As U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias clash in the Middle East, there is a growing risk that another dangerous flash point could ignite conflict between Tehran and Washington: Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Iran is already on the threshold of nuclear weapons six years on from U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral arrangement that had, to that point, successfully contained its nuclear program. Escalating regional tensions could push Tehran to determine it needs a nuclear deterrent for security or the United States to miscalculate Iran’s intentions and prematurely use military force against the country’s nuclear facilities. These risks are amplified by Iran’s decision to reduce the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s access to the country’s nuclear facilities and its failure to provide the agency with information regarding new nuclear sites. As IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi recently warned, Iran’s failure to be “entirely transparent” about its nuclear activities “increases dangers.”

As the Biden administration responds to attacks by Iranian proxies, it should simultaneously incentivize and pressure Tehran to enhance transparency on its nuclear program. Increased monitoring provides greater assurance that any dash to nuclear weapons would be quickly detected and reduces the likelihood of the United States or Israel misjudging Iran’s nuclear activities, a move that could have devastating ripple effects.

Monitoring Gaps Amplify Risks

The IAEA has regular access to Iranian sites where nuclear materials are present, such as the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. The IAEA also monitors enrichment levels at both sites. These are important transparency measures, but insufficient for providing assurance that Iran’s nuclear activities remain peaceful, particularly during this period of acute tensions. Inspectors would detect any move by Iran to weapons-grade enrichment at its declared facilities, but with Iran’s breakout so short — the country could produce enough nuclear material for a bomb in about a week and for five bombs in 3-4 weeks — there is a risk Tehran could try to produce weapons-grade materials between inspections or delay agency access to buy time for a breakout. More robust access would reduce those risks and detect any suspect enrichment activity more quickly, maximizing the time the United States would have to respond before Tehran produced weapons-grade nuclear material and diverted it to covert sites for weaponization. While it would likely take Iran 6-12 months to assemble a nuclear weapon (beyond producing the weapons-grade materials), that process would be more challenging to disrupt. Unlike fissile material production, which takes place at known sites, weaponization could take place at multiple, small undeclared facilities that would be difficult to locate and target with military strikes.

Furthermore, since February 2021, the IAEA has not had access to facilities that support Iran’s nuclear program, such as those producing centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. This is due to Tehran’s decision to suspend the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. The additional protocol gave the IAEA more information about the Iranian nuclear program and access to facilities that support the program but do not house nuclear materials. Additional protocols are specifically designed to address gaps in safeguards agreements that states have exploited in the past to pursue illicit nuclear activities. Without the additional protocol, there is an increased risk that Iran could divert equipment, such as centrifuges, to a covert facility. The IAEA requires access to these facilities to obtain a clearer picture of Iran’s activities and inventories.

The lack of transparency also increases the risk that an error or miscommunication is misinterpreted as a dash to the bomb. Iran’s threshold nuclear status greatly reduces the time that U.S. policymakers would have to react to a perceived breakout, making it more difficult to ascertain if Tehran made the decision to develop nuclear weapons or misjudged the space it had to escalate without triggering a U.S. response.

If, for instance, the IAEA were to detect a spike in enrichment above the declared level for a facility, similar to the 83 percent enriched particles detected at Fordow last January, intrusive monitoring and inspections could quickly provide clarity as to whether weapons-grade material was intentionally produced and diverted or if the spike was caused by human error.

Additional Access for Inspectors

Given the clear benefits of increased transparency, the United States and its partners should act now to incentivize Tehran to provide the IAEA with additional access to its nuclear program. There are several steps Iran could take that reduce the risk that the country’s nuclear program triggers a broader conflict.

First, restoring daily IAEA access to Natanz and Fordow would provide more assurance that any attempt to ratchet up enrichment or divert materials would be detected quickly. The possibility of daily inspections might also deter Iran from attempting to break out between inspections.

Additionally, the agency needs access to facilities that support Iran’s nuclear program, such as uranium ore concentrate production and centrifuge workshops. The agency has not been able to visit these sites or access the data from the cameras installed at these sites from February 2021-June 2022. Iran has also constructed new sites that support its nuclear program that the agency has never inspected.

While it is unlikely that Tehran would be willing to resume implementation of its additional protocol, it could negotiate IAEA access visits to these locations without reviving its additional protocol and give the agency access to stored surveillance data. These technical visits to sites outside of a country’s declared nuclear program are not unprecedented.  Another option would be to install surveillance equipment at these locations and allow the IAEA regular access to the data recordings. Either option would help the IAEA begin to reestablish baseline inventories in certain areas and provide more assurance that Iran is not diverting equipment, such as centrifuges, for covert activities.

