According to David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security, supporters of the nuclear agreement with Iran incorrectly claim the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified Iranian “compliance” with the deal when, in fact, it has not done so. “The IAEA has reported that it still has not been able to determine that Iran has no undeclared nuclear facilities and materials and thus cannot conclude that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful,” they noted. “While Iran has been pressed successfully to stop its multiple technical violations of specific nuclear limitations, the basic proposition of whether Iran seeks nuclear weapons has not been answered in the three plus years since the deal commenced” (The National Interest, April 4, 2019).
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said Iran is close to finishing a factory where it can build a new generation of centrifuge machines. He also said Iran had imported 400 tons of yellowcake uranium since signing the JCPOA, bringing its stockpile to between 900 and 950 tons. This is permissible under the agreement; however, Iran is still required to limit the enrichment of uranium to 3.67 percent, enough to use in a nuclear power plant but less than the 90 percent needed for an atomic weapon (AP, July 18, 2018).
Reports released in 2018 by the German intelligence agencies in Hamburg, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Hesse obtained by the Jerusalem Post indicate Iran continues to seek weapons of mass destruction (Jerusalem Post, July 21, 2018).
The July report from Hamburg said that Iran is among the “crisis countries” that “are still making an effort to obtain products for the manufacture of atomic, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (proliferation) and the corresponding missile carrier technology (rocket technology).” The report added, “Iran continues to pursue unchanged an ambitious program to modernize its rocket technology with the goal of a continued increase of the reach of the missiles.”
Bavaria’s intelligence agency disclosed in April 2018: “Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Pakistan are making efforts to expand their conventional weapons arsenal through the production of weapons of mass destruction.”
The report compiled in Hesse specified that Iran was one of two countries seeking to obtain nuclear weapons. “States like Iran and North Korea attempt, in the context of proliferation, to acquire and spread such weapons by, for example, disguising the transportation ways through third countries.”
In June 2018, Baden-Württemberg intelligence reported: “Iran continued to undertake, as did Pakistan and Syria, efforts to obtain goods and know-how to be used for the development of weapons of mass destruction and to optimize corresponding missile-delivery systems.”
The North Rhine-Westphalia intelligence agency found that Iran was trying to obtain “relevant goods for its rocket program.”
On July 16, 2019, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed a three-count indictment charging Behzad Pourghannad, Ali Reza Shokri, and Farzin Faridmanesh with attempting to smuggle carbon fiber out of America and ship it to Tehran in a plot that began in 2008 and continued into 2013. Carbon fiber is strictly controlled because “it has a wide variety of uses, including in missiles, aerospace engineering, and gas centrifuges that enrich uranium.”
Pourghannad was arrested in May 2017 in Germany and extradited to the United States. The other two alleged conspirators remain at large.
“Iran remains determined to acquire U.S. technology with military applications, and the FBI is just as determined to stop such illegal activity,” according to FBI Assistant Director John Brown (Washington Free Beacon, July 17, 2019).
While many of Iran’s actions were alarming, U.S. intelligence concluded in its annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” in January 2019 that Iran was not taking the steps necessary to make a bomb. C.I.A. director Gina Haspel testified before Congress that “at the moment, technically they are in compliance, but we do see them debating amongst themselves as they’ve failed to realize the economic benefits they hoped for from the deal.” She also cautioned that Iran is “making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back if they make that decision.” technically in compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement (New York Times, January 29, 2019).
Eli Lake observed that “the very same assessment notes that Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle ‘shortens the timeline’ for it to develop the long-range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. Like North Korea, Iran is still pursuing its insurance policy” (Bloomberg, January 29, 2019).
Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, argued the assessment is misleading because Iran is developing advanced centrifuges and testing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. “Both activities are key to having a nuclear-weapons capability, and Iran can work on them without violating the JCPOA,” she said. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not acted on the information found in the Iranian nuclear archives. “How can the assessment be so sure about its conclusions when this information is not taken into account?” (JNS, February 7, 2019).
The U.S. assessment was also peculiar given the admission of Salehi regarding the Arak nuclear facility, which was designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In 2016, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had satisfied the requirement to fill specialized tubes with cement to make the reactor’s central component, the “calandria,” unusable. Still, Salehi said, “We did not tell them that we had other tubes. Otherwise, they would have told us to pour cement into those tubes as well. Now we have the same tubes.” This raises the questions: “Where did Iran purchase the tubes, and where are they now? Has the regime built a replacement calandria already — or even a new reactor?” (Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2019).
Perhaps the best indication that Iran has continued to advance its nuclear program comes from Salehi, who said in September 2018: “If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before ... We will be standing in a much, much higher position” (Gatestone Institute, March 30, 2019).
After signing the JCPOA, Iran stopped producing 20% enriched uranium and deposited the excessive fuel in Russia in nearly ten batches. Iran announced on August 11, 2018, that it asked for the return of the first batch seven months earlier and planned to bring back a second. In April, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said it would take only four days to ramp up enrichment again to 20% at its Fordo nuclear facility, which begs the question of how this is possible if the nuclear deal was supposed to cut off all avenues for Iran to build a bomb. Salehi also threatened countries that might consider following the United States’ lead in pulling out of the JCPOA by suggesting Iran could respond by advancing its nuclear program beyond the pre-agreement levels (Fars News Agency, August 11, 2018). Meanwhile, David Albright disclosed that nearly all of Iran’s advanced centrifuges were failing (Jerusalem Post, January 30, 2019).
