IAEA Reportedly Inspects Iranian Warehouse
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently inspected a warehouse that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the agency to visit in September, three diplomats told Reuters in an April 4 piece. Netanyahu called on the IAEA to “immediately” inspect a warehouse in Tehran that he described as “storing massive amounts of equipment and material from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program,” including an unspecified radioactive material, in his September speech to the UN General Assembly.
One diplomat told Reuters that inspectors visited the warehouse more than once last month. Two diplomats confirmed that inspections took place and reportedly said results from the inspectors’ environmental samples would not be in until June.
The IAEA has not publicly commented on whether or not an inspection took place, but IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in an April 3 interview with CBS that “I don’t see activities that are contrary to the Iran nuclear agreement.”
Iran has denied the existence of nuclear material at the site and has stated that the warehouse is a carpet-cleaning facility. An Iranian official quoted in the Reuters piece said Iran “has nothing to hide” and that inspections have “been in the framework of laws and regulations.” Under the terms of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the IAEA can request access to any site within Iran if it has concerns about illicit nuclear activities.
Netanyahu has also repeatedly called on the agency to follow up on the archival material related to Tehran’s past nuclear weapons program that Israel stole from Iran in January 2018 and provided to the IAEA later in the year.
Amano has made clear that the IAEA is reviewing the archival material provided by Israel, but has rightly pushed back against efforts to influence the agency’s processes and compromise its independence. The IAEA’s ability to carry out its critical safeguards mission in all countries rests on states parties’ belief in its impartiality.
Amano told the agency’s Board of Governors March 4 that the agency “analyzes all safeguards-relevant information, which normally takes time, and takes action when appropriate.” In a Jan. 30 speech he warned against efforts to “micro-manage or put pressure on the Agency in nuclear verification.”
In March 5 remarks to the IAEA Board of Governors, U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Jackie Wolcott gave the impression that the United States is satisfied with the IAEA’s process for reviewing and following up on the archival material. Wolcott said that the United States had “every confidence that the IAEA will continue to carry out its responsibilities in Iran with the highest degree of professionalism and diligence.” —KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy and ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant
Iran Makes Progress on Trade Mechanism
A special mechanism to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran is closer to beginning operations after Tehran announced March 19 that it registered a counterpart to INSTEX, a barter-like instrument set up by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom for entities to do business with Iran.
The three European countries registered INSTEX Jan. 31, but the mechanism requires Iran to have a similar system in place to trade import and export credits. Iran registered its counterpart, the Instrument for Finance and Trade Between Iran and Europe March 19.
Iran’s announcement came after Per Fischer, the head of INSTEX, visited Tehran to discuss the mechanism. The French embassy in Tehran described Fischer’s trip as an “important step” to “make the EU-Iran trade mechanism operational.” Reportedly, Fischer will travel to London to discuss the operation of INSTEX with British entities in mid-April.
When operational, the trade mechanisms will provide a channel for conducting legitimate business with Iran that bypasses U.S. sanctions reimposed when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal. According to the three European countries, the channel will initially be limited to humanitarian goods exempt from U.S. sanctions, but may later be expanded. Iranian officials have repeatedly stated that they would like to use the channel for oil sales, which are subject to U.S. sanctions (see below for details).
Since the three European countries announced the creation of INSTEX, other states have expressed their interest in using the mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran. Italy’s deputy foreign minister Manlio Di Stefano said March 7 that Italy supported the nuclear deal and was looking to join INSTEX. Di Stefano said Italy wants to “provide aid for the Italian companies willing to cooperate with Iran” and INSTEX is the “best way to support” them.
U.S. officials have sent mixed messages about INSTEX. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Feb. 14 that if the channel remains limited to humanitarian goods, it is unlikely to have much impact on Washington’s Iran policy. But Vice President Mike Pence condemned Europe for setting up INSTEX in a Feb. 16 speech and said it undermines U.S. sanctions.
