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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA)

The Impact: Iran Breaches Nuclear Deal

This blog post originally appeared on the U.S. Institute of Peace's " The Iran Primer ," July 8, 2019. Since July 1, Iran has engaged in two breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal. On July 1, it increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram limit. On July 8, it increased enrichment from the limit of 3.67 percent to 4.5 percent. Iran had previously complied with the agreement, even after President Trump abandoned it in May 2018. What do Iran’s decisions mean for the future of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) ? Iran’s decision to breach the 300-kilogram limit...

With Further Nuclear Moves, Iran Seeks to Leverage Promised Sanctions Relief | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, July 9, 2019

With Further Nuclear Moves, Iran Seeks to Leverage Promised Sanctions Relief Iran announced July 8 that it has started enriching uranium at levels in excess of the limit of 3.67 percent uranium-235 set by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The move is the second troubling retaliatory measure in two weeks by Iran to walk back its compliance with the JCPOA. Last week, Iran exceeded the 300-kilogram limit of its stockpile of low enriched uranium set by the JCPOA. Iran’s moves to curtail compliance with the JCPOA have long been expected. Iranian...

Seeing Red in Trump’s Iran Strategy


July/August 2019
By Eric Brewer and Richard Nephew

Since Iran’s May 2019 announcement that it would no longer abide by some nuclear restrictions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration has sought to push back against these moves by citing the imperative of the JCPOA’s constraints. The JCPOA created limits on Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle that mean Tehran would need a year to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb, and the agreement established enhanced transparency and inspector access throughout the entire fuel cycle.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters at the White House April 30. Bolton has linked any Iranian expansion of enrichment activities to a deliberate attempt to shorten the breakout time to produce nuclear weapons.  (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The U.S. push for Iran to adhere to the deal’s terms has drawn some international incredulity given how the United States withdrew from agreement in May 2018 while noisily alleging many JCPOA flaws. More subtly, the Trump administration has begun to lay the groundwork for what can be described as its first real redline for the nuclear program: that any reduction in Iran’s one-year breakout timeline, the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb, is unacceptable.

It is unclear how much reduction the administration would tolerate, what its response would be, and given President Donald Trump’s avowed preference for a deal and to avoid another conflict in the Middle East, whether it would be enforced at all. Yet, National Security Advisor John Bolton in late May linked any Iranian expansion of enrichment activities to a deliberate attempt to shorten the breakout time to produce nuclear weapons, which would suggest that a severe response, perhaps even military force, would be on the table to prevent Iran from a nuclear restart. At the very least, the United States is shifting the traditional definition of what is unacceptable from a weapon or having the ability to produce one quickly to any deviation from JCPOA baseline restrictions.

A renewed nuclear crisis with Iran is now likely. Not only would Iran’s announced steps from May shorten the breakout timeline, only modestly at the start, but Iran has set a deadline that expires in early July for the restart of other nuclear activities that might reduce the timeline considerably faster.

Nevertheless, Iran’s nuclear actions so far do not merit this redline or the military response that could follow, nor do they rise to the level of an unacceptable threat to the United States or its interests. Rather, they are a signal that, although some in the Trump administration believe otherwise, Iran will not consent to being pushed via sanctions without seeking leverage of its own.

To be fair to the Trump administration, there is some utility in setting out a clear marker for Iran as to what constitutes unacceptable nuclear behavior. In fact, one of the biggest concerns over Trump’s Iran policy thus far is that the Iranians have seen little clarity from the White House as to what the United States wants from Iran. U.S. objectives have varied over time and, depending on who is articulating the policy, have involved everything from regime change to a renegotiated JCPOA. It would be valuable to give Iran and the rest of the world a clearer sense of U.S. intentions, expectations, and the seriousness with which the United States would treat certain Iranian nuclear actions. A firm stance now could also potentially head off a more dangerous situation down the road, and for the Trump administration, there is a palpable desire to avoid being identified as the cause of this new nuclear crisis.

Despite these potential benefits, the particular redline that appears to be in the process of being established is profoundly unnecessary, unwise, and dangerous for four reasons.

Iran’s Restart Will Be Gradual

First, establishing the one-year breakout timeline as a redline makes little sense in terms of the nuclear program itself. The JCPOA was designed to give governments at least a year to mount a strategy to react if Iran started to exit its obligations and dash to a weapon. For this reason, the JCPOA built in restrictions on Iran’s centrifuges, its uranium stockpile, and spare parts and materials for the program, as well as intrusive transparency steps that ensure the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the international community would quickly become aware of any deviation from Iran’s agreed steps.