In February 2019, Salehi explained how Iran effectively used a loophole in the JCPOA to develop advanced centrifuges. In the first ten years of the agreement, Iran was only permitted to use IR1 centrifuges for enrichment. In the meantime, they have completed tests on IR4 and IR2M centrifuges. “We have all the data, and we can easily manufacture them on an industrial scale,” he said when the JCPOA limit expires (MEMRI, February 8, 2019).
Some critics have also asked why Iran installed defensive weapons around nuclear installations if they are being used for nonmilitary purposes.
Meanwhile, Iran has also been employing cyber warfare to target U.S. officials and experts. Hackers have been trying to break into the private emails of U.S. Treasury officials, high-profile defenders, detractors and enforcers of the nuclear deal, Arab atomic scientists, Iranian civil society figures, and D.C. think tank employees (AP, December 13, 2018).
On September 27, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the existence of a secret warehouse in the Turquz Abad district in Tehran, which he said held equipment and materiel related to Iran’s past or possibly ongoing nuclear weapons efforts. He also disclosed that the facility had held 15 kilograms of radioactive material that Iran subsequently dispersed around Tehran.
Meanwhile, the Iranians emptied the warehouse and “disposed of radioactively contaminated material stored at the site.” According to Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director General of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards, “The IAEA’s lack of action or explanation of its inaction undermines its credibility and raises questions about its effectiveness in its Iran safeguards mission” (Institute for Science and International Security, November 29, 2018). Months after Israel urged the agency to inspect the site, inspectors were sent to investigate. Given the amount of time that had elapsed, it was unlikely the agency would find anything (Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2019).
Moreover, since the implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA has been unable to determine if Iran’s nuclear program is devoted solely to peaceful purposes. In addition, Iran may still have undeclared atomic activities.
On April 9, President Hassan Rouhani authorized the installation of a cascade of 20 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site, another step that could facilitate future work on nuclear weapons (MEMRI, April 10, 2019). A few weeks later, in response to increased pressure from the United States, Iran announced it had quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium. “This issue does not mean that there is an increase in the purity of the material or that there’s an increase in the number of centrifuge machines or that there’s a change in the type of centrifuges,” according to Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. Uranium production will still be enriched to the 3.67 percent limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal, far below the 20% to which Iran was enriching before the agreement or the 90% required to produce nuclear weapons. By quadrupling production, however, Iran likely will soon go beyond the stockpile limitation of 300 kilograms set by the deal (“Reports: Iran Quadruples Production of Low-Enriched Uranium, IsraelDefense, (May 22, 2019).
Further evidence that Iran is continuing its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons came from a May 2019 report from Bavarian intelligence. The Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution called Iran a “risk country” that is “making efforts to expand its conventional arsenal of weapons with weapons of mass destruction” It says, “In order to obtain the necessary know-how and corresponding components, these states [Iran, North Korea and Pakistan] are trying to establish business contacts to companies in highly technological countries like Germany” (Fox News, May 30, 2019).
A study released in April 2019 by a group of researchers from Harvard who examined part of the nuclear archive came to some disturbing conclusions (“The Iran Nuclear Archive: Impressions and Implications,” Belfer Center, April 2019):
The fact that the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies were unaware of the extent of Iran’s nuclear program does not inspire confidence that they know what Iran is doing today. Worse, the Israelis found evidence that “Iran had penetrated the IAEA and, on some occasions, knew in advance what questions the agency would ask or what sites they would seek to visit.”
This raises the question: Could the IAEA still be compromised?
In 2018, the United States and the United Arab Emirates separately reported instances of the export to Iran of “dual-use items” that have a potential nuclear purpose. The U.S.-reported shipment included carbon fiber, a material that can be used in missile nose cones, and some enrichment centrifuges (Washington Institute, October 30, 2019).
In June 2019, a New Jersey woman, Joyce Eliabachus, also known as Joyce Marie Gundran Manangan, pleaded guilty to conspiring with an Iranian national to smuggle thousands of airplane components — worth an estimated $2 million — to Iran. The alleged ringleader of that network, Peyman Amiri Larijani, a citizen and resident of Iran, was charged with one count each of conspiracy to violate Iranian transactions and sanctions regulations, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to smuggle goods from the United States.
“For over two years, Eliabachus illegally engaged in aircraft component sales to Iran, a nation listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Brian Michael, HSI Newark special agent in charge, said. “This potentially endangered U.S. security, particularly as one of the Iranian companies sold to, does business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a military unit tied to terrorist acts around the world.” Special agent in charge Jonathan Carson, of the Office of Export Enforcement, added, “This arrest will cut off a key supplier to a proliferation network which illegally sold U.S. origin items to Iran” (Morristown Daily Record, June 11, 2019).
In July 2019, three Iranians were charged in New York with trying to illegally export “many tons” of carbon fiber. One of the Iranians, extradited from Germany, is in detention; the other two are at large (Washington Institute, October 30, 2019).
Following through on its threat to increase its enrichment of uranium in response to the tightening of U.S. sanctions on its oil sector, Iran began producing more enriched uranium in June 2019. The IAEA said Iran exceeded the 300 kg limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, prompting President Trump to warn that the country was “playing with fire.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “Our next step will be enriching uranium beyond the 3.67% allowed under the deal” (BBC, July 2, 2019).
A few days later, Iran announced it would breach the limits on uranium enrichment levels set by the nuclear deal by increasing enrichment levels to 5 percent purity. In doing so, former deputy director-general for safeguards at the IAEA, Olli Heinonen said it would reduce its breakout time to a nuclear weapon by approximately two months. That can be reduced to six months, he said, if Iran installs additional centrifuges it has stored in Natanz (Jerusalem Post, July 8, 2019).
