alone to push Kim to the negotiating table, especially in the absence of stronger support from regional allies, particularly China, which is North Korea’s largest remaining trading partner.

The Biden administration is unlikely to lift any sanctions absent significant moves from North Korea that roll back its nuclear program, but the North Korea policy review could signal to Pyongyang that there is a credible offramp from sanctions through concrete steps to halt, reverse, and eventually dismantle key nuclear and missile capabilities. This could include partial relief early in the process in exchange for concrete actions from North Korea. The Biden administration’s North Korea policy review should also consider how to better implement humanitarian exemptions for sanctions and support inter-Korean projects.

2. Reaffirming the Goals of the Singapore Summit

The United States’ diplomatic strategy should include reaffirming the objectives of the 2018 Singapore Summit joint statement and indicating clearly that the United States will engage in meaningful talks toward achieving those objectives without preconditions.

The Singapore goals envision a transformed relationship between the United States and North Korea that includes “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Given the role that nuclear weapons play in North Korea’s security calculus, transforming the U.S.-North Korea relationship and the security environment will be critical for moving toward denuclearization.

The Singapore summit declaration may also be North Korea’s preferred starting point. For Kim, the Singapore meeting was a considerable political achievement. Additionally, North Korea has long viewed denuclearization as encompassing the entire peninsula and including elements of the U.S. extended deterrence over North Korea. The Singapore summit declaration recognizes that regional security and stability directly impact the path to denuclearize and folds in addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns as part of a more holistic set of negotiations.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has already stoked some confusion by calling for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “denuclearization of North Korea” interchangeably. This risks sending the wrong message to Pyongyang about U.S. intentions, as the denuclearization of North Korea suggests that the Biden administration is focused on dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons program and not taking into account Pyongyang’s understanding of the necessary conditions for denuclearization. Hopefully, once the policy review is completed, the Biden administration will demonstrate more consistent messaging.

Some experts favor abandoning the goal of denuclearization, arguing that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons, and instead advocate for pursuing an arms control-like strategy that reduces risk and preventsfurther qualitative and quantitative advances in the country’s warheads and nuclear-capable missile designs.

The arms control versus denuclearization debate, however, sets up a false choice. U.S. policy can retain denuclearization as a long-term goal while pursuing arms control-like agreements that build toward verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Retaining denuclearization as the long-term goal is important for both North Korea-specific policy purposes and reinforcing a nuclear nonproliferation regime writ large.

This does not mean, however, that the United States should pursue a comprehensive denuclearization agreement at the onset. A series of smaller deals that prioritize reducing risk and preventing North Korea from further refining and developing its nuclear and missile programs will lead toward denuclearization while building confidence in the process and contributing to stability in the region.

3. A Reciprocal Step-by-Step Approach

The Biden administration should also make clear that the United States will pursue a reciprocal, step-by-step diplomatic strategy that rewards concrete actions toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with sanctions relief and mutual confidence-building measures that reduce the risk of conflict and address North Korea’s security concerns.

There is value in working in phases rather than trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement risks the talks ending without any concrete actions that reduce nuclear risk and increase stability in the region.

Overall, the essence and strength of this step-by-step approach is the flexible choreography and yet firm direction toward a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Korean peninsula that not only deals with North Korean nuclear and missile production but also addresses North Korea’s security concerns. A step-by-step process also stands a better chance for maintaining continuity and momentum between changing administrations, whereas if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal, talks may falter in the transition to a new administration.

There are reasons to believe that this approach will still be amenable  to North Korea as Kim Myong Gil, the chief delegate of the North Korea-U.S. bilateral relations, said in September 2019 that the “[step-by-step solution] is something to give a second thought” and the preference toward an action-for-action approach to advance the goals of the Singapore declaration was clearly stated during the summits in Trump’s presidency.

Further, this step-by-step policy approach may garner more support from China—which the Biden administration has indicated it wants to encourage— as it aligns with Beijing’s approach and interests. China and North Korea released a joint statement March 22 calling for such a process.

As a first step, the Biden administration could explore an agreement based on the broad outlines of the proposal that North Korea put on the table in Hanoi: the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon and a cessation of nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing in exchange for partial UN sanctions relief. Dismantlement of Yongbyon would be a significant step toward denuclearization that prevents North Korea from producing further plutonium for nuclear weapons, as well as tritium, which can be used to boost the explosive yield of two-stage nuclear bombs. Partial UN sanctions relief could include putting in place time-bound caps for trade in certain sectors that would offer meaningful relief to North Korea, but snap back into place if the talks become stalled or if Pyongyang does not deliver on its denuclearization commitments.

