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Future of Nuclear Deal Questioned after the US Elections

November 10, 2020
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
The IAEA Director-General issued his quarterly report on Iran's implementation of the JCPOA in September
The IAEA Director-General issued his quarterly report on Iran's implementation of the JCPOA in September
The recent election signaled the end of the Trump era, sparking discussion about whether the US might rejoin the JCPOA if Iran once again adheres to its protocols
The recent election signaled the end of the Trump era, sparking discussion about whether the US might rejoin the JCPOA if Iran once again adheres to its protocols
The IAEA report said Iran has continued to increase its reserves of enriched uranium, bringing it above the limit allowed under the JCPOA
The IAEA report said Iran has continued to increase its reserves of enriched uranium, bringing it above the limit allowed under the JCPOA

As President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office in January 2021, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and world leaders are looking again at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), trying to assess whether the United States will re-join the agreement if Iran agrees to once again follow the deal's protocols, and analyzing how thoroughly Iran has adhered to the agreement during the years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

In anticipation of the next meeting of the Board of Governors, the IAEA has distributed the Director-General’s quarterly report on Iran's implementation of the JCPOA, more colloquially known as the nuclear agreement. to members of the board.

The latest report from Rafael Grossi states that the Islamic Republic has continued to increase its reserves of enriched uranium with a purity of 4.5 percent, bringing it up to several times the allowable limit of 300 kg, and violating other restrictions set out in the JCPOA.

 

Developments in the Last Three Months

Following the publication of the director-general’s report in September 2020, the Islamic Republic, in accordance with the agreement reached with Grossi during his visit to Tehran in August, granted IAEA access to several sites, including two suspected former sites housing nuclear material. The agency took environmental samples for analysis, which will be carried out by laboratories that form part of the agency’s Network of Analytical Laboratories, including the Agency’s own analytical laboratories at Seibersdorf, Austria.

In accordance with Iran's commitment to implement the Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], Iran must allow IAEA access to facilities it enquires about, especially if its inspectors have reason to suspect the country's nuclear activities are violating the treaty.

In addition, first steps were taken toward the construction of a factory for assembling Iranian enrichment machines in an underground location in the Natanz region. Following an explosion at Iran's enrichment plant assembly plant in summer 2019, Iran announced it planned to build its new facility underground to avoid further attacks and damage.

The Director General of the IAEA has gone on record stating he is aware of these issues, and said his understanding was that, while the Islamic Republic is in the early stages of building the new underground facility, it is far from being completed.

 

Enriched Uranium Reserves

According to Rafael Grossi, Iran violated parts of the JCPOA agreement by working with a new generation of enrichment machines. However, in agreeing to not produce 20 percent enriched uranium, it continues to comply with the deal. It has continued to cooperate with JCPOA oversight departments and allow inspectors to ensure that Iran's nuclear program has not been diverted to military purposes.

Yet the issue of Iran increasing its low-enriched uranium reserves several times above permissible levels will likely prompt a fresh dispute. In setting Iran a 300kg ceiling for its low-enriched uranium, the agreement aimed to prevent it from being able to build a nuclear weapon with its existing nuclear material. The more radioactive and atomic materials available to the potential manufacturer, the more weapons can be made in a shorter time.

Over the last 10 months, the IAEA Board of Governors has not shown any particular sensitivity to the increase in Iran's enriched uranium reserves, for two reasons: One, these materials are under the constant scrutiny of IAEA inspectors, and secondly, there was concern that, in its appeals to the Security Council, the United States would call for the automatic re-imposition of lifted UN sanctions against Iran. With this concern was the accompanying worry that the Islamic Republic would stop cooperating with the oversight departments set up as part of the JCPOA and start enriching at a 20 percent purity level.

 

Uranium and Domestic Competition

With the inauguration of the new United States President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021, the US will likely have greater consensus-building power among the international community and enjoy more international acceptance by reviewing its relations with China, Russia and the European Union.

Islamic Republic officials have increased the country’s enriched uranium reserves in a bid to increase its bargaining power and gain concessions in possible negotiations with the US government. However, if the United States returns to the JCPOA on the condition that Iran takes a series of actions —  including the reduction of its rich uranium reserves — it could trigger another internal dispute in Iran in the coming months.

During the implementation of the JCPOA in 2015, Iran transferred a large part of its uranium reserves abroad and turned the other reserves into nuclear fuel rods under the supervision of the IAEA.

At the time the implementation of the JCPOA agreement got underway, opposition groups and extremist hardliners in Iran were harshly critical of the stipulation that Iran must reduce its uranium reserves, calling it an "emptying of the system" that would be severely damaging for the Islamic Republic. So any renewed calls for reduction will spark further objection from these critics, especially since they are all too aware of the ongoing impact of renewed sanctions and could lobby for these reserves to be transferred abroad. Without a doubt, if there are shifts in the US’ attitude to Iran and the nuclear deal, those groups that have always been staunchly against any negotiations or concessions will make it very difficult for Iran to go back to its process of reducing enriched uranium reserves, and a further escalation of Iran’s inner political turmoil. At the same time, if Iran does not agree to the reduction, it will block the way for the US to return to the JCPOA.

When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, it appears likely that Iran’s politicians will continue to be engaged in disputes and clashes both internally and externally. It could be argued, however, this would have always been the case no matter who won the US presidential elections, though the discussions may have covered slightly different terrain.

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