Iran has said it will expand its enrichment of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and heavy water and will consider additional steps as well, perhaps as soon as July 6. Iran’s decision to restart these nuclear activities will eventually erode the breakout time barrier of a year, but this will occur, at least at the start, relatively slowly and incrementally. The reasons are political and technical. Politically, Iran’s main goal is to regain negotiating leverage and force Europe to provide economic benefits or risk the deal falling apart, not to race to a bomb. As Iran has done in the past, it will likely calibrate the pace and scope of its nuclear activities based in part on how the international community responds.

From a technical standpoint, Iran’s enriched-uranium stockpile will probably expand gradually. Iran has said it will exceed the JCPOA’s 300-kilogram limit by June 27, which IAEA reporting suggests would be a major increase in the pace of enrichment operations but not impossible. That said, even at the rate of enrichment that this would suggest, as much as 30 to 50 kilograms per month, it would take many months before Iran would have enough LEU, which would need further enrichment, for a bomb. Of course, enriching uranium further from its current level would be noticed by the IAEA and time consuming.

Iran’s buildup of heavy water is less concerning from a nuclear weapons perspective. Even if Iran fulfills its threat to abandon its JCPOA-mandated requirement to redesign the Arak reactor to produce less plutonium in July, the path to actually completing and starting its old reactor design would be a long and uncertain one.

In early 2016, the IAEA confirmed that Iraq had removed the core of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, as required by the 2015 nuclear deal. Restoring the reactor to maximize its plutonium-production capability would be a lengthy process.  (Photo: President of the Islamic Republic of Iran)More worrying would be if Iran acts on its threat to increase enrichment levels as early as July. Depending on how high Iran goes, such as resuming enrichment to near 20 percent uranium-235, this could have a seriously adverse affect on Iran’s breakout timeline as this material accumulates. A U.S. decision to end sanctions waivers that allow Iran to import 20 percent-enriched fuel for its research reactor would make
it easy for Tehran publicly to justify higher enrichment.

Some of these steps are more concerning than others, but none would indicate a breakout, and they do not suggest that the world is facing an imminent Iranian nuclear weapons threat. Indeed, unless Iran starts to curb IAEA access, which in and of itself would be a major concern, all of these measures will be done in full view of inspectors, which is exactly how Iran wants it. There is time to resolve the crisis diplomatically before using military force. A year was judged to be a reasonable but not necessarily minimum amount of time to do so. Indeed, prior to the JCPOA, Iran only needed a few months to produce a bomb’s worth of material. Even then, the United States determined that it could stop an Iranian breakout with the use of force if necessary.

An Ambiguous Redline

Second, for this redline to work, Iran would have to know when it is nearing that threshold so that if it wants, it can refrain from doing so. Because Iran possessed a large LEU stockpile, not to mention its near 20 percent-enriched uranium, for many years prior to the JCPOA, Iran may not perceive its renewed possession of this material as now representing a casus belli for Washington. In fact, Israel even set a redline for Iran’s enrichment program that could be interpreted to permit up to 200 kilograms of near 20 percent-enriched uranium, suggesting that what Iran is presently doing is far below the Israeli threshold for action.

Moreover, breakout timelines are based on a range of assumptions, and even among U.S. allies, there was some ambiguity about those timelines as the JCPOA was negotiated. It is therefore unlikely that Iran and the United States would have a common definition of where that tipping point occurs. This presents a high risk of miscalculation.

Advocates of Trump’s redline approach may believe that this works to the U.S. advantage: by laying out extreme positions, Iran can be deterred from undertaking any nuclear expansion. This view, however, ignores two facts. First, Iran will judge what is tolerable to the West based on past experience, and higher levels and amounts of uranium may not be seen as such. Second, Iran’s perspectives on U.S. deterrence are informed by the full range of U.S. responses to Iranian behavior. With North Korea and Iran, Trump has a history of issuing grand yet vague threats and then not following through on them, a practice that is likely to undermine U.S. credibility on this redline. In addition, Trump’s own attempt to walk back his administration’s hawkish stance toward Iran in late April and early May with respect to the deployment of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf has likely confused the Iranians. Offers to restart negotiations on a more limited slate of issues than U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “12 demands”—a list he laid out in May 2018 for Iran to fulfill, including elimination of its nuclear fuel cycle, severe restrictions on its missile program, and the end of its relationships with Hezbollah and other proxies—probably have done likewise. It certainly has led Iran to try to convince Trump that he is being manipulated into conflict via the “B team,” a term Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has used to describe those he says are war advocates, including Bolton, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayad, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even in the likely event that this ploy fails, the dynamic means that Iran is unsure as to where the president stands in all of this. In such an atmosphere of confusion and ambiguity, dangerous mistakes can be made by both sides.