In addition, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, warned that Iran would take further measures in violation of the accord at 60-day intervals unless international powers provide sanctions relief as detailed in the deal (New York Times, July 7, 2019). One fear is that one step would be to increase enrichment to the 20 percent level it reached before signing the agreement.
Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear agreement and ended United Nations sanctions against Iran, contains a “snapback” provision, which calls for the reinstatement of those sanctions if Iran violates the deal. This was one of the selling points used by President Obama to win support for the agreement. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced, however, that none of the signatories to the deal considered the breaches significant enough to take action. “Technically, all the steps that have been taken, and that we regret have been taken, are reversible,” she said following a meeting of EU foreign ministers. “We invite Iran to reverse the steps and go back to full compliance” (BBC, July 15, 2019).
Though the breakout time may have been reduced, Lara Seligman observed it would still take several steps to build a bomb. Iran would need 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent purity, “convert that uranium from gas to metal, fit it with an explosive package that could ignite the fission reaction and mount it on a ballistic missile” (Foreign Policy, July 8, 2019).
In the most dramatic revelation of Iran’s illicit nuclear activity, sources indicated the IAEA found evidence of radioactive materials in a secret location discovered by Israel (Reuters, September 8, 2019). In a speech to the UN in September 2018, Netanyahu said Israel had discovered a warehouse to store nuclear equipment and material and that Iran had removed 15 kilograms of undeclared enriched uranium from the facility in August 2018. He called on the IAEA to investigate before the Iranians cleaned up the facility.
The Iranians claimed at the time that the warehouse in Tehran was a carpet factory. The IAEA reportedly sent inspectors to the site and took soil samples with trace amounts of radioactive material. The failure to declare the site violated the JCPOA, but the agency did not publicize this information (Channel 13 News Israel, July 11, 2019). Iran was subsequently said to be interfering with the IAEA investigation of the storage facility.
Diplomats said the agency would criticize Iran for not cooperating but did not do so in its quarterly report even though Iran refuses to answer the agency’s questions about what material was stored at the warehouse and where it is now. The IAEA’s actions in this case “continue a pattern of the agency’s unwillingness to hold Tehran accountable for the violations of its nuclear safeguard obligations,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (Wall Street Journal, (September 2, 2019).
In July 2019, A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon also raised the disturbing but unpublicized fact that the location of 8.5 tons of Iranian-enriched uranium that was supposed to have been shipped to Russia in 2015 is unknown and could be in Iran. At a congressional hearing in February 2016, Ambassador Stephen Mull, the Obama administration’s lead coordinator on Iran at the State Department, admitted Washington had lost track of the enriched uranium and was no longer under IAEA oversight (MEMRI, July 2, 2019).
Iran announced its plans to violate another element of the JCPOA by resuming activities at the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor. This is one more step toward renewing its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, as this facility may be capable of producing plutonium for a bomb (Reuters, July 29, 2019).
In early September 2019, Rouhani announced, “The atomic energy organization is ordered to immediately start whatever is needed in the field of research and development, and abandon all the commitments that were in place regarding research and development” under the JCPOA. He specifically mentioned, “expansions in the field of research and development, centrifuges, different types of new centrifuges, and whatever we need for enrichment” (AFP, September 4, 2019). Iran subsequently announced it had begun injecting uranium gas into advanced centrifuges (Times of Israel, September 7, 2019).
On September 9, 2019, Netanyahu revealed the existence of another secret nuclear site exposed in the archives Israel obtained. He said Iran conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons at a location near Abadeh, south of Isfahan. According to Netanyahu, the Iranians destroyed the site when they realized Israel had learned about it (Times of Israel, September 9, 2019).
German intelligence continues to report efforts by Iran to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The latest report from the state of Hesse covering 2018 says Iran was one of the countries that “attempted to acquire and redistribute such weapons in the context of proliferation, for example by concealing transport routes via third countries.” The report also noted that visiting professors in fields such as electrical engineering seek to obtain technical know-how about the uranium enrichment process (Jerusalem Post, September 19, 2019).
According to the IAEA, Iran committed another breach of the nuclear deal by enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges. The agreement allows Iran to use just over 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and a small number of more advanced models for research but not enrichment. In a September 25, 2019, report, the IAEA said Iran was installing more advanced centrifuges that were removed under the deal to use them for enrichment (Reuters, September 26, 2019).
Iran announced plans for another violation in October 2019. On the 16th, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, said: “In the fourth step of reducing JCPOA commitments, we will probably impose limits on inspections, which means the International Atomic Energy Agency’s surveillance on Iran’s nuclear activities will be reduced” (Guardian, October 16, 2019).
Iran announced it would resume uranium enrichment at its Fordow plant starting November 6, 2019. Tehran will start injecting uranium gas into 1,044 centrifuges in violation of the nuclear agreement, which barred gas injection (Al Arabiya, November 5, 2019).
Perhaps the Iranian mindset is the most important consideration when assessing Iran’s actions and intentions. As Simon Henderson explained, Iran’s leaders believe a nuclear capability is necessary to ensure the regime’s survival. “No regime with a bomb has been overthrown. If you give up your nuclear program, as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya did, your future is imperiled” (The Hill, (September 16, 2019).
In early November 2019, it was reported that Iran detained an IAEA inspector and seized her travel documents to prevent her from gaining access to its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz (Algemeiner, November 7, 2019).
