Iran Passes Nuclear Law
Iran’s parliament and Guardian Council passed legislation Dec. 2 requiring Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its nuclear activities in 60 days if certain sanctions relief measures are not met. The Nov. 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, regarded as among Iran’s top nuclear scientists, likely accelerated the legislation.
The legislation, which is expected to become law in the coming days, will require the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to cease implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement 60 days after enactment if certain sanctions on banking and oil are not lifted—leaving a narrow window of time for President-elect Joe Biden to demonstrate his commitment to returning all parties to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
If Tehran were to take this step International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors would still be present in Iran to implement legally-required safeguards, but inspectors would have fewer tools and less access to verify if Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful.
The legislation would also require Iran to enrich uranium using at least 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz facility within three months, produce 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent annually, complete the Arak heavy water reactor, construct a new heavy water reactor, and inagurate a uranium metal facility within five months.
The 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent is about half the amount of uranium that, when enriched to weapons-grade (above 90 percent), is necessary for one bomb. Iran ceased enriching to that level as part of the interim deal in 2013 that paved the way for the 2015 agreement.
These steps, particularly halting implementation of the additional protocol and enriching to 20 percent uranium-235, would pose more serious near-term proliferation risks and put the future of the nuclear deal in jeopardy. Rouhani opposed the legislation, but also reiterated Dec. 9 that all of Iran's actions are reversible and undoing any steps will not require negotiations or much time if the United States returns to compliance with the JCPOA.
The European members of the deal, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, issued a joint statement Dec. 7 expressing concern about Iran’s enrichment activities and urging Tehran to not implement the new law. The letter states that “if Iran is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps. Such a move would jeopardise our shared efforts to preserve the JCPoA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming US Administration.”
Zarif said Dec. 3 that any steps Iran has taken or will take in violation of the accord are reversible and he reiterated that Iran would comply fully with the JCPOA’s provisions if the United States implements its responsibilities under Resolution 2231, which endorses the nuclear deal and codifies UN sanctions relief under the accord. Only then would Iran consider negotiations on formal U.S. re-entry in the JCPOA, he said
Iran also vowed to retaliate for the killing of Fakhrizadeh and accused Israel of being behind the assassination.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted Nov. 27 that “terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist.” “This cowardice,” he went on to say, “with serious indications of Israeli role – shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators.” Zarif called on the international community to condemn the attack.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it” was his immediate priority, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani noted Tehran would respond to the attack “in due course.”
Fakhrizadeh was likely targeted for his suspected leadership of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, known as the AMAD Project, which dissolved in the early 2000s.
Although Iran’s organized nuclear weapons program is assessed by the IAEA to have ended in 2003 and that there is no evidence of related activities after 2009, Israel maintains that certain elements of that program have continued through subsidiary organizations, some under the oversight of Fakhrizadeh.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly identified Fakhrizadeh during a 2018 speech outlining Israel’s allegations of Iran’s covert nuclear program. “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu said.
That any facet of Iran’s past nuclear weapons activities continues today is highly disputed, including by U.S. intelligence sources. While it appears that Iran kept archives detailing its past nuclear weapons efforts, there is no evidence of ongoing nuclear weapons activities.
The United States assessed in a 2020 report that Fakhrizadeh leads “an organization subordinate to the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics that conducts military research and development – on weaponization-relevant dual-use technical activities,” but also concluded that “Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.”
Neither Israel nor the United States has commented on Iran’s allegation, but several unnamed American officials cited in a story by The New York Times confirmed Israel’s involvement.
The perpetrators of the attack on Fakhrizadeh may well have sought to impede future efforts by Biden to restore diplomacy with Iran by instigating a rash Iranian reaction, but Tehran appears to remain committed to the accord if the United States will return to compliance. —JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
IAEA Reports on Iran’s Nuclear Program
Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it plans to install three new cascades of IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant. According to a Dec. 4 agency report, Iran’s letter to the IAEA informing of its plans was dated Dec. 2, which was the same day that Iran’s Guardian Council announced it had approved legislation to increase enrichment levels and to suspend implementation of the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement if demands on sanctions relief were not met (see above for details).
The Dec. 4 IAEA report does not clarify whether Iran intends to immediately feed the three additional cascades of IR-2m centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for enriched uranium, once they have been installed. It is not clear whether Iran is installing new IR-2m machines at Natanz in preparation for implementing the new legislation or if Tehran had already decided to install the additional cascades.
The Agency’s Dec. 4 report came on the heels of the Nov. 17 IAEA quarterly report which stated that Iran had begun enriching uranium at the Natanz fuel enrichment facility using a cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges, marking an additional violation of the JCPOA, which limits Iran’s enrichment program to only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 machines at that location.
The newly installed cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz was transferred from the Natanz pilot facility, where they were already being used to enrich uranium. While any violation of the JCPOA is worrisome, enrichment of uranium using these specific machines at Natanz will have little effect on Iran’s output overall should those centrifuges continue to operate as they did at the pilot plant.
Together, however, Iran’s latest violations of the JCPOA and the Iranian parliament’s approved legislation further signal to the incoming Biden administration the importance of an expedited U.S. return to the nuclear deal before Iran takes additional and more significant steps away from compliance.