Fewer Peaceful Options

Of course, Trump administration officials and their advocates may stress that no one has mentioned the word “force” in any official capacity and that this is a conclusion being inappropriately drawn. Yet, the third problem with the redline approach being articulated is that Trump administration actions have reduced the scope of nonmilitary responses. Most options short of war have already been expended by this administration and arguably are why this predicament exists in the first place. This includes walking out of the JCPOA and reimposing and expanding sanctions.

Some additional sanctions could be imposed against Iran. Recent actions, such as designations of Iranian petrochemical companies and sectoral sanctions targeting other activities, such as Iran’s metal sector, may help U.S. sanctioners build momentum against Iran. Their value as a deterrent to Iran increasing its nuclear activities, however, is limited because the administration is already aggressively seeking to eliminate Iranian oil exports and has implemented widespread financial sanctions, which are far more damaging measures. If history is a guide, more pressure will likely cause Iran to accelerate its program if there is no realistic diplomatic off-ramp. At this point, Iran’s apparent calculus is that there is little more that Washington can do to punish Tehran from pushing back against the United States by rolling back its JCPOA commitments, at least in part and in stages. Iran sees very little difference between the sanctions pressure Washington is applying now and what more it could generate if Iran builds up its nuclear program. Without this perception, Iran would not have broken a year’s worth of restraint to act now.

The absence of specific and discrete response options for enforcing the redline runs the risk of creating a hollow commitment on the part of the United States. As the United States has learned to its chagrin in recent years, unenforced redlines carry risks and consequences. In this case, it would make it more difficult for the United States to deter Iranian nuclear threats that really do matter in the future. The United States would be ill advised to issue such pronouncements and fail to make good on the promises inherent within them. This is why setting appropriate, sober, and well-considered redlines, if redlines are set at all, is so imperative.

A Bigger Risk Ignored

Finally, although what Iran is doing to retaliate for the U.S. pressure campaign may ultimately create some breakout risk, a redline focused on protecting a one-year breakout timeline focuses on the wrong part of the problem. Iran’s most plausible and likely weapons development scenario would involve a covert program rather than relying exclusively on its known facilities and materials. Iran knows that IAEA oversight, enhanced by the JCPOA, enables rapid detection of any major steps toward breakout. Even if Iran is able to erode breakout time to the two-to-three-month range that predates the JCPOA, this is still sufficient time for the United States to detect and respond militarily, and Iran knows it.

For these reasons, the most important step the United States can take to prevent moves toward a nuclear weapon using the very facilities and materials about which Bolton is now concerned would be to ensure the transparency and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program that the JCPOA provides. These same transparency and monitoring tools that help detect a breakout can give confidence that Iran is not presently in possession of covert facilities and that they would be detected long before they can deliver a nuclear weapon.

A Better Approach

The United States does need to demonstrate its readiness to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. For this reason, showing a willingness to use all the means of U.S. power, including diplomacy, to prevent such an eventuality is reasonable and prudent. Indeed, diplomacy is the only means that the United States has employed in the last two decades that has proven capable of limiting Iran’s nuclear program to a significant degree and for a sustained period of time.

Trump has repeatedly said that he wants a better deal than the JCPOA. It is an ambition that people across the political spectrum can endorse, but it seems unlikely that a significantly better deal is available in the current climate. A better deal will not come from issuing ill-founded redlines that increase the risk of miscalculation while targeting the wrong threats. Rather, the Trump administration should invest itself in developing a realistic negotiating agenda and getting back to the table with Iran to avoid this crisis while it still can.
 


Eric Brewer is a fellow and deputy director of the Project on Nuclear Issues with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He served a decade in the U.S. intelligence community, including as deputy national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction with the National Intelligence Council. Richard Nephew is a senior research scholar with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He has held positions at the Department of Energy and Department of State and on the National Security Council.

The Trump administration’s apparent redline with Iran is unnecessary, unwise, and dangerous.

Iran Moves Toward Breaching Nuclear Limits


July/August 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran is moving closer to the limits on its nuclear program set by the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal after threatening in May to breach certain caps, but Tehran has not yet crossed those thresholds. The United States, however, has already accused Iran of violating the accord, an assertion disputed by other parties to the agreement.