There are several other actions—both larger and smaller—that the United States could pursue as a meaningful, concrete first step that would reduce risk and prevent further qualitative and/or quantitative advancements to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. These could include:

  • halting of fissile material production, which can be verified using remote monitoring technologies;
  • reinstating North Korea nuclear and long-range ballistic missile test moratoriums, and expanding it to include medium-range systems and rocket motors;
  • halting the production of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles;
  • verifying the closure of testing sites like the Punggye-ri; and
  • securing North Korean signature of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In response, United States, in coordination with allies and members of the UN Security Council, can take actions to address North Korea’s trade and security concerns, scaled to match Pyongyang’s actions. These include:

  • providing partial sanctions relief, including measures in United Nations Security Council resolutions,
  • modifying joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises so they do not involve force movements that appear to be part of preparations for a rapid strike at North Korean leadership targets,
  • establishing a joint statement declaring an end to the Korean War and/or initiating discussions on the negotiations of a formal peace treaty,
  • resuming inter-Korean trade and cultural exchange projects which can improve inter-Korean trade, and
  • providing assurances that the United States will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea,

Given that North Korea views its nuclear arsenal as integral to its security, addressing the regional threat environment should be an integral part of the reciprocal actions the United States puts on the table, alongside sanctions relief, in exchange for verifiable actions toward denuclearization.

North Korea has signaled on many occasions that it views certain exercises as provocative. A spokesman for North Korea’s State Affairs Commission pointed Nov. 13, 2019, to routine military training exercises as a factor in “the repeating vicious circle of the DPRK-U.S. relations.” Modifying US-South Korean joint exercises and pursuing a formal peace treaty would reduce tensions and begin addressing the security concerns that underpin North Korea’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

Bottom Line

While Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority. While Kim may not yet be ready to engage in talks, particularly while the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the United States must continue to send the message that diplomacy without preconditions is on the table and that Washington is ready to provide meaningful reciprocal actions in exchange for concrete steps to reduce nuclear risk.—SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Peace Fellow, and JULIA MASTERSON, research associate

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While President Joe Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority.

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IAEA Backs Off Iran Resolution


April 2021
By Julia Masterson

In early March and just days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general reached a temporary agreement with Iran to help the agency maintain essential oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, three key European powers advanced a resolution to the IAEA Board of Governors that would have censured Iran on the safeguards issue. The states were later persuaded to withdraw the proposal out of concern it would undermine prospects for restoring compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

A meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors at the Vienna International Center in Austria.  (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The three European members of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), circulated the draft resolution censuring Iran ahead of the quarterly Board of Governors meeting, which was held March 1–5 in Vienna. Their resolution expressed deep concern with Tehran’s recent steps to limit its safeguards arrangements with the agency that are mandated by the nuclear deal.

On Feb. 23, Iran announced that it would suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and would reduce compliance with certain other monitoring mechanisms required by the accord. Tehran did so in accordance with a December 2020 law that obligates the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to rachet up nuclear activities in violation of the JCPOA until Iran’s demands for U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, including sanctions relief, are met. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

The additional protocol provides the IAEA with information and an expanded set of tools to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. It grants the agency further insight into all elements of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, permits inspectors to collect environmental samples from declared and undeclared sites, and allows the IAEA to conduct complementary access visits on short notice to investigate any instances of suspicious activity.

To prevent the planned suspension from becoming a full-blown safeguards crisis, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi traveled to Tehran on Feb. 21, ahead of Iran’s announcement. With Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the AEOI, the three reached a temporary bilateral arrangement whereby the agency can continue certain additional verification activities in Iran for three months. Iran will gather and store certain information during that time and provide it to the agency if sanctions relief is granted.

Iran’s decision to reduce monitoring marked its most recent step and one of the most significant steps taken to limit compliance with the JCPOA since the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed stringent economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran began violating the deal one year later, in 2019, but maintains that all breaches of the accord, including its reduction in monitoring, will be reversed if JCPOA sanctions are lifted.

The European draft resolution condemned Iran for suspending the additional protocol and further called on Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation into certain outstanding issues related to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Those outstanding issues were detailed in a Feb. 23 IAEA report stemming from an ongoing, multiyear agency investigation into Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities and are separate from the nuclear deal.

Several states, including members of the European Union, opposed the European draft resolution because it married Iran’s legal obligation to comply with IAEA investigations into its past nuclear activities with its steps taken under the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Tehran vehemently opposed the draft resolution and, in a paper submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors, warned that adoption of the resolution would signal an end to the temporary monitoring arrangement between Iran and the IAEA. After the Europeans scrapped the resolution, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman remarked March 4 that “today’s development can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran and the IAEA and pave the way for full implementation by all parties” to the JCPOA.

The outcome keeps open the door for Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United States to continue to try to reach agreement on a pathway to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview Feb. 21 during which he affirmed that Iran remains interested in restoring the JCPOA, despite Iran’s planned reduction in monitoring.