On November 11, 2019, the IAEA released a report documenting many examples of Iranian violations of the JCPOA. Contrary to claims by the European supporters of the agreement and the Iranian government, some of these are not reversible. According to David Albright and Andrea Stricker, the report found 14 examples, including several relating to the improper use of centrifuges, the production of enriched uranium beyond the amount allowable, the discovery of uranium at an undeclared site believed to be the one identified by Israel, and the accumulation of heavy water beyond the limit set in the JCPOA.
Albright and Stricker also noted several issues that were not reported, notably Iran’s denial of access to an inspector at Natanz and the failure to discuss the agency’s investigation of the Nuclear Archive.
Based on the actions of Iran, Albright and Stricker estimated that “Iran’s breakout time has been reduced from about 8-12 months to 6-10 months” and that time “will decrease further as Iran increases its stock of enriched uranium and installs more centrifuges” (Institute for Science and International Security, November 14, 2019).
Iran was planning another step away from the JCPOA when the U.S. assassinated Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani on January 3, 2020. Afterward, the government released a statement that said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will end its final limitations in the nuclear deal, meaning the limitation in the number of centrifuges; therefore, Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production, including enrichment capacity and percentage and number of enriched uranium and research and expansion.”
As they had following other announcements of plans to violate the agreement, the government held open the possibility of returning to the agreement if all economic sanctions were lifted. Nevertheless, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said Iran’s action was a fatal blow to the JCPOA. “It’s finished. If there’s no limitation on production, then there is no deal,” he said (New York Times, January 6, 2020).
According to Israeli army intelligence, Iran may have enough enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb by the end of 2020 and a missile capable of carrying a nuclear bomb within the next two years (Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2020). The latest report from the IAEA bolstered the Israeli estimate.
According to its March 3, 2020, report, Iran is increasing the number of centrifuges operating at Fordow, and its stockpile of enriched uranium has grown to 1,021 kilograms (2,200 pounds) as of February 19, 2020, up from 372 kg on November 3, 2019, far exceeding the JCPOA limit of 202.8 kilograms. This is enough to produce a single nuclear weapon; however, it must still be enriched to a higher purity level. Some of that uranium was enriched to 4.5% purity, still far short of the 90% needed for a bomb; however, once it reaches 5% purity, experts say it has done half the work needed to produce weapons-grade material. The breakout time to build a weapon may now be as little as four months (New York Times, March 3, 2020; Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2020).
Meanwhile, Iran is refusing to answer questions about its compliance with the JCPOA or allowing inspectors to take samples at two sites identified by Israel as previous locations of nuclear weapons research (Reuters, March 2, 2020).
Iran continued to build Arak’s heavy water research reactor and new nuclear reactors in Bushehr and southern Iran while fighting the coronavirus outbreak. Salehi announced, “A new generation of centrifuges would soon come online at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant.” He also disclosed, “Nuclear activities, as well as research and development on the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium conversion, and enrichment (including production and storage), are being carried out without any restrictions.” Salehi also confirmed that Iran’s enriched uranium production and stockpile had reached pre-JCPOA levels (Radio Farda, April 8, 2020).
In early June 2020, the IAEA disclosed that Iran’s total stockpile of low-enriched uranium had increased from 1.1 tons on Feb. 19 to 1.73 tons as of May 20. The JCPOA allows Iran a stockpile of 447 pounds. The IAEA also found that Iran had increased the purity of the uranium it is enriching to 4.5%, violating the agreement’s limit of 3.67% (AP, June 5, 2020).
The IAEA also reported that it is concerned that it had been denied access to two locations for more than four months that could be used for storing or processing nuclear material. “The IAEA’s clearly decided to sound an alarm that Iran is not allowing access to two sites to see if there’s a presence of ‘undeclared uranium’ or ‘undeclared nuclear-related activities,’” said David Albright. “What you have is the IAEA pretty much telling the world that there is a huge problem here, and that it’s time for the world to get involved, to try to solve this problem,” he added (Jerusalem Post, June 9, 2020).
Yaakov Katz reported that Iran is now using more sophisticated IR-6 centrifuges, which machines can refine uranium ten times faster than the IR-1 permitted under the JCPOA. He notes the new centrifuges demonstrate that “Iranian R&D is continuing, and its expertise in the nuclear realm is improving.” Katz adds Israel now believes Iran could enrich enough uranium for a bomb in six months but would require a year or more to assemble a warhead. This would give the international community time to take measures to stop them and could provoke a military response (Jerusalem Post, June 11, 2020).
The Baden-Württemberg state intelligence agency in Germany published a report on proliferation in 2020 that says Iran is among the nations involved in efforts to illegally procure material to “complete existing arsenals, perfect the range, applicability and effectiveness of their weapons and develop new weapon systems.” The document said Iran “can procure goods in Germany and Europe with the help of specially established front companies, and in particular bring dual-use goods to the risk countries. Typical bypass countries include the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and China.” It further warned that Iran might be seeking to infiltrate colleges and research centers where proliferation know-how can be secured and learned (Fox News, June 17, 2020).
In the first such action since 2012, 25 member states from the IAEA board voted on June 19, 2020, to condemn Iran for failing to grant access to inspectors to two sites identified by Israeli intelligence as locations of covert nuclear weapons activities. The resolution called on Iran to “fully cooperate with the Agency and satisfy the Agency’s requests without any further delay.”
“The IAEA has confirmed Iran is denying access to two of its past nuclear sites,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter earlier this week. “This unprecedented obstruction is deeply concerning and unacceptable.”