As the three European countries seek to preserve legitimate trade with Iran, they are also expressing concern about destabilizing Iranian activities, including ballistic missile development and transfers. In an April 2 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the three countries said Iran’s ballistic missile activities are increasing tensions in the Middle East and requested that Guterres report “fully and thoroughly on Iranian ballistic missile activity” inconsistent with Security Council Resolution 2231. Resolution 2231 endorsed the JCPOA, called upon Iran to refrain from developing ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable, and prohibits the country from importing and exporting ballistic missiles and related technology.
U.S. Issues Additional Sanctions on Iran
The U.S. Treasury Department designated 31 Iranian entities and individuals in March for past involvement in Iran’s nuclear weapons program under an executive order targeting the proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. A senior administration official described them as “technical experts and critical entities linked to Iran’s previous nuclear weapons effort” in a March 22 press briefing.
According to a second official on the call, the designated individuals and entities are tied to Iran’s Organization for Defense Innovation and Research (SPND). The SPND was designed to “keep the personnel and the human capital from the Iranian nuclear weapons program still together and to keep their skills sharp, apparently with some eye to potential future reconstitution.”
The officials did not allege that any illicit nuclear-weapon related activities are currently ongoing, and the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Iran is “not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”
The second official said the sanctions were intended to “continue to stigmatize SPND” and to try and make it “as unattractive as possible” for individuals and entities to remain connected to the “reconstitution program-in-waiting.”
IAEA Reports on Iran’s JCPOA Compliance (Again)
The IAEA reported that Iran is meeting its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA yet again in its latest quarterly report made public March 6.
The report illustrates that Iran remains below key nuclear limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal. It also states that the country continues to cooperate with IAEA monitoring activities and that inspectors have had access to all the sites in Iran that they have needed to visit.
Specifically, the report notes that:
The report also noted that the IAEA will need additional extra-budgetary contributions to meet the cost of implementing the JCPOA. According to the report, the IAEA’s activities will cost in 2019, of which €4 million is extrabudgetary. The report said the IAEA has €3.1 in additional funds on hand as of February 2019.
The U.S. Faces May Deadline on Sanctions Waivers Renewal
U.S. sanctions waivers for Iranian oil imports and nuclear cooperation projects expire May 2 and it is not clear if the Trump administration will issue renewals. Several of the seven states plus Taiwan issued waivers in November have already indicated that they are seeking waivers to continue purchasing Iranian oil, including China and India. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook said March 27 that the United States is “not looking to grant any new oil waivers.” Hook said April 2 that three states that received waivers in November had already cut their imports to zero but did not specify which countries.
According to the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, states must significantly reduce the volume of oil purchased every 180 days to be eligible for a new waiver, but the law does not specify what constitutes a significant reduction.
S&P Global Platts reported March 29 that the United States was likely to extend waivers to China, India, South Korea, and Turkey while letting waivers for Japan, Greece, Italy, and Taiwan expire. However, the report cautioned that the decisions are still in flux.
The United States will also need to renew sanctions waivers allowing nonproliferation projects under the JCPOA to continue, including work modifying the Arak heavy-water reactor and turning Fordow into an isotope research and production facility. These are critical projects from a nonproliferation perspective and it is in the U.S. interest to allow the remaining parties to the nuclear deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom), to meet these obligations. Iran has stated that cooperation with China on modifying the heavy-water reactor at Arak has slowed out of concern over sanctions risk, despite the waivers.
Administration, Members of Congress Criticize Iran at AIPAC Conference
Trump administration officials and members of Congress applauded Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its intensified economic pressure on Iran and criticized Iranian regional activities in remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in late March. AIPAC lobbied forcefully against the Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and increased U.S. sanctions against Iran at the conference March 25. He also accused Iran of being “the world’s number one proponent of anti-Semitism,” which he said was the same as anti-Zionism.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also lauded the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA March 25, claiming that the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement “delayed the day when that vile regime would gain access to the world’s deadliest weapons.” The adoption of the JCPOA delayed Iran’s breakout time, or the time it would take to amass enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb, from two or three months to a year.