“There is a path forward, with a logical sequence,” he wrote in a Twitter post that day, referring to Iran’s belief that the United States should commit to the JCPOA and fulfill its obligations under the deal, including by lifting sanctions. “Iran will reciprocate immediately by reversing its remedial measures,” he added.

According to diplomatic sources in Vienna, the United States played a role in convincing the Europeans to withdraw their proposed resolution, in part because the Biden administration signaled support for distinguishing between the IAEA safeguards investigation and Iran’s decision to suspend the JCPOA monitoring provisions.

Louis L. Bono, the U.S. representative to the IAEA, remarked in his March 4 statement before the Board of Governors that “while these safeguards issues are a separate topic [from the JCPOA], resolving them will also be essential for establishing confidence in Iran’s nuclear related assurances.” He said the administration “remain[s] ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.”

A European resolution to censure Iran was withdrawn out of concern it could upset efforts to restore compliance with the JCPOA.

Biden Fills Key Arms Control Posts


April 2021
By Shannon Bugos and Julia Masterson

President Joe Biden continues efforts to fill key positions across his administration that will influence the future of arms control, support nonproliferation objectives, and determine the trajectory of the U.S. nuclear weapons budget, including modernization programs.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III greets Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 9.  (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)Biden tapped long-time aide and confidante Antony Blinken to serve as his foreign policy point man. Blinken began his tenure as secretary of state Jan. 26, and the department has since contributed to the official extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.

The president appointed Jake Sullivan, who served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, as national security advisor. In the first days and weeks after Inauguration Day, Sullivan worked closely with Blinken on the New START extension, and they have led efforts to fulfill Biden’s campaign commitment to restore Iranian compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Biden has nominated Bonnie Jenkins to fill the key position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in January and sent her nomination to the Senate for consideration on March 15. If confirmed, one of the main tasks ahead for Jenkins, who is a board member of the Arms Control Association and former coordinator for threat reduction programs at the State Department under the Obama administration, will be overseeing bilateral talks with Russia on strategic stability and nuclear arms control, as well as guiding the U.S. strategy for the upcoming 10th review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The bureaus of arms control, verification and compliance and international security and nonproliferation at the State Department report to the undersecretary. The president has yet to make nominations for either assistant secretary position in those bureaus but has filled the deputy assistant secretary positions. In January, Alexandra Bell, former senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, became deputy assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance. Similarly, Anthony Wier, who previously worked at the Friend’s Committee on National Legislation as the lead lobbyist and director on nuclear weapons policy, took up the deputy position at the international security and nonproliferation bureau.

Biden tapped Robert Malley, who was previously president of the International Crisis Group, to serve as the administration’s Iran envoy. The White House also nominated Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution to the role of deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs. Certain key regional State Department positions remain unfilled, including the assistant secretary for east Asian and Pacific affairs, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, and others.

Wendy Sherman, who played a leading role in negotiating the JCPOA as undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Obama administration, is Biden’s nominee for the key deputy secretary of state post. Her nomination was reported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 11. She will be the first female deputy secretary of state if confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Senate confirmed Gen. Lloyd Austin, former commander of U.S. Central Command, as defense secretary Jan. 22 making him the first Black defense secretary. Kathleen Hicks, former senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to serve as deputy secretary of defense Feb. 8.

Due to his former position on the board of Raytheon Technologies, Austin has recused himself from all decisions related to the company. This leaves Hicks to oversee some key nuclear weapons programs involving Raytheon, including the fate of the intercontinental ballistic missile replacement program and the new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile.

According to a Feb. 24 report in Politico, Hicks has launched a review of several programs ahead of the Pentagon’s release of its fiscal year 2022 budget request, including the Department’s nuclear weapons-related programs.

Biden tapped Colin Kahl, who served as his national security advisor when he was vice president, to be undersecretary of defense for policy. The Senate Armed Services Committee held his hearing on March 4, but the future of his nomination remains uncertain.

Another key Pentagon post has been filled by Richard Johnson, who was sworn in as deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction in March. During the Obama administration, Johnson served at the State Department working on the Iranian nuclear issue and on the National Security Council (NSC) as director for nonproliferation. In January, Leonor Tomero, former counsel for the House Armed Services Committee, was tapped to serve as deputy assistant director for nuclear and missile defense programs.

Laura Holgate was called on to lead a 60-day strategic planning process for the NSC, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, where she is the vice president for materials risk management. Holgate previously served as the senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction on the NSC during the Obama administration.

In her new role, Holgate will work closely with Mallory Stewart, who joined the NSC as senior director for arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation. Stewart was previously deputy assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Overall, nominations and confirmations for positions in the Biden administration are moving at a pace not unusual as compared to the two previous administrations, during which these Senate-confirmed positions took anywhere from one to six months to be filled once a nomination was put forward.

This set of veteran arms control and nonproliferation officials will lead offices in the State and Defense departments and the White House central to U.S. efforts to address the daunting array of nuclear policy challenges now facing the Biden administration.