There was no deadline for cooperation, and Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, opposed it. Seven countries abstained (Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2020).
Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on September 8, 2020, that Iran is building a new production hall for advanced centrifuges near its Natanz nuclear site to replace the one damaged in a fire in July (JNS, September 8, 2020). More worrisome, the IAEA reported on September 4 that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was more than ten times the limit set in the JCPOA (Times of Israel, September 4, 2020).
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) opposition group alleged that Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND) started building a secret nuclear site near Tehran in 2012 and moving personnel into it in 2017.
The NCRI also claimed Iran sanitized another secret site after it was publicized in June 2019 before allowing the IAEA to inspect it in August 2020 (NCRI, October 16, 2020). Meanwhile, IAEA inspectors confirmed Iran started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant after its previous one was believed to have been destroyed by Israel. Salehi said it was being built “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz” (AP, October 28, 2020).
The IAEA reported in November 2020 that the Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium is now nearly 12 times the amount permitted under the JCPOA and enriched to 4.5% purity. Iran now has sufficient enriched uranium to produce two nuclear weapons if it can be enriched to 90%. The agency also disclosed Iran had installed more sophisticated centrifuges at Natanz, another violation of the JCPOA. In addition, the IAEA complained that it had not received an acceptable explanation for Iran having uranium at a site discovered by Israel in 2019 (Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2020). The IAEA later disclosed that Iran had breached another term of the JCPOA by feeding uranium gas into the advanced centrifuges at Natanz (Reuters, November 18, 2020).
Following the assassination, presumably by Israel, of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on November 27, 2020, Tehran announced it was raising its level of uranium enrichment to 20 percent (Haaretz, November 30, 2020).
To pressure the incoming Biden administration, Iran’s parliament passed a law on December 2, 2020, giving the United States until early February to lift sanctions imposed by President Trump, or it will ban entry to international nuclear inspectors and increase uranium enrichment to a level closer to weapons-ready (JTA, December 2, 2020).
Meanwhile, the New York Times released satellite photos showing Iran building a new underground nuclear fuel enrichment facility in Natanz to protect its centrifuge production. The need for a more secure location became evident when a centrifuge assembly hall in Natanz was destroyed. Israel was believed to be behind the sabotage (New York Times, December 9, 2020).
Iran said on January 4, 2021; it had begun enriching uranium to 20% purity. This move is considered significant because it is harder to get from 5% to 20% than it is to get from 20% to the 90% needed for building a bomb (Jerusalem Post, January 3, 2021; Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2021). Even more alarming, the IAEA said Iran had started manufacturing equipment it would use to produce uranium metal at a site in Isfahan, which can be used to construct the core of a nuclear weapon (Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2021). Germany, France, and Britain said Tehran has “no credible civilian use” for its development of uranium metal. Iran subsequently told the IAEA not to publish “unnecessary” details on its nuclear program (AP, January 17, 2020).
“Iran has completed the installation of one of these three cascades, containing 174 IR-2m centrifuges, and, on January 30, 2021, Iran began feeding the cascade with UF6,” the International Atomic Energy Agency reported. Iran is also installing more advanced centrifuges at Fordow (Reuters, February 2, 2021).
A day before he took office as secretary of state, Tony Blinken emphasized the urgency of reaching a new agreement with Iran because he said the breakout time was only three or four months (Reuters, February 2, 2021). In another interview, he said they were “weeks away” from having sufficient material to develop a nuclear weapon (Jerusalem Post, February 1, 2021). The Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate report estimated Iran could enrich enough uranium required to make one bomb within four months (Israel Hayom, February 10, 2021).
Meanwhile, IAEA inspectors found traces of radioactive material at two sites that could indicate Iran has undertaken work on nuclear weapons. Iran had blocked access to the sites for several months after Israel had disclosed their locations, raising suspicions the Iranians were sanitizing the areas.
The IAEA was also seeking clarification regarding the Iranian drilling of a uranium metal disc that could be used to create material for a neutron initiator, a vital component of a nuclear weapon, and the presence of nuclear material at a site where Iran is suspected of testing explosives that can be used to detonate a nuclear weapon.
“The discovery of radioactive material at these sites would indicate that Iran does indeed have undeclared nuclear material, despite its denials,” according to David Albright (Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2021).
After threatening to prevent any inspections, Iran softened its position in what was viewed as a response to President Biden’s announcement of plans to resume diplomatic negotiations. Rafael Grossi, the IAEA director general, said his inspectors would have “less access,” but they could still monitor key production sites where Iran has declared that it is making nuclear material. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, however, that inspectors could not demand access to sites where they suspect nuclear activity may have taken place and would be blocked from obtaining footage from security cameras that keep some of the sites under surveillance (New York Times, February 21, 2021).
Even as Iran continued to violate the JCPOA, the Biden administration made its first concessions – announcing the intention to resume talks and rescinding the Trump administration’s imposition of snapback sanctions. In what some in the region were interpreting as a sign of weakness, Secretary of State Blinken said the U.S. was “outraged” but failed to respond to a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq that killed a contractor and wounded nine others, including a member of the military that was likely launched by an Iranian-supported militia (Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2021; New York Times, February 20, 2021).
Michael Knights told the Washington Post that Biden’s team did not want to acknowledge the Iranian role in the attack because it would complicate their interest in negotiations. “It’s about keeping the conditions there for a nuclear deal,” said Knights. “You don’t negotiate with people who are nudge, nudge, wink, wink, trying to kill you at the same time” (Washington Post, February 18, 2021).