Iranian workers smile at the nation’s newly opened heavy water production plant in Arak in 2006. Iran has moved closer to storing more heavy water than allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal. (Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)Iran announced on May 8 that it would no longer adhere to stockpile limits for low-enriched uranium and heavy water set by the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The announcement was a response to the U.S. decision in May 2018 to reimpose sanctions and withdraw from the agreement. (See ACT, June 2019.)

According to a May 31 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal, Iran moved closer to the caps on enriched uranium and heavy water set by the deal, but did not exceed them.

The agency reported that as of May 20, Iran had stockpiled 174 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235, which is less than the 202 kilograms permitted by the JCPOA. In its previous report in February, the IAEA reported that the stockpile was 168 kilograms.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said on June 17 that Iran was quadrupling its uranium-enrichment capacity and would breach the limit set by the deal within 10 days.

Exceeding the limit of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent U-235 would reduce the so-called breakout time, or the time it takes Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a weapon, but it does not pose an immediate risk. Currently, due to restrictions put in place by the nuclear deal, the United States estimates that timeline at 12 months.

Any reduction in the 12-month timeline will depend on how quickly Iran continues to enrich and stockpile uranium. Tehran would need to produce about 1,050 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent U-235 to produce enough weapons-grade material (more than 90 percent-enriched U-235) for one bomb.

Kamalvandi also said that Iran was increasing its production of heavy water and would exceed the JCPOA’s 130-metric-ton cap in two-and-a-half months. According to the IAEA, Iran had 125 metric tons as of May 26.

Heavy water is used to moderate the reactions that occur in certain types of reactors, including Iran’s unfinished reactor at Arak.

The IAEA also reported that Iran had installed 33 advanced IR-6 centrifuges, of which 10 are being tested with uranium, at its Natanz plant. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in April that Iran would install 20 additional IR-6 machines at the facility.

Past IAEA reports have not indicated the specific number of IR-6 centrifuges installed at the facility, but stated that Iran was conducting its research and development (R&D) activities using advanced centrifuges in accordance with a confidential plan submitted to the agency.

That language did not appear in the May report, which stated that technical discussions on the IR-6 centrifuges are “ongoing.”

Citing the number of installed IR-6 centrifuges, Jackie Wolcott, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said on June 11 that Iran “is now reported to be in clear violation of the deal.” Other countries still party to the agreement argue that Iran’s actions fall into a gray area not explicitly covered by the accord.

According to the JCPOA, Iran is permitted to conduct mechanical testing on up to two IR-6 centrifuges and can test with uranium using “single centrifuge machines and its intermediate cascades.” Iran cannot withdraw any enriched material from the centrifuges.

The deal does not specify what constitutes an intermediate cascade, but states that, after eight-and-a-half years, or beginning in July 2024, Iran can “commence testing” of up to 30 IR-6 centrifuges.

Additional detail is likely found in the confidential R&D plan that Iran submitted to the IAEA. Alleged copies of the plan leaked in 2016 suggest that Iran can test about 10 IR-6 centrifuges for the first four years of the deal and then move to a cascade of 20 machines until year eight and a half, when it is permitted to test up to 30.

It does not appear to be clear in either the nuclear deal or leaked copies of the R&D plan how far ahead of those time frames Iran is permitted to install the additional IR-6 machines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on June 6 that inspectors have not found “a single violation” of Iran’s nuclear commitments.

An official from a country party to the JCPOA told Arms Control Today on June 13 that Tehran is “pushing the limits” of the deal but the IR-6 installation is not likely a violation. The official said that it is for the JCPOA Joint Commission to “resolve any ambiguities or compliance questions” and it is premature for states to make judgments on the IR-6 dispute before the commission can consider the issue.

The commission was set up to oversee implementation of the deal and resolve any compliance issues. It is comprised of the parties to the deal, so the United States is no longer a participant. The next commission meeting is scheduled for June 28.

Wolcott said the commission is “treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves.”

 

Iran Rejects Trump Outreach

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed a message from U.S. President Donald Trump in June, saying he would not send a response because Trump is not “deserving to exchange messages with.”

Trump’s message was delivered to Khamenei by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Tehran on June 12-13. The content of the message has not been disclosed, but Khamenei told Abe that Iran believes that its “problems will not be solved by negotiating” with the United States and that there is no sense in talking with Washington after the United States has “thrown away everything that was agreed upon,” referring to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal in
May 2018.

During a May 27 visit to Tokyo, Trump supported Abe’s decision to travel to Tehran and said he is “not looking to hurt Iran at all” and that he thinks “we’ll make a deal.”