Some positions are filled but slow pace of appointments could begin to delay administration decisions on some nuclear policy issues.

Syrian Chemicals Stockpile Declaration Still Incomplete


April 2021
By Julia Masterson

Seven years after Syria acceded, under international pressure, to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and allow for the removal of its large chemicals weapons stockpile in the midst of a civil war, top international officials continue to warn that Syria’s declaration is incomplete, suggesting that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has withheld some prohibited items.

A UN-OPCW inspector collects samples on August 29, 2013 where rockets armed with Sarin struck Damascus' eastern Ghouta suburb. The findings helped push Syria to join the CWC and allow for the removal and destruction of the bulk of its deadly chemical weapons stockpile. Since then, chemical attacks resumed and Syria has failed to address lingering questions about the accuracy of its chemical weapons stockpile declaration.  (Photo: Ammar Al-Arbini/AFP via Getty Images)During a March 4 briefing of the UN Security Council, Izumi Nakamitsu, the high representative for disarmament affairs, told the council that only limited progress has been made toward resolving an extensive list of outstanding questions regarding Syria’s chemical weapons dossier.

Nakamitsu’s briefing bore a similar tone to that of Fernando Arias, who heads the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). “At this stage, considering the issues that remain unresolved, the Secretariat assesses that the declaration submitted by the Syrian Arab Republic cannot be considered accurate and complete,” the chemical weapons watchdog chief relayed to a March 9–12 meeting of the OPCW Executive Council.

In the years since the UN-OPCW operation in 2013–2016 to remove and destroy the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, reports of ongoing chemical weapons attacks attributed to the Syrian government against rebel forces and civilians have raised serious questions about the validity of the initial declaration. The OPCW Declaration and Assessment Team (DAT) was established in 2014 to resolve outstanding issues and verify the completeness and accuracy of Syria’s stockpile declaration.

The DAT has conducted 24 rounds of consultations with Syria in an effort to clarify inconsistencies with its declaration. In a statement on the Syria dossier, Arias told the Executive Council that, as of March 2021, 19 issues with Syria’s declaration remain outstanding, including the “unknown, potentially significant, quantities of chemical warfare agents” that have yet to be declared, as well as “indicators of three undeclared chemical warfare agents found in the samples collected by the DAT.”

One of those outstanding issues pertains specifically to the OPCW’s request that Syria declare its production or weaponization of a nerve agent at a certain chemical weapons production facility omitted from its initial declaration. The production, stockpile, storage, and use of nerve agent is explicitly prohibited by the CWC; although Syria was obligated to declare any such activities to the OPCW in 2013, it did not.

Arias shared that Syria sent a note verbale to the OPCW on March 9 suggesting that discussions were ongoing on that matter and whether chemical weapons were produced or weaponized at the facility in question. But, he said, “the Secretariat has assessed all available information, including explanations provided by the Syrian Arab Republic, to justify the presence of chemical nerve agents at this site.”

In his introductory statement to the council that day, Arias affirmed that “a review of all the information and other materials gathered by the DAT since 2014, including samples, indicates that production or weaponisation of chemical warfare nerve agents took place at this facility.”

Apart from the matter of Syria’s incomplete stockpile declaration, Arias also informed the council that the OPCW’s mandate for certain monitoring activities in Syria expired in 2020. A July 2014 council decision mandated that the chemical weapons watchdog install remote monitoring systems at several former chemical weapons production facilities in Syria. After inspectors made their final visit to those locations in November 2020, the OPCW advised Syria that those facilities should remain sealed pursuant to Syria’s chemical weapons destruction plan and the spirit of the CWC.

Syria’s noncompliance with the CWC and its failure to cooperate with ongoing OPCW investigations threaten to further weaken the global norm against chemical weapons use, but new efforts are underway to hold Syria to account.

The OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was established in 2019 to attribute instances of chemical weapons use in Syria, will issue its second report before this summer, Arias informed the council. Furthermore, in October and November 2020, the OPCW shared material for the first time with the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), which is a UN subsidiary mandated “to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.”

The partnership between the IIT and the IIIM was established in July 2020, when the Executive Council welcomed a memorandum of understanding between the OPCW and the UN body, which is responsible for collecting and conveying information that may be relevant for national or international courts and tribunals. (See ACT, September 2020.)

In February, a German court sentenced two former Syrian military officials responsible for committing crimes against humanity during the Syrian civil war. The landmark conviction could set a precedent for prosecuting Syrian government officials for the ongoing, illegal use of chemical weapons. Continued coordination between the OPCW and the IIIM could help to support those efforts.

Also, CWC states-parties may vote to take a number of steps to hold Syria accountable for the use of chemical weapons in violation of the treaty, to which it acceded in 2013. Citing Damascus’ failure to come clean on its stockpile declaration, most recently after being called to do so no later than October 2020, Arias told the council that, “on the basis of the information provided, it is up to you, states-parties, to decide how you wish to proceed.”