In return, the United States could allow Iran to transfer frozen funds held in foreign banks to accounts set up in Qatar that Tehran can use to pay vendors for humanitarian goods exempt from U.S. sanctions. Allowing Iran access to additional funds, even for humanitarian goods, will be politically challenging for the Biden administration, particularly if clashes between U.S. forces and Iranian backed militias persist, but it is far less costly than a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.  A more politically feasible option might be for the United States to support trade at the regional level between Iran and the Gulf States. This would include issuing licenses and waivers to allow Iran to build trade relationships and seek investments from the region. Engagement between Iran and Gulf States suggest both sides are interested in strengthening economic and political ties.

If Tehran wants to keep open the option of reaching a nuclear deal with Washington to lift sanctions and prevent a wider war with the United States, it behooves the country to increase transparency now. While Tehran may view withholding more intrusive monitoring of its nuclear program as a means of leverage in negotiations with the United States, its actions may have the opposite effect. If the United States or Israel miscalculates Iran’s intentions and targets the country’s nuclear program, it loses that leverage.

Implementing Code 3.1

In addition to expanded access, the United States and Europe should encourage a broader swath of the international community to pressure Iran to meet its legally-required obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), particularly modified Code 3.1 of its safeguards agreement.

Modified Code 3.1 requires countries to provide the IAEA with information about a nuclear site when the decision is made to build the facility. This gives the agency a much longer lead time for developing an effective safeguards approach compared to the original text, which required notifying the IAEA 180 days before nuclear material is introduced to a facility.

Iran’s implementation of this critical aspect of its safeguards agreement would provide greater assurance that Tehran is not building new nuclear sites that increase proliferation risk, such as additional uranium enrichment facilities.

Iran maintains that it has the right to suspend modified Code 3.1—an argument the IAEA vigorously rebuts—and in recent months announced construction on several new nuclear facilities without notifying the agency. Grossi emphasized the agency’s concern regarding Iran’s failure to implement modified Code 3.1 after briefing the IAEA’s Board of Governors in November, noting that Iran announced several new nuclear facilities but has not provided the agency with design information.

The United States and the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) also raised the importance of modified Code 3.1 at the November board meeting, describing Iran’s failure to work with the IAEA on this issue as “entirely unacceptable and deeply concerning given Iran’s history of constructing covert nuclear facilities.”

While any failure to implement Code 3.1 is alarming, Grossi’s comments in November suggest the agency’s primary concern is not the additional power plants or research reactors Iran recently began constructing. While Grossi did not go into specifics, one of the locations driving the emphasis on modified Code 3.1 could be the new facility Iran is building at Natanz. Tehran claims the facility will be used for centrifuge assembly.

However, the facility appears larger than necessary for the stated purpose and is more deeply buried than the Fordow uranium enrichment site, making it difficult to target with conventional military explosives. IAEA access to the facility is necessary to determine that Tehran is not building a new enrichment facility in violation of its safeguards obligations.

Given the serious ramifications of Iran’s failure to implement modified Code 3.1, more states should be pressuring Tehran to meet its obligations. States with stronger ties to Iran, such as members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) or Shanghai Cooperation Organization (India, Iran, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), should join the United States and Europe in urging Iran to fully implement Modified Code 3.1, warning of the consequences if Iran continues to ignore its international legal obligations. Western pressure and the prospect of censure by the IAEA’s Board of Governors is not affecting Iran’s calculus on modified Code 3.1, but if states that Tehran is building security and trade relationships with, particularly China, speak up, they could have more of an influence on the country’s decision-making. Broader condemnation of Iran’s failure to fully implement Code 3.1 also sends the message to Tehran that nonproliferation remains a unifying global priority.

Additionally, it is in the interest of all states to support the full implementation of safeguards. Any erosion of nonproliferation norms and standards risks a ripple effect that could lead more states to match Iran’s hedging capabilities or withdraw from the NPT.

Moving Forward

Both the United States and Iran maintain they are not seeking conflict. In a Feb. 4 interview with Meet the Press, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States will respond forcefully to attacks on Americans, but Washington “is not looking for a wider war in the Middle East.” Iranian leadership also emphasized that it does not seek a war with the United States.

As both sides seek to prevent current clashes from escalating, they cannot lose sight of the risks posed by Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Pursuing transparency measures now would help prevent the nuclear program from triggering a wider war. Additional monitoring and access would reduce the risk of miscalculation and provide greater assurance that any move to nuclear weapons development would be quickly detected. Greater transparency is not a long-term fix to the proliferation threat, but it will deescalate tensions over Tehran’s advancing nuclear program and reduce the risk of a widening regional conflict. All states that support broader nonproliferation efforts and deescalating regional tensions should be pushing Iran to meet its safeguards obligations and allow for more intrusive monitoring now.

IMAGE: Visual representation of the Iranian flag with a symbol of nuclear power (via Getty Images).