On June 2, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is “prepared to engage in a conversation [with Iran] with no preconditions.”

Since then, tensions between the United States and Iran have increased. The United States accused Iran of attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13. Iran denied that it was behind the attack, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that a foreign country might have conducted the attack and is trying to blame Iran.

Iranian officials did publicly acknowledge shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone on June 20. Iran claimed that the drone was shot down in Iranian airspace, but the United States argued that the drone was in international airspace.

Trump sent mixed messages in response to Iran shooting down the drone. He tweeted on June 20 that “Iran made a very big mistake!” Later in the day, Trump said that he found it “hard to believe” that Iran’s action was intentional. The Trump administration discussed a possible retaliatory strike, but Trump said on June 21 that he did not give final approval for military action.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also visited Tehran recently. In a June 9 press conference with Zarif, Maas said that Germany remains committed to finding solutions that provide Iran with the economic benefits envisioned by the nuclear deal, but admitted that “we can’t perform miracles.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in May that Iran will return to compliance with the nuclear deal and refrain from further actions to breach the accord, currently planned for early July, if Europe, Russia, and China can facilitate oil and banking transactions.

Maas’s delegation included representatives from INSTEX, the mechanism set up by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to bypass U.S. sanctions and facilitate trade with Iran. INSTEX has yet to conduct a transaction, but a statement from the three countries after the visit said they are working to complete the first transaction “as quickly as possible.”—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Iran is increasing its stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water, nearing the limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal.

U.S. and Iranian Actions Put Nuclear Deal in Jeopardy

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Statement by Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy
and Daryl G. Kimball, executive director

For Immediate Release: June 27, 2019

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

(Washington, DC)—Iran’s announcement that it may soon breach the 300-kilogram limit on low-enriched uranium set by the 2015 nuclear deal is an expected but troubling response to the Trump administration’s reckless and ill-conceived pressure campaign to kill the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It is critical that President Donald Trump does not overreact to this breach and further escalate tensions.

Any violation of the deal is a serious concern but, in and of itself, an increase in Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile above the 300-kilogram limit of 3.67 percent enriched uranium does not pose a near-term proliferation risk.

Iran would need to produce roughly 1,050 kilograms of uranium enriched at that level, further enrich it to weapons grade (greater than 90 percent uranium-235), and then weaponize it. Intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections would provide early warning of any further moves by Iran to violate the deal.

Tehran is not racing toward the bomb but rather, Iran’s leaders are seeking leverage to counter the U.S. pressure campaign, which has systematically denied Iran any benefits of complying with the deal. Despite Iran’s understandable frustration with the U.S. reimposition of sanctions, it remains in Tehran’s interest to fully comply with the agreement’s limits and refrain from further actions that violate the accord.

If Iran follows through on its threat to resume higher levels of enrichment July 7, that would pose a more serious proliferation risk. Stockpiling uranium enriched to a higher level would shorten the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb–a timeline that currently stands at 12 months as a result of the nuclear deal’s restrictions.

The Trump administration’s failed Iran policy is on the brink of manufacturing a new nuclear crisis, but there is still a window to salvage the deal and deescalate tensions.

The Joint Commission, which is comprised of the parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Iran) and oversees implementation of JCPOA, will meet June 28. The meeting is a critical opportunity for the state parties to press Iran to fully comply with the nuclear deal and commit to redouble efforts to deliver on sanctions-relief obligations.

For its part, the White House needs to avoid steps that further escalate tensions with Iran. Trump must cease making vague military threats and refrain from taking actions such as revoking waivers for key nuclear cooperation projects that actually benefit U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

If Trump does not change course, he risks collapsing the nuclear deal and igniting a conflict in the region.

Description: 

An increase in Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile above the JCPOA-mandated limits does not in itself pose a near-term proliferation risk, and it is critical that the Trump administration does not overreact to this breach and further escalate tensions.

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The Trump Administration’s Failing Iran Policy Is Spurring Troubling Retaliatory Actions by Iran

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Statement by Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy 
and Daryl G. Kimball, executive director

For Immediate Release: June 17, 2019

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

(Washington, DC)—Iran announced Monday that in 10 days it will exceed a limit on enriched uranium set by the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s decision to breach caps imposed by the accord is a troubling but predictable response to the Trump administration’s systematic campaign to deny Iran any benefit from the nuclear deal over the past year.