States convened Nov. 30–Dec. 1, 2020, at The Hague for the first session of the 25th conference of CWC states-parties. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) They will meet again April 20–22, where the Syria dossier is expected to feature in the discussions.

CWC states-parties may consider steps to hold Syria accountable for use of chemical weapons in violation of the treaty.

U.S. Sanctions Russia for Chemical Weapons Use


April 2021
By Julia Masterson

The United States imposed sanctions to punish Russia for the chemical poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. The Biden administration did so in accordance with the U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, which mandates that the White House impose a detailed series of diplomatic and economic measures against states implicated in the use of a chemical or biological weapon.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia are seen arriving at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, from Germany where he recovered from his August 2020 poisoning with a nerve agent. Russian police detained him shortly after he landed for alleged parole violations. (Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images) According to a State Department press release on March 2, certain sanctions will be imposed against Russia after a 15-day congressional notification period, pursuant to the act. Those include a termination of foreign assistance to Russia under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, a termination of certain arms sales to Russia, and a denial to Russia of any credit or financial assistance from the U.S. government, among other things.

The sanctions are to remain in place for a minimum of 12 months and can only be removed after that period if the White House certifies to Congress that Russia has met the conditions prescribed by the act, including by “providing reliable assurances that it will not use chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law and will not use lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals.”

Although the attack on Navalny occurred in August 2020, the Trump administration chose not to trigger the act upon reasonable determination that a chemical agent was used and that Russia was responsible. Navalny was poisoned using a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent on a domestic flight in Russia and was taken for medical treatment to Germany, where doctors and independent laboratory assessments confirmed the cause of his ailment. (See ACT, November 2020.)

Washington last triggered the act in 2018 in response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, United Kingdom, after toxicology reports revealed the Skripals were poisoned using a Novichok agent. Before that, the act was invoked only two other times: against Syria in August 2013 for the large-scale use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war and against North Korea in 2018 for the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, using a lethal nerve agent.

In a March 2 press release, the Treasury Department announced that the Office of Foreign Assets Control would sanction seven Russian government officials believed to have been involved in Navalny’s poisoning. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen remarked, “[T]he Kremlin’s use of chemical weapons to silence a political opponent and intimidate others demonstrates its flagrant disregard for international norms.” In doing so, the United States joined the European Union and UK, who imposed sanctions against those Russian officials and an involved Russian state research institute in October 2020.

As a state-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Russia is prohibited under international law from producing, stockpiling, or using chemical weapons. The treaty’s monitoring body—the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—has undertaken a series of steps since Navalny’s poisoning to definitively determine responsibility for the attack in order to hold perpetrators accountable. The OPCW corroborated external analyses proving that a Russian Novichok agent was used against Navalny.

When Moscow requested technical assistance on Oct. 5 to support its own investigation into the incident, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told Moscow that the OPCW Secretariat was ready to deploy a team of experts to Russia “on short notice.”

Arias relayed the saga to the OPCW Executive Council, which met March 9–12. He said in his opening statement to the council that after alerting Moscow of three outstanding issues impeding a technical assistance visit by the OPCW, Russia sent a Dec. 16 letter concluding that the mission “no longer seemed relevant.”

The council comprises 41 member states charged with promoting implementation of and compliance with the CWC. Council membership rotates on a biannual basis.

During the March meeting, a group of 16 member states, led by Lithuania, released a joint statement condemning the use of a nerve agent against Navalny. Their statement reiterated that “the poisoning of Mr. Navalny using a chemical weapon is a matter of grave concern” for all CWC states-parties. They called on Russia “to disclose the full circumstances surrounding this confirmed use of a chemical weapon” and demanded that “the perpetrators of this attack must be held to account.” According to Vidmantas Purlys, Lithuania’s permanent representative to the OPCW, an additional 29 CWC states-parties not currently on the council pledged their support for the statement.

Arias did not confirm to the council whether the investigation into Navalny’s poisoning is still active, but the OPCW appears committed to appropriately addressing instances of chemical weapons use.

During a Nov. 30, 2020, session of the CWC conference of states-parties, Arias affirmed that according to the CWC, “the poisoning of an individual through the use of any nerve agent is a use of a chemical weapon.”

Poisoning of Kremlin-critic with Novichok nerve agent prompts censure.

Iran, US Remain Deadlocked on Nuclear Deal

Iran is “in no rush” to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said March 21 , as the United States and Iran remain deadlocked over the sequence of steps to restore the accord. While neither side wants to make the first move, Washington and Tehran appear to be exchanging views on the JCPOA indirectly. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters March 12 that “communications through the Europeans” enable the United States to “explain to the Iranians what our position is with respect to the...