In yet another example of appeasement, the European powers withdrew their support for a U.S. resolution by the IAEA’s Board of Governors criticizing Iran for its lack of cooperation with the IAEA (Reuters, March 4, 2021).
Facing no pushback from the signatories to the JCPOA, Iran continues to escalate its agreement violations. The IAEA reported Iran started enriching uranium at Natanz with a second type of advanced centrifuge, the IR-4. Iran began enriching uranium with a fourth cascade of advanced centrifuges in a further breach, according to an IAEA report (Reuters, April 1, 2021).
On April 10, 2021, Iran announced it was testing new advanced IR-9 centrifuges that would significantly speed up the enrichment process. Meanwhile, Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium increased from 37 pounds in January to 121 pounds in April, moving its nuclear program closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels (AP, April 10, 2021).
A day later, the power failed at the Natanz uranium enrichment site in what Iran said, and analysts speculated, was a cyberattack by Israel. Other reports suggest a bomb was smuggled into the facility (Times of Israel, April 12, 2021). U.S. intelligence officials said an explosion destroyed the internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, described the blackout as an act of “nuclear terrorism” (New York Times, April 11, 2021).
The attack was another embarrassment for Iran, again showing that even its most heavily defended nuclear facilities could be penetrated. It was even more humiliating because it came as Iran celebrated “National Nuclear Technology Day” and occurred the day after President Hassan Rouhani boasted scientists were experimenting at Natanz with at least three new types of centrifuges able to enrich uranium 10-50 times faster than before (Ynet, April 11, 2021).
Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall said, “social-media messages by Iranians have begun mocking the regime for its claims of being the strongest military in the region with a large missile program, but is unable to defend its most critical assets—whether they are the Natanz nuclear site, nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh or the late commander of the Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani” (JNS, April 14, 2021).
The operation was portrayed in the media as an effort by Israel to sabotage negotiations that began earlier in the week in Vienna, which were seen as the first step toward a U.S. return to the JCPOA and was consistent with Netanyahu’s warning earlier in the week that Israel would not be bound by any agreement that threatened its security.
The attack was too sophisticated, however, to have been planned when those talks began. It was more likely to have been in the works for some time but may have been approved after Israel saw that the Biden administration appeared willing to make concessions to Iran in what critics see as a determination to reverse Trump’s maximum pressure campaign (Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2021). It should be remembered that one of the significant flaws in the JCPOA was the failure to require Iran to destroy all its centrifuges.
According to Ron Ben-Yishai, Iran’s uranium enrichment progress indicated it could reach the nuclear threshold within months but still needed a detonation mechanism. He noted that Iran could not hide the enrichment activities from the IAEA because it required large facilities; however, the development of “blast mechanisms and design bombs can be conducted in relatively small laboratories and facilities that Iran is careful to hide from inspectors.” Israel, he said, fears Iran will drag out negotiations to allow it to reach the threshold and, ultimately, to get a bomb that would make it the North Korea of the Middle East (Ynet, April 11, 2021).
Iran announced in response to the attack on Natanz it would increase enrichment levels to 60% using centrifuges at Fordow. This would be the highest level yet and move Iran closer to the 90% needed to produce a nuclear weapon (AP, April 14, 2021; New York Times, April 13, 2021). Secretary Blinken said the move was “provocative” and “calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard [to] the nuclear talks” in Vienna (Reuters, April 15, 2021).
Similarly, Germany, France, and Britain issued a joint statement that said, “This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in producing a nuclear weapon. We call upon Iran not to further complicate the diplomatic process.” The trio called Iran’s decision “regrettable” and said it had no “credible” civilian use, referring to Iran’s frequent claim its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes (Washington Post, April 14, 2021).
Undeterred, even as negotiations continued, Iran upped the ante by enriching uranium to 63% purity (Reuters, May 11, 2021). Rafael Grossi, director-general of the IAEA, said, “A country enriching at 60% is a severe thing - only countries making bombs are reaching this level.” Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is now more than ten times the 300-kg. limit agreed in the JCPOA, he said.
In recent years, much of the knowledge about Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon has come from European, particularly German, intelligence agencies. Fox News disclosed that reports by Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden reveal efforts Iran made in 2020 to advance its nuclear weapons program (Fox News, May 4, 2021).
In April 2021, the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution wrote in its report for 2020: “Proliferation-relevant states like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Pakistan are making efforts to expand on their conventional arsenal of weapons through the production or constant modernization of weapons of mass destruction.” Specifically, the report said they are seeking “to obtain the necessary know-how and corresponding components” through business contacts “with companies in high-technology countries like Germany.”
In its April report, the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service said it had “investigated networks that tried to obtain the knowledge and materials to develop weapons of mass destruction. Multiple acquisition attempts have been frustrated by the intervention of the services.” The report added, “The joint Counter-proliferation Unit (UCP) of the AIVD [the General Intelligence and Security Service] and the MIVD [the country’s Military Intelligence and Security Service] is investigating how countries try to obtain the knowledge and goods they need to make weapons of mass destruction. Countries such as Syria, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea also tried to acquire such goods and technology in Europe and the Netherlands last year.”
The Swedish Security Service reported, “Iran also conducts industrial espionage, which is mainly targeted against Swedish hi-tech industry and Swedish products, which can be used in nuclear weapons programs. Iran is investing heavy resources in this area and some of the resources are used in Sweden.”