Specifically, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced June 17 that Iran has quadrupled its production of 3.67 percent enriched uranium and will cross the limit of 300 kilograms of uranium gas enriched to that level set by the nuclear deal in 10 days. Iran first threatened to breach this cap May 8, one year after U.S. President Donald Trump violated the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions and withdrawing from the agreement.

While any violation of the deal is concerning, breaching the limit on low-enriched uranium does not pose a near-term proliferation risk.

Currently, as a result of restrictions put in place by the deal, it would take Iran about 12 months to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon. That timeline will decrease if Iran produces enriched uranium in excess of 300 kilograms, but it takes roughly 1,050 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent in gas form to produce enough weapons-grade uranium (over 90 percent enriched uranium-235) for one bomb.

However, Kamalvandi also reiterated that if the Europeans, Russia, and China do not take additional steps to secure sanctions relief envisioned by the deal by July 7, Iran will take actions that pose a more significant and immediate proliferation risk.

Kamalvandi noted that Iran is considering two scenarios for increasing the level of uranium enrichment beyond the 3.67 percent cap set by the deal. He said Iran may pursue five percent enrichment for its operating nuclear power reactor at Bushehr or 20 percent enrichment to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor. These steps would shorten the time it takes Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon.

While Iran’s frustration with Trump's reckless and irresponsible pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal. It remains in Iran’s interests to abide by the limits of the agreement and to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s more intrusive monitoring and verification.

We also urge the Trump administration to rethink its failing Iran’s policy, which has put an effective nonproliferation agreement in jeopardy, increasing the risk of a new nuclear crisis and the threat of conflict in the region.

It may still be possible to save the nuclear deal, which has successfully blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. Doing so will require Tehran’s continued compliance with the accord and for the remaining parties to the agreement to ratchet up efforts to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran and to pressure the United States to return to compliance with its commitments. Such developments could serve as a foundation for the United States and Iran to engage in negotiations that address other areas of tension in the region.

Description: 

Iran’s decision to breach caps imposed by the accord is a troubling but predictable response to the Trump administration’s systematic campaign to deny Iran any benefit from the nuclear deal over the past year.

Country Resources:

U.S. Accuses Iran Prematurely of Violating Nuclear Deal | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, June 14, 2019

U.S. Accuses Iran Prematurely of Violating Nuclear Deal Tensions over the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran continue to rise after the Trump administration accused Tehran of violating one of its commitments under the agreement, but Iran’s decision to install additional advanced centrifuges appears to fall into a gray area not covered by the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite the lack of clarity, the United States urged Iran to return to compliance even though U.S. President Donald Trump violated the deal by reimposing sanctions in May 2018 and...

Despite Threat to Breach Limits, Iran Remains Below the Nuclear Deal’s Caps

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) most recent report on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal indicates that Tehran continues to adhere to the accord’s limits—a positive development after President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would reduce compliance with the agreement. Specifically, the Supreme National Security Council stated May 8 that Iran would no longer be bound by the stockpile limits on heavy water and low-enriched uranium (LEU) put in place by the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) . According to the May 31...

Iran Threatens to Breach Nuclear Deal


June 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran will no longer adhere to certain limits of the 2015 agreement that restricts its nuclear activities, the government announced on May 8, threatening to breach other restrictions if the states party to the agreement do not deliver the deal’s envisioned economic benefits.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, shown here at a February meeting in Russia, announced May 8 that Iran would no longer be bound by certain limits under the 2015 nuclear deal. (Photo: Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images)The announcement came exactly one year after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and began to reimpose sanctions that were lifted as part of the agreement. Over the past year, U.S. President Donald Trump and other administration officials have escalated their use of bellicose language as they implement their strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described Iran’s proposed steps as a reduction in compliance with the deal and emphasized that Tehran is not withdrawing from the JCPOA. He said Iran made this decision because it has received little economic benefit under the deal despite its continued compliance. Rouhani said Iran has no interest in waging war but “will not give in to bullying.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the announcement as ambiguous and said the United States will “have to wait to see what Iran’s actions actually are” before responding. A State Department press release on May 8 called the decision “a blatant attempt to hold the world hostage” and said Washington would build on its pressure campaign.

The remaining five parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) urged Iran to continue complying with the agreement, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the “irresponsible behavior” of the United States for creating an “unacceptable situation.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of the three European countries party to the deal rejected “any ultimatums” from Iran and said they would continue to assess Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA based on whether the country is meeting its nuclear commitments. The statement did not indicate what actions the European Union and the three European states might take if Iran does breach the deal.

