After months of ratcheting up its nuclear activities while negotiations remain stalled, Iran took a small, limited step toward deescalation in May. Iran’s recent willingness to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to increase transparency on its nuclear program could help open diplomatic space for additional steps toward decreasing tensions and rolling back Iran’s nuclear advances. The United States should take advantage of this limited window, given the growing risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the lack of progress in restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The IAEA noted in a May 31 report that Iran finally began to follow through on a commitment it made as part of a March 4 agreement to voluntarily increase monitoring of its nuclear program. But the delay in implementation and differing interpretations from the agency and Tehran over the scope of transparency commitments cast doubt on whether Iran intended to follow through. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors on June 5 that Iran’s actions represent a “fraction” of what is necessary to implement the March 4 agreement, but noted there are benefits to the steps Tehran has taken.
Specifically, the IAEA installed enrichment monitoring devices at the Fordow uranium enrichment facility and the area of the Natanz enrichment complex where Iran is producing 60 percent enriched uranium, a level just shy of weapons-grade (90 percent). Grossi said the monitors will allow the IAEA to “detect more rapidly any variations in enrichment levels.”
Rapid detection is critical given how close technically Iran is to producing the fissile material for a nuclear weapon. If Tehran made the decision to build a bomb it could “breakout,” or produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one explosive device, in less than a week. IAEA inspectors visit Natanz and Fordow frequently enough that breakout would likely be detected quickly, but without the enrichment monitors it could be weeks before the IAEA gets confirmation of enrichment levels and seeks clarification from Iran on any fluctuation above declared enrichment levels. The IAEA’s efforts to investigate the presence of uranium particles enriched to 84 percent at Fordow in January and Iran’s insistence that the spike was an anomaly that occurred when it raised enrichment levels to 60 percent at the facility underscore how time consuming and contentious that process can be, particularly now that the JCPOA’s unique monitoring and access commitments have fallen away.
The new monitors provide immediate, reliable assessments of Iran’s enrichment levels, preserving time for the international community to act if Iran were to breakout. The monitors also reduce the risk of miscalculation, which is particularly critical given Iran’s threats to enrich to weapons-grade uranium as part of its efforts to gain leverage at the negotiating table. Furthermore, enrichment monitors may deter Iran from trying to experiment with higher-level enrichment between IAEA inspections, as Tehran may have done in January when the agency detected the 84-percent enriched uranium.
The IAEA report also confirmed that on May 2-3 agency inspectors reinstalled cameras at a facility in Esfahan that produces components for centrifuges which are used to enrich uranium. The IAEA has not inspected this facility since Iran suspended the more intrusive monitoring provisions required by the JCPOA in February 2021. While Iran did agree to continue to allow cameras to surveil the Esfahan facility and others after that point, Iran disconnected the monitoring equipment in June 2022 as part of its pressure campaign and has not yet turned over any data from that 15 month period to the IAEA. For months, Grossi warned about the implications of the monitoring gap for future diplomacy. He reiterated in the May 31 report that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish reliable baselines for certain inventories, such as centrifuge components, to verify the JCPOA’s limits against, and reconstruct a history of, Iran’s nuclear activities.
Unfortunately, the May 31 report makes clear that Iran and the IAEA have not yet reached a deal on if or when Tehran will hand over the data—both from the current and February 2021-June 2022 periods. Grossi called on June 5 for an agreement “without delay” and said the recordings are “indispensable” for the IAEA to begin work on reestablishing baselines.
But even without access to the data, the cameras still provide some limited benefits. For instance, restoring surveillance caps the monitoring gap at the Esfahan facility, thus reducing the level of uncertainty on future baselines and mitigating the negative implications for future diplomacy. The more data the IAEA can access down the road, the more reliable its assessments of Iran’s nuclear program will be. Also, the presence of cameras should help deter Iran from diverting materials from the Esfahan facility to a covert program. If Iran is keeping open the option of a nuclear deal it is in Tehran’s interest to help prove it has not squirreled away materials for illicit activities and that the IAEA could verify limits on items such as centrifuges under a future agreement.
The installation of monitoring equipment is not the only good news in the May 31 IAEA report. The agency noted that Iran submitted information suggesting that it will complete the unfinished nuclear reactor at Arak (also known as the Khondab reactor) based on a design agreed to under the JCPOA. This is significant because, if Tehran completed the reactor as originally designed, it would produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for two nuclear weapons on an annual basis. Under the modified design, the reactor will produce a fraction of what is necessary for one bomb every year. Iran threatened to revert to the original design as part of its pressure campaign and there has been little progress at the site over the past several years, raising concerns that Iran was keeping its options open. The reactor news does not mitigate proliferation risk in the short-term—if Iran makes the decision to build a nuclear weapon it will use uranium—but this decision will help keep the door shut on a plutonium pathway in the long run.
While the reactor design and the limited steps to enhance transparency are positive, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program is still growing. Unsurprising, the IAEA report noted increases in the stockpiles of uranium enriched to 60 percent and 20 percent. These levels can be more quickly enriched to the 90-percent level considered weapons grade. With the 114 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent and 471 kilograms enriched to 20 percent noted in the May 31 report, Iran could likely produce enough weapons-grade material for about five bombs in less than a month if the political decision were made to do so. Breaking out to multiple weapons quickly is more concerning from a proliferation perspective because a country needs to build more than one bomb for an effective deterrent. This breakout timeframe to multiple weapons will continue to drop as the stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium, particularly 60 percent, grow and if Iran follows through on previous announcements to install additional advanced centrifuges at its enrichment facilities. Weaponization would still take six months or more, but that process is more challenging to detect and disrupt. This dwindling breakout timeframe again underscores the importance of the newly-installed enrichment monitors in rapidly and reliably detecting any move to weapons-grade enrichment.
Furthermore, there is a real risk of spoilers. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last in office, Israel sabotaged several nuclear facilities and assassinated Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the so-called father of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program. If Netanyahu reverts back to the sabotage playbook to set back Iran’s nuclear activities in the short-term, Iran will respond by further hardening its facilities and advancing its nuclear program. Given how technically advanced Iran’s nuclear program is there is a significant risk of miscalculation as Tehran has little room to escalate without tripping U.S. and/or Israeli redlines.
The Biden administration would be hard pressed to find support in Washington for reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran at this point, but it is also not in U.S. interests to allow Iran’s nuclear program to expand unchecked Between the growing proliferation threat posed by Iran’s stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and the risk of spoilers driving the Washington and Tehran to the brink of war, it is critical for the United States and its European partners to seize the opportunity created by Iran’s decision, albeit limited, to increase transparency and cooperation with the IAEA. The March 4 agreement between Iran and the IAEA to enhance transparency is voluntary—Tehran is not legally obligated to reinstall additional monitoring equipment or hand over the data recordings to the IAEA—but it might be more inclined to follow through if the United States and Europe took reciprocal steps to decrease tensions and provided additional incentives for Iranian compliance.
Putting reciprocal, deescalatory action on the table could also help test Iranian intentions. Iran’s past actions raise legitimate concerns that Tehran is doing the bare minimum to stave off further censure or punitive action by the IAEA’s Board of Governors. But if Tehran is serious about preserving space for diplomacy, Iran may view a reciprocal gesture as an off-ramp and be willing to take further steps. Limited measures to enhance transparency will not solve the Iranian nuclear crisis in the long term, but de-escalation now decreases the risk of conflict and creates time and space for diplomacy to work.