The IAEA reported in May 2021 that “Iran has not provided the necessary explanation for the presence of the nuclear material particles at any of the three locations where the Agency has conducted complementary accesses (inspections).” The agency also reported that Iran’s production of enriched uranium declined significantly since the explosion at the Natanz plant in April, but it still has around 3,241kilograms, which is 16 times higher than the amount permitted in the JCPOA (Reuters, May 31, 2021; Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2021). The IAEA also admitted, however, that Iran had prevented it from getting access to the data needed to monitor its online enrichment since February 23. Consequently, the agency said it could only estimate the size of Iran’s nuclear stockpile (Washington Post, May 31, 2021).
The speaker of Iran’s parliament said on June 27, 2021, Tehran will never hand over images from inside some Iranian nuclear sites to the IAEA after a monitoring agreement with the agency expired. Another official said, “Iran will also turn off the IAEA cameras if the United States fails to remove all sanctions” (AP, June 23, 2021).
In July 2021, the IAEA said Iran had begun the process of producing enriched uranium metal to help it develop a weapon. Britain, France, and Germany expressed “grave concern” about Iran’s actions.
“Iran has no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon,” they said in a joint statement.
Similarly, the United States found it “worrying” that Iran continued to violate the agreement. “It’s another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said (Haaretz, July 7, 2021).
In August 2021, the IAEA reported Iran had made progress in its work on enriched uranium metal despite Western warnings that such work threatens talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has also increased the purity to which it is refining uranium from 20% in April to 60%. Weapons-grade is around 90% purity (Reuters, August 18, 2021).
In August 2021, President Ebrahim Raisi chose Mohammad Eslami, a 64-year-old civil engineer who oversaw the country’s road network, to lead Iran’s nuclear program, replacing Ali Akbar Salehi. Unlike Salehi, a U.S.-educated scientist, Eslami has no apparent experience in nuclear energy. In 2008, when Eslami served as head of Iran’s Defense Industries Training and Research Institute, the United Nations sanctioned him for “being engaged in, directly associated with or providing support for Iran’s proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities or for the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems” (Times of Israel, August 30, 2021).
In September 2021, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi went to Iran to seek compliance with the JCPOA. The only agreement, however, was to allow the agency to replace memory cards in its surveillance cameras. Iran, however, holds all recordings at its sites (Washington Post, September 13, 2021). Two weeks later, the IAEA reported Iran had not honored the agreement and was denied access to the monitoring equipment at the TESA Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing workshop (Reuters, September 26, 2021).
According to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), “Even with a new commitment by Iran to permit the IAEA to service its equipment, the verification process may now face serious gaps, possibly irreversibly breaking the IAEA’s continuity of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities, which is so vital to verification” (ISIS, September 13, 2021).
More concerning was the finding by ISIS that Iran has enough enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade uranium for at least two nuclear weapons and that the breakout time for making enough for one bomb is as short as one month.
Iran also admitted it had removed several surveillance cameras installed by UN nuclear inspectors at the centrifuge assembly site at Karaj, which had been subject to a sabotage attack in June 2021 (Washington Post, September 15, 2021).
On September 14, 2021, German police arrested a German-Iranian man suspected of exporting equipment used in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs in breach of European Union sanctions (Reuters, September 14, 2021).
Contradicting much of the current reporting, Israel’s Military Intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Tamir Hayman said, “There is an enriched amount [of uranium] in volumes that we have not seen before and it is disturbing. At the same time, in all other aspects of the Iranian nuclear project, we see no progress.” Rather than months, he said the breakout time is two years and, even then, Iran will be far from producing a bomb (Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2021).
On October 23, 2021, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said that Tehran has consistently refused to allow the IAEA to repair surveillance equipment damaged during a drone attack on the Centrifuge Technology Company in Karaj, which means it cannot monitor what the Iranians have been doing there (Israel Hayom, October 24, 2021). Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal reported Iran resumed rotors and bellows production to manufacture more advanced centrifuges at Karaj. One diplomat said it has produced parts for at least 170 advanced centrifuges (Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2021).
In November 2021, Iran said it had doubled its stock of enriched uranium in less than a month. “We have more than 210 kilograms [about 463 pounds] of uranium enriched to 20%, and we’ve produced 25 kilos [about 55 pounds] at 60%, a level that no country apart from those with nuclear arms are able to produce,” said Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi (AP, November 5, 2021).
A week before talks were scheduled to resume in Vienna, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, assessed Iran’s progress. “They’re very close this time,” he said. “I think they like the idea of being able to breakout” (Time, November 24, 2021). Also, on the eve of negotiations, Iranian officials admitted plans to build offensive atomic weapons. They planned to announce they had the ability and knowledge to make a bomb and would not allow international inspectors into the factory making advanced centrifuges at Karaj (Channel 12, November 28, 2021).
While negotiations were underway, the IAEA said Iran was enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo plant, violating the JCPOA prohibition on enrichment at Fordo (Times of Israel, December 1, 2021). Israel reportedly shared intelligence with the United States that Iran is preparing to enrich uranium to 90 percent – the level needed to produce a bomb (Axios, November 29, 2021). According to the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon in three weeks. Within six months, it could have enough for four weapons (Institute for Science and International Security, November 19, 2021).
Despite all the evidence of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, CIA Director William Burns said the CIA “doesn't see any evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize” (Haaretz, December 7, 2021).
Negotiations to restore the JCPOA resumed in January 2022. Russia reportedly discussed a possible interim agreement with Iran that offered limited sanctions relief in return for reimposing some restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program, but Iran rejected the offer (NBC News, January 23, 2022).