The IAEA’s latest quarterly monitoring report, released Nov. 11, suggests Tehran has been moving carefully to avoid steps that could hinder a U.S. reentry to the deal or its own future return to full compliance with the accord. According to that report, Iran has accumulated 2,443 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent, roughly 12 times the limit of 202 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium set by the JCPOA.However, the rate of Tehran’s enriched uranium production has slowed; Iran produced 338 kilograms of enriched uranium over the last quarter, down from a 533-kilogram increase in June-September 2020 and the smallest increase in a year. Given that the enrichment capacity and levels remained relatively similar, Iran’s breakout, or the time necessary to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon, remained at about 3-4 months at the time of the report.
The IAEA has also “not observed any change in the level of cooperation by Iran,” and the report notes Tehran continues to provisionally implement the Additional Protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement alongside the stringent monitoring mechanisms put in place by the nuclear deal.
The Nov. 11 report briefly notes Iran’s failure to provide a satisfactory response to the IAEA’s investigation into isotopically altered uranium particles found during a visit to an undeclared site in February 2019. Speaking before the Agency’s Board of Governors, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said Nov. 18 that the uranium particles must be “fully and promptly explained by Iran to allay any possible concerns about the correctness and completeness of its safeguards declarations.”
The agency has made clear that these particles date to before 2003 when Iran was assessed by the IAEA to have had a nuclear weapons program.
For more on the IAEA’s Nov. 11 quarterly monitoring report, see Iran’s Accumulation of Enriched Uranium Slows.
President-elect Biden on JCPOA Re-Entry
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear his intention to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), upon taking office in Jan. 2021. According to a Dec. 2 interview Biden gave with The New York Times, he believes U.S. re-entry to the JCPOA is the best way to avoid a nuclear arms race in the region.
In a Sept. 13 op-ed, Biden said that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
Since then, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has reiterated Iran’s conditions for restored diplomacy: Tehran will return to full compliance with the JCPOA if the United States fulfills its obligations under Resolution 2231, which endorses the nuclear deal. Only after the United States has lifted all sanctions on Iran that have been re-imposed since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal, Tehran and Washington can begin to work out the details of formal U.S. re-entry, Zarif said.
The Biden national security team aims to pursue follow-on negotiations dedicated to lengthening the restrictions on Iran’s fissile material production and to address its activities in the region. In his interview, Biden clarified, “there’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and all range of other things that are destabilizing the region,” but “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to address Iran’s nuclear program. Biden added that the United States would maintain the ability to snapback sanctions on Iran as a JCPOA participant.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas appears to support the idea of follow-up negotiations that build on the JCPOA and cover a range of topics, including regional security. In a Dec. 4 interview with Der Spiegel, Maas said the decisive factor for getting to negotiations on a “nuclear agreement plus” will be "whether the U.S. relaxes the economic sanctions against Iran."
Biden has outfitted his national security team with a host of individuals equally dedicated to restoring diplomacy with Iran. His nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is a supporter of U.S. re-entry to the JCPOA – both Blinken and Biden served under President Barack Obama, whose administration helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal.
When the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, Blinken said the move “made conflict more likely, and the nuclear programme is actually now advancing instead of being stopped.” He also criticized the effect that withdrawal from the deal would have on U.S. alliances, saying “if Iran and Europe stick with the deal it forces [the United States] to sanction the latter to stop them from doing business with the former. Either way we lose.”
Blinken believes a U.S. return to compliance with the JCPOA would grant Washington “a position to use [its] renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with [U.S.] allies to strengthen and lengthen” the nuclear deal.
Jake Sullivan, who has been tapped to serve as Biden’s National Security Advisor, has stated that rejoining the JCPOA should be high among Biden’s priorities within his first 100 days. According to Sullivan in Aug. 2020, the administration he is now set to be a part of should “immediately begin negotiating a follow-on agreement” and should work “with regional partners across the board to reduce tensions, to deescalate conflicts, to defuse insipient crises. [That] would mean pushing both our friends and our adversaries in the region toward the [negotiating] table,” he said.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was instrumental in the negotiation of the JCPOA, will also join the Biden administration as the special presidential envoy for climate, sitting on the National Security Council.
U.S. Partners Discuss Re-Entry to the JCPOA
As the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden draws near, U.S. partners in the Middle East have sought to pressure future U.S. policy with respect to Iran and warn against returning to the nuclear deal.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said Nov. 16 the Biden administration would be mistaken to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Speaking on a panel together with ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Dermer urged Biden to “sit with your allies in the region. Talk to us in order to get to a common position on Iran. Not only on the nuclear issue but also about the Iranian aggression in the region,” he said, “it will put the U.S. in a much better position to deal with Iran.”
Dermer’s comments closely mimicked those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long opposed the JCPOA and urged Biden during a Dec. 3 interview “it’s a mistake to go back to the JCPOA. You shouldn’t go back to that flawed agreement.”
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani remarked during a Nov. 18 Axios interview that the Biden team should consult its Gulf allies, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, before re-entering the JCPOA. “The situation in the Middle East has changed in the last four years and the dynamics have changed,” he said, noting that “we are sure that the interest of the U.S. is to have a secure and stable region for all, and we hope Iran becomes a responsible regional citizen.”
Zayani added that he expects any new agreement with Iran to address its nuclear program alongside its regional behavior and its ballistic missile program. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Faisal Bin Farhan al-Saud parroted Nov. 22 that future agreements with Iran should address its “regional malign activity.”
Al-Saud said he expects Saudi Arabia to be engaged in any future negotiations between the United States and Iran. A future deal, which he noted could be called a “JCPOA++,”, and could address Iran’s alleged “arming of militias, whether it’s the Houthis in Yemen or certain groups in Iraq or in Syria, or Lebanon, and even beyond.”
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