Iran’s announcement by the Supreme National Security Council said Tehran would begin to store more heavy water and low-enriched uranium (LEU) than the nuclear deal allows. Specifically, the JCPOA permits Iran to stockpile no more than 130 metric tons of heavy water and 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67-percent uranium-235.

Any breach of the JCPOA limits would violate the deal, but the initial steps Iran announced do not pose an immediate proliferation risk. Heavy water is used to moderate certain types of reactors that can produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and Iran is far from completing such a reactor.

If Iran exceeds the stockpile limit on LEU, it would reduce the time needed for Tehran to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon, known as the breakout time, but the 3.67-percent enrichment level is significantly below the 90-percent level considered to be weapons grade. Iran’s current breakout time is estimated at about 12 months. Prior to the JCPOA, it was two to three months.

Iran’s May 8 statement noted that “once our demands are met, we will resume implementation” of the JCPOA.

Tehran attributed its decision to the systematic campaign by the United States to deny Iran sanctions relief provided by the deal. Most recently, the Trump administration announced on April 22 that it would no longer grant waivers permitting states to buy limited amounts of oil from Iran, cutting off Iran’s largest export commodity and a key source of currency.

Following that decision, on May 3, the United States announced it would end several waivers for nuclear cooperation activities, including provisions that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water overseas and ship out enriched uranium. Waivers for several other nuclear cooperation projects were granted and will proceed for now.

Rouhani implied that the U.S. decision to target the sale or storage of enriched uranium and heavy water was forcing Iran into breaching the limits. Although the JCPOA allows for Iran to sell excess heavy water and enriched uranium, the country has other options for staying below the caps set by the JCPOA.

The additional steps that Iran threatened, which would begin 60 days after the May 8 announcement if the remaining JCPOA parties are not able to facilitate further oil sales or establish banking relations, pose a more significant proliferation risk. Those steps include restarting work on Iran’s heavy-water reactor and enriching uranium to 20-percent uranium-235.

Uranium enriched to 20 percent is still far below what is considered to be weapons grade, but significantly less work would be required to enrich that material to the 90-percent level than is needed to enrich uranium from 3.67 percent to 20 percent, further shortening Iran’s breakout time.

Restarting construction on the unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak would not pose a short-term risk, as the reactor is years away from operating, but would still create concerns because the facility’s original design was capable of producing enough plutonium for approximately two nuclear weapons every year.

The nuclear deal required Iran to modify the reactor to produce much less plutonium annually, to refrain from separating any plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel, and to ship out all spent fuel for 15 years. If Iran begins construction based on the modified design, it poses far less of a proliferation risk.

The remaining JCPOA parties have tried to preserve the economic benefits envisioned by the agreement, but efforts have been slow. Despite EU efforts to block the implementation of U.S. sanctions on European companies, the threat of U.S. sanctions and the risk of penalties has pushed most entities out of Iran. It is unclear if the EU, China, and Russia will be able to meet Iran’s demands.

The EU and Iran have set up a dedicated financial channel to facilitate transactions that are not subject to U.S. sanctions. When Mogherini first announced that such a mechanism would be created, she said it may be used to facilitate oil sales, but now European officials have stated that it will be limited to humanitarian trade. Although the mechanism has been set up, it is not yet functioning and is unlikely to be expanded to include oil trade within Iran’s 60-day timeline.

China appears to be the only state willing to risk U.S. sanctions by continuing to purchase oil from Iran. Beijing has been Iran’s largest oil customer, and China received a waiver from the United States in November to continue purchases for 180 days. The waiver ended May 2 and was not renewed, but an oil tanker owned by a Chinese bank left an Iranian port with 2 million barrels of oil on May 17. It is unlikely that this single shipment will be enough for Iran to refrain from following through on its threat to breach certain JCPOA limits, but it may indicate a willingness by some states to continue purchasing oil from Tehran.

If Iran does follow through on its threat to violate the deal, it will likely further escalate tensions between the United States and Iran.

National Security Advisor John Bolton announced in a May 5 statement that the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber task force were being deployed to the U.S. Central Command region in response to a number of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” Bolton said the move will “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

U.S. officials said Iranian-backed forces were behind May 12 attacks on oil tankers docked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, but offered little public evidence to support that assessment.

U.S. allies and members of Congress briefed on the intelligence have disagreed with Bolton’s characterization of it. British Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, who serves as deputy commander of coalition forces fighting the Islamic State, said on May 15 there is no increase in the threat from Iran.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on May 21 that intelligence presented does not indicate that Iran is “taking unprovoked and offensive measures” against the United States and its allies.