Pence touted the U.S. economic pressure against Iran, stating that the sanctions “to change Iran’s malign behavior and hold the regime accountable for its destructive actions” were working.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted March 31 that President Trump “is grasping at every straw to portray his failed Iran policy as a success... Like his predecessors, he will learn that Iranians never submit to pressure.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) were among the members of Congress to address the conference.
McConnell criticized Iran’s activities in the region, arguing that the Iran deal helped Iran to expand its influence in the region. Menendez also condemned Iran’s regional activities, including its involvement in Syria, but didn’t mention the Iran nuclear deal. Schumer barely mentioned Iran, only referencing it as one of the entities that doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist.
A number of Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), as well as Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro, did not address the conference.
More Democrats Pledge to Reenter JCPOA
Several more Democratic presidential candidates have vowed to reenter the deal if elected, and more than 50 retired generals and diplomats urged the United States to reenter the deal in a March 11 statement.
"Subsequent to the United States’ withdrawal from the deal, Iran’s continued compliance is not ensured and the benefits from the agreement risk being lost. Reentering the Iran nuclear deal advances the United States’ national interests by ensuring these benefits persist and enables us to work more closely with our European allies..." the statement from the former generals and diplomats read.
The retired generals and diplomats advocate reentering the deal because Iran is complying with the agreement, the deal imposes “unprecedented international monitoring,” European allies support the JCPOA, reentry could contribute to a broader U.S. Middle East strategy and it would enhance the U.S. ability to negotiate enhancements to the deal.
Five presidential candidates - Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), as well as Wayne Messam and Marianne Williamson - told Al-Monitor in March that they would reenter the JCPOA if elected president as long as Iran continues to comply with the agreement. Julian Castro tweeted March 20 that as president, he would also reenter the deal if compliance continued.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) did not answer if he would rejoin the JCPOA as president in his comment to Al-Monitor, and 10 other candidates did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Beto O’Rourke.
Members of Congress are also raising concerns about the prospect of conflict with Iran. A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill April 4 to prevent an unconstitutional war with Iran. Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced the “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2019” which would prohibit the United States from spending funds which could lead to a war with Iran absent Congressional approval.
New Report Raises Options for Building on the JCPOA
A new Brookings Institution report, “Constraining Iran’s future nuclear capabilities,” by former U.S. government officials Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew outlines a number of interesting options for building on the JCPOA. The report, released March 28, calls for a flexible approach to negotiating additional constraints that “can be supported both in Iran and domestically in the United States.”
The report provides options for extending limits on uranium enrichment, with the goal of retaining at least a six-month breakout time (the time it would take for Iran to amass enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb) by pursuing a combination of restrictions on numbers and types of centrifuges, enrichment levels, and stockpiles of enriched uranium. Under the JCPOA, restrictions on Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile and enrichment levels end after 15 years.
The report also calls for continuing restrictions blocking Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons using separated plutonium, including a ban on reprocessing. Under the JCPOA, Iran is prohibited from reprocessing for 15 years (the country has said it does not intend to do so at any point). The authors also recommend retaining the procurement channel, a mechanism for approving Iran’s purchase of dual-use goods that is currently limited to 10 years, and accelerating IAEA access to facilities if the agency has concerns about illicit activities.
In return, the authors contend that the United States could offer sanctions relief beyond what is included in the JCPOA, including relaxing elements of the primary U.S. embargo, and providing additional guidance on remaining sanctions to give entities more confidence about doing business with Iran.
In the interim, Einhorn and Nephew recommend that so long as Iran remains in compliance with its JCPOA obligations, “the United States should look for ways to make reasonable exceptions to sanctions enforcement,” including granting waivers for nuclear cooperation detailed in the JCPOA and oil imports (see above for details), as well as supporting INSTEX’s use for exempt humanitarian trade.
The authors also propose parallel talks with Iran on other areas of U.S. concern, including ballistic missiles and regional activities. A second report released by the Brookings Institution March 28, authored by Einhorn and Vann H. Van Diepen, provides options for addressing ballistic missile activities.
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