Meanwhile, Iran moved parts production for advanced centrifuges out of the TESA Karaj complex monitored by the IAEA to a facility in Isfahan. Previously, Iran had destroyed the surveillance footage from the factory. According to Reuters, “Western powers say there are only weeks left before Iran’s atomic advances have hollowed out the [nuclear] deal completely” (Reuters, January 31, 2022). A later report by the IAEA indicated other centrifuges and equipment were being moved from Karaj to Natanz (The Media Line, April 8, 2022).
According to the ISIS analysis of the latest IAEA report (March 3, 2022), Iran has enough enriched uranium to make four nuclear weapons, and “breakout timelines have become dangerously short.” Iran can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two bombs in two to three weeks after the breakout. “In essence,” ISIS noted, “Iran is effectively breaking out slowly by producing 60 percent enriched uranium and continuing to accumulate it.”
The ISIS report concluded: “The IAEA has a significantly reduced ability to monitor Iran’s complex and growing nuclear program, which notably has unresolved nuclear weapons dimensions. The IAEA’s ability to detect diversion of nuclear materials, equipment, and other capabilities to undeclared facilities remains greatly diminished” (ISIS, March 4, 2022).
With talks still stalled, Blinken told Congress that Iran’s breakout time is “down to a matter of weeks.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasized the point later at a press conference. “Their breakout period is down from about a year, which is what we knew it was during the deal, to just a few weeks or less,” she said (Times of Israel, April 27, 2022).
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz also said Iran was weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for a bomb. He said Iran has 60 kg. of material at the enrichment level of 60% and produces metallic uranium at 20%. He added that Iran had prevented the IAEA from inspecting its production system and is completing the production and installation of 1,000 advanced IR6 centrifuges at a new underground facility built near Natanz (Jerusalem Post, May 17, 2022).
The head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Research Division, Brig.-Gen. Amit Sa’ar made a similar assessment a few weeks earlier but said it would still take Iran about two years to produce a bomb because they have not mastered metallurgy or the production of the explosive device (Israel Hayom, April 29, 2022).
“Our nuclear program is advancing as planned and time is on our side,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters (Reuters, May 5, 2022).
In the latest indication of Iranian noncompliance with the JCPOA, the IAEA reported in May 2022 that it was “able to identify traces of enriched uranium in places that had never been declared by Iran as places where any activity was taking place.” Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said, “We are extremely concerned about this. The situation does not look very good. Iran, for the time being, has not been forthcoming in the kind of information we need from them” (Bloomberg, May 10, 2022).
According to a scoop by the Wall Street Journal, Iran stole secret IAEA reports from 2004 until 2006. It circulated the documents among top officials who prepared cover stories and falsified records to conceal work on nuclear weapons. This provided further evidence of the lengths Iran was prepared to go to conceal its nuclear program (Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2022; Times of Israel, May 31, 2022).
The IAEA confirmed in May 2022 that Iran’s 60% highly enriched uranium stockpile had grown to nearly 100 pounds, enough for a nuclear bomb. Officials told the Wall Street Journal that with the advanced centrifuges Iran now has, it could produce a nuclear weapon in far less time than under the JCPOA, which was predicated on delaying an Iranian breakout for at least 12 months.
The IAEA also reported Iran’s failure to account for nuclear material found in the country. The Journal said, “The IAEA wants to know what activities produced the traces of uranium, where the material is now and what Iran did with equipment it believes was contaminated with radioactive traces” (Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2022).
The same month, it was disclosed that Iran obtained access to secret IAEA reports in 2004 and 2006 and used them to conceal nuclear weapons research. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former UN weapons inspector said, “Iran could design answers that admit to what the IAEA already knows, give away information that it will likely discover on its own, and at the same time better hide what the IAEA does not yet know that Iran wants to keep that way” (Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2022).
After months of stonewalling by Iran, the IAEA board overwhelmingly passed a resolution rebuking Iran for failing to cooperate with its investigation into sites where undeclared nuclear material was found. The U.S., France, Germany, and the UK issued a joint statement supporting the resolution. Iran’s response was to remove 27 cameras used to monitor its nuclear activities and announce it would install more advanced centrifuges at Natanz (Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2022; Washington Post, June 9, 2022).
In another violation of the JCPOA, the IAEA reported in July 2022 that Iran was using advanced machines that can easily enrich uranium to higher purity levels (Reuters, July 9, 2022).
On July 22, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said Iran’s nuclear program is “galloping ahead” and the Agency had very limited visibility on what was happening (Reuters, July 22, 2022).
In August, warning negotiators again not to sign a deal with Israel, Prime Minister Yair Lapid noted Grossi’s response to a question as to whether Iran fulfilled its obligation to provide answers about its nuclear program: “Absolutely not. So far, Iran has not given us the technically credible explanations that we need to explain the origin of many traces of uranium… Let us have an explanation: if there was nuclear material there, where is it now?” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 24, 2022).
In its September report, the IAEA revealed that Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% has grown by about 30% and is now large enough for a nuclear bomb if enriched to 90%. The IAEA has also reported an increase in the number of advanced centrifuges Tehran has installed and fed with uranium at its main nuclear facilities (Reuters, Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2022)
While the IAEA was reporting on what Iran is doing within its borders, a Swedish intelligence report revealed “Iran also conducts industrial espionage such as primarily aimed at Swedish high-tech industry and Swedish products that can be used in a nuclear weapons program” (Fox News, September 5, 2022).
The Swedish report is just one of many by intelligence services about Iran’s covert efforts around the world to obtain nuclear technology. These efforts have gone on since the signing of the JCPOA and are one more example of how the agreement has failed to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the inadequacy of the verification mechanisms.