Trump has repeatedly said that he does not want war with Iran, but tweeted on May 19 that “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”

Rouhani responded to Trump’s May 20 rhetoric, saying that the “situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only,” and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that “economic terrorism and genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran.’”

One year after the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Tehran says it will not abide by some of the agreement’s limits.

Trump’s Failing Iran Policy


June 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

One year after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the deal is in deep trouble. Known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal has successfully rolled back Iran’s nuclear capabilities and put its activities under tighter monitoring, easing international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2018. (Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Not surprisingly, Trump’s ill-conceived “maximum pressure” campaign, which involves reimposing sanctions that were lifted when Iran met key JCPOA requirements, has done nothing to force changes in Iran’s regional behavior or push Iran into accepting new U.S. demands. Rather, the policy has sharply increased tensions in the Persian Gulf and decreased Iran’s incentives to continue compliance with the JCPOA.

In response to U.S. moves to further tighten sanctions earlier this spring, Iran announced on May 8 that it would no longer adhere to JCPOA limits on stockpiling heavy water and low-enriched uranium. Iran also gave the other parties to the agreement (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) 60 days to help it thwart U.S. sanctions on oil sales and banking transactions, or else it will take additional measures with more significant proliferation implications.

With its existing heavy-water production and uranium-enrichment capacities, Iran could soon breach some of these limits. Any violation of JCPOA restrictions is cause for concern, but Iran’s plan to exceed the agreement’s limits on storing more than 130 metric tons of heavy water and 300 kilograms of 3.67-percent enriched uranium-235 would not pose an immediate proliferation risk. By comparison, in June 2015 Iran had a stockpile of approximately 11,500 kilograms of LEU in all forms. It takes roughly 1,050 kilograms of LEU in gas form and enriched to weapons-grade to produce a significant quantity for one bomb.

A bigger problem would arise if Tehran resumes enriching uranium to 20-percent levels or restarts construction of the unfinished Arak heavy-water reactor. Although the reactor is years away from completion, it could provide enough plutonium for two nuclear weapons every year if the plant’s original blueprints are followed. More worrisome would be the resumption of enrichment to 20-percent levels, which would significantly decrease the time needed to acquire enough material for a bomb.

What is most tragic about the growing crisis is that Trump’s decision to violate U.S. commitments under the JCPOA appears to be based on a set of falsehoods and misconceptions that Trump and his senior officials continue to repeat.

In May 27 comments to reporters, Trump said, “I’m looking to have Iran say, ‘No nuclear weapons.’ If you look at the deal that [Vice President Joe] Biden and President [Barack] Obama signed, [Iran] would have access, free access, to nuclear weapons.”

Nonsense. Through the JCPOA, Iran reaffirmed its obligation never to pursue nuclear weapons and, more importantly, agreed to restrictions and a monitoring system that far exceed Tehran’s obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly confirmed that Iran is implementing the terms of the JCPOA.

The JCPOA’s limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities block Iran’s pathways to the bomb and prevent the nation from being able to amass enough bomb-grade nuclear material for one explosive device in less than one year. Moreover, any Iranian efforts to ramp up its fissile material production for weapons would be detected by the IAEA and national means of intelligence well in advance.

The JCPOA is not perfect, but it is a strong agreement that provides a solid basis for negotiating a follow-on agreement to extend key nuclear limits in ways that advance international security.

Instead, team Trump has chosen to reimpose sanctions to destroy Iran’s economy and, his pro-war national security advisor, John Bolton, hopes, the regime itself. But Trump’s strategy has failed to persuade anyone in Iran or any of the U.S. partners to the JCPOA that they come back to the table to negotiate a new, “better” deal.

Sadly, Trump does not seem to understand that his administration’s campaign to dismantle the most effective and durable barrier against an Iranian nuclear bomb—the JCPOA—only heightens the risk that Iran will leave the JCPOA and greatly expand its nuclear capacity.

The most responsible path forward in the face of the Trump administration’s gross violations of the nuclear deal is a more robust and effective effort by the JCPOA’s remaining parties to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran. It is also in Iran’s interests to exercise nuclear restraint, continue to cooperate with the IAEA, and refrain from taking further steps that increase the risk of conflict in the Middle East.

If the remaining parties can keep the JCPOA alive, then it may be possible for the next U.S. president to rejoin the JCPOA in 2021 and pursue a new round of talks on a follow-on agreement that addresses mutual issues of concern. If not, Trump may well have reignited a proliferation crisis in the volatile Middle East.

 

 

One year after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the deal is in deep trouble.

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