September 13, 2023

IntelBrief: Iran Taking Steps to Avoid Crisis Over its Nuclear Program, Agrees to Prisoner Swap with U.S.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Via AP, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran has modestly slowed its uranium enrichment activities in an apparent effort to avoid a crisis with the United States or regional actors over its nuclear intent and capabilities.
  • The slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities is consistent with reports that Iran seeks informal understandings with the United States – including the announcement this week of a finalized agreement on a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap – to lower tensions.
  • Iran can still produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon within two weeks, and it continues to deny international nuclear monitors unfettered access to its facilities.
  • Taking into account Iran’s recent nuclear concessions, the international community is likely to avoid outright condemnation of Iran’s continuing violations or recommend additional sanctions on Iran’s economy.

Since 2019, one year after the United States exited the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has been steadily expanding its enrichment of uranium and its nuclear program infrastructure. Constrained by politics in both the United States and Iran, the two sides were unable, in 18 months of negotiations, to restore full Iranian and U.S. participation in the 2015 nuclear deal. Since the formal talks were suspended in September 2022, diplomats and mediators, including several Arab Gulf states, have been unable to overcome a range of obstacles to revive the formal talks. Absent the nuclear agreement’s constraints, Tehran has expanded its program significantly, with potentially ominous consequences. According to a September 8 analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran retains the ability to use its existing stockpiles of 60 percent enriched uranium to produce enough weapon-grade enriched uranium (90 percent enriched) for a nuclear weapon in 12 days. Furthermore, Iran’s “breakout” - an all-out effort to assemble enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb - could be difficult for the United Nations nuclear watchdog organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to detect promptly if Iran delayed inspectors’ access to its declared nuclear facilities. Still, Iran is not believed to have yet developed the detonation mechanisms needed to complete a working nuclear device.

Tehran’s regional and international adversaries, particularly the United States and Israel, have reacted to Iran’s advances by asserting that military action might be justified in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state. Although much uncertainty remains about Tehran’s ultimate nuclear goals, Iranian nuclear advances eclipse its military support for a vast network of regional armed factions and its threats against commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf as the key national security threat concerning Washington and Tel Aviv. Because both U.S. and Iranian officials assess that the prospects for a significant – and unwanted - armed conflict are growing, leaders in both countries have sought ways to avoid a conflict that could impose dire consequences on Iran, the region, and potentially also the United States. Since May, according to a variety of reporting, U.S. and Iranian diplomats have been negotiating informal “understandings,” including voluntary Iranian limits on its uranium enrichment; de-confliction between U.S. and Iran-backed militia forces in Syria; and Iran’s release of five American citizens wrongfully or unlawfully detained - accompanied by limited U.S. sanctions relief. On September 11, the United States and Iran reportedly finalized the prisoner swap, under which several Iranians incarcerated in the United States would be released in exchange for the Americans. The reported deal includes U.S. sanctions waivers that permit $6 billion in Iranian Central Bank assets held in South Korean commercial banks to be transferred to Qatari banks, to be used by Iran to purchase food and medical equipment. The release of the assets in South Korea adds to the U.S. decision in June to allow Iraq to pay Iran $2.7 billion in Iranian assets held in escrow in Iraq – representing Iraqi payments for Iranian electricity and gas supplies – to be used for humanitarian purchases and to clear some Iranian international debts.

In early September, two IAEA reports on Iran’s compliance with its obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), covering the period from mid-May to mid-August, indicated that the informal U.S.-Iran talks might be yielding some benefits. One of the IAEA reports said that Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity grew at its slowest pace since 2021. Iran’s 60 percent enriched stockpile is a key metric watched by U.S., international, and regional officials because uranium enriched to that level of purity is just a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. Overall, the IAEA report estimated Iran's total enriched uranium stockpile (of varying levels of purity) had declined approximately 25 percent since the IAEA’s prior quarterly report issued May 31. The stockpile declined, according to the IAEA, because Iran diluted some of its enriched uranium – a process that would seem to represent a clear signal of Iran’s intent to de-escalate tensions over its nuclear program.

The IAEA reports also gave advocates of a U.S. and international hardline towards Iran ammunition to claim that Iran’s concessionary actions are insufficient and mostly cosmetic. Critics point to assertions in the IAEA reports that, after limited progress on re-installing IAEA surveillance cameras in the previous quarter, there had since been none. Even where IAEA monitoring equipment has been re-installed, such as at a site in Isfahan, Iran has not given the agency access to the footage that its cameras record. In addition, according to one of the IAEA reports: "The (IAEA) Director General (Rafael Grossi) regrets that there has been no progress in resolving the outstanding safeguards issues in this reporting period," referring to Iran's failure to credibly explain the origin of uranium particles found at two undeclared sites (sites that Iran has not identified to the IAEA as conducting nuclear work). On August 29, Grossi stated at a conference in Sweden that Iran should give assurances to the world that it is not making nuclear weapons as it already has enough material to make several bombs. He added that “[Iranian officials] should know that [they] must give credible assurances to the international community about what they are doing to a stock of highly enriched uranium, for which the needs of a peaceful nuclear program are... not so clear.”

Still, the modest Iranian nuclear concessions outlined by the IAEA reports will likely accomplish Tehran’s key objective – heading off a crisis with the United States and other adversaries. On September 11, the IAEA Board of Governors began its meetings to evaluate the two IAEA reports on Iran (and other countries’ nuclear programs), and the United States and its allies reportedly will not propose an accusatory resolution against Iran. An IAEA Board decision not to specifically condemn Iran’s violations of its commitments as a party to the NPT means that, at least for now, there will be no additional international sanctions against Iran and no start of a countdown clock towards any U.S., Israeli, or other military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.