Restoring the Nuclear Deal with Iran Benefits U.S. Nonproliferation Priorities

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Volume 13, Issue 1, March 15, 2021

Iran has systematically breached key limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in May 2019 that Tehran would reduce compliance with the accord. Iran’s decision to violate the multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a direct response to former President Donald Trump’s decision a year earlier to withdraw from the accord and reimpose sanctions in violation of U.S. obligations.

Iran’s nuclear program does not currently pose an immediate proliferation risk and there is no indication from U.S. intelligence that Iran has resumed weaponization-related activities, but its breaches are becoming increasingly more serious and difficult—if not impossible—to fully reverse.

While these breaches are troubling, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has gone to great lengths to keep the door open to restore full implementation of the nuclear deal and reverse Iran’s violations, if the United States lifts sanctions in compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Time is short, however, as both the Biden and Rouhani administrations face considerable domestic pressure opposing restoration of the accord. Neither wants to be perceived as making the first move or making a unilateral concession.

President Joe Biden’s failure to take early action to send a signal of U.S. good faith intentions also appears to have spurred debate in Tehran over whether or not he is serious about his stated approach of “compliance for compliance” to restore the nuclear deal, or if he intends to try and renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

Biden faces pressure from policymakers, particularly opponents of the JCPOA in Congress, to use the Trump administration’s sanctions to leverage additional concessions from Iran on a range of issues. This rhetoric further reinforces doubts in Tehran about Biden’s intentions to restore the deal. However, the idea that the Trump administration’s sanctions have created viable leverage to pressure Iran to make further concessions fails to take into account that U.S. credibility was severely diminished by Trump’s reimposition of sanctions in violation of the deal. There is little support for reimposed U.S. sanctions, which are perceived as jeopardizing an agreement that advanced global nonproliferation interests, and Iran has no interest in new negotiations until the nuclear deal is restored.

If the JCPOA collapses and Iran continues to ratchet up its nuclear activities, some U.S. allies and partners may join a U.S. pressure campaign, but the Biden administration would be hard-pressed to reconstitute the level of international support seen before the negotiations on the JCPOA. Russia and China in particular would be unlikely to support a pressure-based approach after Trump’s treatment of the nuclear deal, barring a clear indication that Iran intended to pursue nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran can also ratchet up its nuclear activities far more quickly than the United States could attempt to restore international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation, giving Tehran its own leverage.

A quick, complete compliance-for-compliance restoration of the JCPOA remains the best option to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, create the time and space for future negotiations on a range of issues, and restore U.S. credibility.

The EU, as the convenor of the negotiations on the JCPOA, is the logical choice to coordinate steps by both sides to resume full implementation of their JCPOA obligations and appears willing to take on that role. Concrete action by the United States to support its stated preference for returning to the deal may help pave the way for an EU-led approach, but with increasingly serious violations of the JCPOA on the horizon and Iran’s presidential elections in June, time is short. It may behoove the EU to present a proposal of its own detailing the necessary reciprocal steps for the United States and Iran to meet their JCPOA obligations.

Failure to restore the deal risks Tehran taking further steps that increase the risk posed by its nuclear program and igniting a destabilizing nuclear competition in the region, both of which would set back U.S security interests and international nonproliferation priorities.

Maximum Pressure Triggered Nuclear Breaches

Under the JCPOA Iran is subject to stringent limitations on its nuclear program and intrusive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, the P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, the EU, and, formerly, the United States) committed to waiving sanctions imposed on Iran. The United Nations Security Council also endorsed the deal in Resolution 2231 (2015), which lifted certain UN sanctions on Iran and levied restrictions on Iranian conventional arms and ballistic missile transfers.

Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018— despite acknowledging Iran’s compliance with the multilateral agreement and over the objections of key U.S. allies. Trump also ordered the reimposition of sanctions that had been lifted or waived under the JCPOA, violating U.S. obligations under the accord. From May 2018 until Trump left office in Jan. 2021, the administration continued to aggressively deny Iran any benefit of remaining in compliance with the nuclear deal and actively opposed efforts by the remaining parties to the deal to engage in legitimate trade with Iran and complete cooperative nuclear projects—even those that benefited U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The failure of the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief in the year after U.S. withdrawal drove Rouhani to announce in May 2019 that Iran would begin violating the JCPOA. He said Iran would continue to ratchet up its nuclear activities until sanctions relief in oil sales, banking transactions, and other areas of commerce were restored.

For nearly a year following Rouhani’s May 2019 announcement, Iran systematically announced new breaches to the JCPOA’s limits on uranium enrichment, research and development on advanced centrifuges, and stockpile size. Those breaches were carefully calibrated, overseen by IAEA inspectors, and were largely reversible, supporting Rouhani’s assertion that all JCPOA violations taken by Iran are about pressuring parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief and not intended to collapse the deal or impede a full restoration of the deal’s limits down the road.

