June 4, 2024

IntelBrief: Iran Nuclear File Returns to the Front Burner

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • U.S. officials in the Biden administration prefer to negotiate understandings with Iran to limit its nuclear program, rather than back European efforts to censure its nuclear activities formally.
  • A new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report assesses Iran now has enough highly enriched uranium to develop three nuclear weapons if the regime decides to do so.
  • Additional U.S. and European sanctions on Iran are unlikely to materially alter Iran’s strategic intentions or capabilities.
  • Critics argue U.S. officials are downplaying Iran’s advance to the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability in order to remain engaged with Iran bilaterally on nuclear and regional issues.

Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Iran’s advancing nuclear program has been somewhat eclipsed as a strategic challenge by Tehran’s backing of a broad “Axis of Resistance” attacking Israel, U.S. forces in the region, and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. However, a late May report by the world’s main nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), appears to have returned Tehran’s stockpiling of enriched uranium to a front-burner issue. The report confirmed that Iran continues to move closer toward the nuclear weapons threshold, assessing that Tehran has increased its stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium (near-weapons-grade) to 142.1 kilograms.

This amount represented an increase of 20.6 kilograms since the IAEA’s last estimate in February. This stockpile is enough to construct several nuclear warheads - if Iran were to complete the technologically straightforward process of enriching its holdings to 90 percent purity. Just 41 kilograms of 90 percent uranium enriched is enough to make a nuclear weapon in a few days, the IAEA noted.

No Western official viewed the new IAEA report as a dire emergency because Tehran is not believed to have been developing the nuclear explosive technology needed to construct an actual nuclear weapon. U.S. intelligence assesses Iran shelved its nuclear explosive research program in 2003, in the runup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, apparently fearing that the George W. Bush administration might move militarily on Tehran to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Nonetheless, the IAEA report triggered France and the United Kingdom to announce they would censure Iran at the IAEA’s 35-member-state quarterly Board of Governors meeting that will convene June 3-7.

Following the circulation of the late May IAEA report, one senior European diplomat told journalists: "There is no slowing down of its program and there is no real goodwill by Iran to cooperate with the IAEA...all our indicators are flashing red.” The last time the United States and its European allies – primarily the so-called “EU-3” (UK, France and Germany) backed a censure motion against Iran was in November 2022. But, rather than lining up with its allies, the United States is arguing against any censure motion at the June IAEA session. To European diplomats, this position seems to represent a reversal of the U.S. stance from March, when U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Laura Holgate said that Iran’s “level of cooperation with the [IAEA] remains unacceptable.” She stated the IAEA Board of Governors “must be prepared to take further action should Iran’s cooperation not improve dramatically.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. officials are urging the UK and France to join the United States in abstaining from an Iran censure motion at the Board of Governors meeting. U.S. officials deny there is a rift with the European allies over how to respond to Iran’s nuclear advances. One U.S. official has told journalists that the United States is “tightly coordinated” with European allies and that speculation on the IAEA censure resolution is “premature.”

U.S. officials are reportedly offering several overlapping reasons for opposing a censure of Iran in early June. They reportedly argue Iran is likely to respond to a formal censure motion by escalating its nuclear activities, as it has done in the past. Some reports say that U.S. diplomats are also asserting that an IAEA censure might cause a backlash inside Iran that will help one of the harder-line candidates prevail in the June 28 emergency election to succeed President Ibrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in northern Iran on May 19. The registration period for candidates in the special election concludes the day the IAEA Board meeting begins.

During talks with IAEA officials in late May, aimed at improving Iran's cooperation with the Agency’s efforts to monitor Iranian nuclear facilities more consistently, Iranian officials told reporters they would not negotiate on the IAEA’s demands until Raisi's successor is elected. The IAEA has also long sought Iranian answers to questions about nuclear material that was discovered at undeclared sites in Iran – findings that suggest Iran had engaged in nuclear work outside the scope of IAEA monitoring that is required under its Safeguards Agreement as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

U.S. diplomats appear to be trying to steer their counterparts to apply any or all of the numerous alternatives to a censure motion. Biden administration officials told the Wall Street Journal they are advocating European nations increase pressure on Iran by blocking Iranian banks from access to European financial systems and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terror group. The United States designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2019, but U.S. allies in Europe did not follow suit, arguing a state’s duly constituted military force should not be characterized as a terrorist group.

Few experts assess that additional sanctions will cause Iranian leaders to change course, either on its nuclear program or on its backing of Axis of Resistance partners in the region. Iran is selling nearly 1.5 million barrels per day of crude oil to China, which views Tehran as a partner in efforts to overturn Western dominance of the global financial and political system and is unlikely to abide by any new U.S. or allied economic sanctions against Iran. A European designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group, even if that step is adopted, would be little more than symbolic. The IRGC operates throughout the region but has little presence in Europe and is already shut out from buying Western arms. European diplomats maintain that imposing additional sanctions is not mutually exclusive with voting in favor of an IAEA censure motion.

Critics argue U.S. officials are opposing an IAEA censure motion to remain bilaterally engaged with Iran on nuclear issues as well as Iran’s backing for Axis of Resistance attacks related to but also predating the war in Gaza. Press reports indicate U.S. and Iranian officials held their latest indirect meetings in early May in the Sultanate of Oman, purportedly to discuss how to prevent the war in Gaza from escalating into a regional war following Iran’s April 4 missile and drone attack on Israel. The barrage was thwarted by Israel, the United States, and several Arab states, acting in concert. However, U.S. officials argue the U.S.-Iran talks in Oman, which have taken place periodically since formal negotiations to restore the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) broke off in late 2022, have made progress reaching “understandings” for Iran to keep its nuclear program limited.

It remains unclear whether Iran’s further stockpiling of 60 percent enriched uranium, as reported by the IAEA in late May, is consistent with or a violation of those understandings. Yet, critics maintain the talks with Iran, brokered by the Sultanate, have achieved little and only cause Iran to believe it can destabilize the region with impunity. U.S. critics also note that, rather than putting economic pressure on Iran, U.S. leaders have provided Iran with sanctions relief in the form of sanctions waivers that have permitted blocked Iranian assets in South Korea and Iran to be transferred to accounts in Qatar and Oman for use by Iran’s regime. Referencing the U.S. political context, some assert U.S. officials see engagement with Iran and sanctions relief as a means of preventing Iran and its Axis of Resistance partners from escalating regional conflict to a level that would detract from President Biden’s re-election efforts in November.