In Dec. 2020, the Iranian parliament and Guardian Council approved a bill calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to significantly ramp up certain nuclear activities in violation of the deal. That law, hastened by the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, went into effect Dec. 23. The actions required by the nuclear law, some of which have already begun, pose a more serious risk to the JCPOA. The new law, for instance, requires Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its uranium enrichment program, such as boosting enrichment levels to 20 percent uranium-235—a purity Iran had not reached since 2013 when Tehran agreed to cap enrichment amid JCPOA negotiations. The law also includes new breaches, including suspending more intrusive monitoring activities and beginning the production of uranium metal, which would be more difficult to reverse.

To date, between the breaches announced in 2019 and steps taken in line with the Dec. 2020 legislation Iran has:

  1. Breached stockpile limits of 300 kilograms of uranium gas and 130 metric tons of heavy water;
  2. Enriched uranium above the 3.67 percent uranium-235 limit set by the deal;
  3. Operated advanced centrifuges in excess of the JCPOA’s limits and used certain models to produce enriched uranium in violation of the accord;
  4. Resumed enrichment at the Fordow facility in violation of the deal;
  5. Abandoned operational restrictions on its uranium enrichment program;
  6. Suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and JCPOA-specific monitoring measures (a special arrangement with the IAEA is in place); and
  7. Produced gram quantities of natural uranium metal and begun work on a uranium metal production plant (the plant is not yet operational).

(For more information on the status of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA see “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action At A Glance.”)

Heightened but Manageable Proliferation Risk—For Now

In total, Iran’s violations have increased the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s activities to ratchet up its uranium enrichment capacity have reduced the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one bomb from about 12 months (when the nuclear deal is fully implemented) to about three months, as of Feb. 2021. That breakout time will continue to shorten if Iran installs and brings online advanced centrifuges, as required by the 2020 nuclear law, and its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20 percent continues to grow.

The Dec. 2020 nuclear law requirements stipulating that Iran stockpile uranium enriched to 20 percent and install and operate advanced centrifuges, in particular, accelerate the decrease in breakout. Iran’s advanced machines are much more efficient than the IR-1s to which Iran is limited to using under the JCPOA. The IR-2m centrifuge is estimated to be about three to four times more efficient than the IR-1 and the IR-6 an estimated seven to eight times more efficient. In total, if Iran operates 1,000 IR-2s (about half of which are already enriching) and 1,000 IR-6s (as required by the end of 2021 under the law), in addition to the 6,104 IR-1s already enriching uranium, Iran’s enrichment capacity will increase by about threefold.

Enriching to 20 percent also increases proliferation risk, as that level constitutes about 90 percent of the work necessary to enrich to weapons-grade (above 90 percent uranium-235). Once Iran has accumulated enough 20 percent enriched gas for a bomb, about 250 kilograms (or about 170 kilograms by weight), it could likely produce what is known as a significant quantity of nuclear material (one bomb’s worth, or 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent) in less than two months given its current enrichment capacity. As of mid-February, Iran had about 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent (by weight) and it intends to produce 120 kilograms (by weight) during 2021, suggesting that Iran will not reach a bomb’s worth of 20 percent material before the end of the year at the current pace.

The decrease in breakout time is a concern. But even if Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that Iran would withdraw from the JCPOA and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce just one bomb, particularly given that Tehran has never tested a nuclear device. Any such move would be met by swift international condemnation and the reimposition of sanctions. Iran has uranium enriched to less than 5 percent that, when enriched to weapons-grade, would be enough for a second bomb, but it would take another two to three months. Then Iran would need to covert and weaponize the material—a process that could take another year to 18 months.

The 12-month breakout time can be restored relatively quickly by reversing Iran’s breaches of the uranium enrichment limits—a process that could itself likely be accomplished in under three months with significant political will. Enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram stockpile limit can be quickly shipped out or blended down to natural levels, excess machines dismantled and stored, enrichment halted at Fordow, and enrichment levels dialed back to 3.67 percent uranium-235. Knowledge gained by operating advanced centrifuges is not reversible, but the excess machines themselves will be dismantled and stored under IAEA seal, so Iran will not be able to access them without inspectors knowing. Furthermore, the efficiency of the advanced machines can be taken into account in calculating and determining an acceptable breakout time in follow-up negotiations.

Work on uranium metal is more problematic. The JCPOA bans uranium metal production for 15 years because of its applicability to weapons development. While Iran claims it is pursuing uranium metal for reactor fuel, the knowledge gained would still be relevant to weaponization processes.

Though it is widely suspected that Iran experimented with uranium metal as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have significant experience with large-scale production and much of the experimentation appears to have been done with surrogate metals. Restoring the JCPOA’s limits before Iran gains that valuable and irreversible expertise with metal production would benefit long-term U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The risk posed by these breaches is further amplified by Iran’s decision to suspend the more intrusive monitoring mechanisms required by the JCPOA, including the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. Inspectors will still be in place and have access to sites where Iran produces and stores its nuclear material as part of Iran’s legally required safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, the suspension of the more intrusive measures could create gaps in the IAEA’s understanding of Iran’s nuclear program, as the additional protocol gives inspectors regular access to all facilities that support the nuclear program and complimentary access to follow up on concerns about undeclared nuclear activities. Decreased access will make it more difficult to monitor Iran’s breaches of the deal and likely increase speculation about illicit nuclear activities.

Iran and the IAEA did agree to a special three-month technical arrangement Feb. 21—two days before Iran’s suspension of the measures—that will allow certain agency monitoring beyond Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran also committed to collect certain information relevant to the additional protocol—including tapes of continuous surveillance activities—and hand that information over to the IAEA upon sanctions relief.

Ideally, the hand-over of information will allow for inspectors to reconstruct Iran’s nuclear program during the three-month period and will mitigate any speculation of illicit activities in the absence of stringent IAEA oversight. However, the special arrangement is not a viable solution in the long term, particularly if any concerns emerge about illicit activities and materials, but it does manage the risk and buy time for diplomatic action to restore the JCPOA.

Restoring Mutual Compliance with the 2015 Nuclear Deal

Although Iran’s systematic breaches of JCPOA limits constitute serious violations of the agreement, the deal itself has proven to be an effective, verifiable arrangement when it is fully implemented. It is possible to restore the deal’s nonproliferation benefits—but only if the parties to the deal act swiftly to fully implement the JCPOA’s obligations.

There is no indication at this point that Iran is pursuing or intends to pursue nuclear weapons, but the violations have increased speculation about illicit nuclear activities and worn the patience of the European members of the deal. E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) frustration was manifest in a recent gratuitous attempt to censure Iran for its suspension of the additional protocol during the March meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. While the E3 concern about the decrease in monitoring is warranted, pursuing the resolution risked the special technical arrangement and the space for Iran, the United States, and the parties to the JCPOA to meet to discuss restoring the accord.

Returning to full implementation of the deal will require coordination by the United States and Iran. Unsurprisingly, while both U.S. President Joe Biden and Rouhani support a restoration of the JCPOA and a mutual return to full compliance, neither wants to be perceived as acting first or unilaterally. Both appear interested in partaking in discussions facilitated by the EU, which the EU appears eager to do, but creating the necessary political conditions for all sides to accept an invitation remains a challenge.

Given that the Trump administration triggered this crisis—namely by reimposing sanctions in violation of the deal— and provoked Iran’s violations of the accord, further signaling by the Biden administration of U.S. good faith could promote an environment conducive to coordinating restoration of the nuclear deal. Biden’s failure to act early upon taking office in Jan. 2021 prompted concern in Tehran that the new U.S. president was not serious about restoring the deal as is, and that he might try to renegotiate it—a position unacceptable to Tehran.

To date, the Biden administration has insisted that it will not grant sanctions relief before talks on restoring full compliance with the deal. But the White House could take steps to signal good faith, such as reinstating waivers for JCPOA-required nonproliferation projects that would help facilitate Iran’s eventual return to compliance and more definitive action in support of humanitarian efforts. Such steps could help restore confidence in Tehran that Biden is serious about restoring the JCPOA and demonstrate that the United States acknowledges Rouhani’s efforts to keep the window open for diplomacy.

Failure to act swiftly risks the JCPOA collapsing. A collapsed JCPOA would have severe implications for regional stability and international security, as Iran’s program would be unrestrained and subject to far less monitoring at a time when the United States faces a significant credibility deficit.

Even in the absence of the accord, it is highly unlikely that Iran would make the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, but restricted IAEA monitoring and no limits on uranium enrichment would raise speculation over covert Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. This could spur other states in the region to match Iran’s perceived nuclear capabilities or attempt a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—an act that would only set back the program and be more likely to spur Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future attacks. Dissolution of the JCPOA would also significantly compromise the likelihood of Iran engaging in future nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

It is critical that the Biden administration not miss this window to restore the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA and use it as a platform for future diplomatic engagement.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

 

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Iran has breached key limits of the JCPOA since May 2019, gradually increasing the proliferation risk posed by its civilian nuclear program. Taken together, Iran's systematic and provocative violations of the nuclear deal are cause for concern and jeopardize the future of the deal. 

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E3 Put JCPOA at Risk, Luckily Cooler Heads in Vienna Prevailed

An exercise of restraint at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Governors meeting may have preserved the space for diplomatic efforts to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, in part due to efforts by the United States and others to sway Britain, France, and Germany from pursuing a gratuitous resolution censuring Tehran. The resolution risked jeopardizing the IAEA’s access to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as the already uncertain path toward restoration of the accord. The European members of the deal circulated a draft resolution ahead of the quarterly IAEA...

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