On January 20, 2021, a new administration will take office in the United States. This could lead to changes in US-Iran relations. The Trump administration continued to provoke Iran by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tightening sanctions, and killing Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Meanwhile, the incoming president Joe Biden and key members of his diplomatic team are oriented toward a return to the JCPOA.
In the midst of all this, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist who is believed to have played a central role in Iran's nuclear development, was murdered. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded by saying he would retaliate at an "appropriate" time, and an advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said he would take "decisive" action. Although the US is not believed to have been directly involved in this incident, there are concerns that it will cast a dark shadow on the diplomacy between the US and Iran over the JCPOA. Shortly thereafter, Iran's parliament passed a law that obliges the government to take steps to expand nuclear activities that significantly exceed the JCPOA's limits and to seek the lifting of sanctions. The new US administration will need to be very careful not to overlook either hard or soft signals, to analyze Iran's future course, and to take diplomatic steps to reduce Iran's nuclear and regional security threats.
Key members of the diplomatic team, including President-elect Biden, Tony Blinken, whom Biden has said he will nominate as Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, who will become Biden's National Security Advisor, have argued for a return to the JCPOA, albeit with conditions attached, including Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. At the same time, the Biden administration's diplomatic team does not believe that the nuclear issue is the only problem posed by Iran, or that a US return to the JCPOA would solve the various problems regarding Iran (see, for example, David E. Sanger, "Assassination in Iran Could Limit Biden's Options. Was That the Goal?" New York Times, Nov 28, 2020). Basically, the US's return to the JCPOA is aimed at creating an environment for dialogue while keeping Iran's nuclear programme within the provisions of the JCPOA. The United States will then seek solutions by engaging with Iran on issues such as ballistic missiles, destabilization of the region through Iranian support for Shiite organizations or other militias in the Middle East, and the handling of measures that will expire under the provisions of the JCPOA.
1. Legislative Measures on Iran's Increased Nuclear Activities and Easing of Sanctions
On December 1, Iran's parliament passed a law that obliges the government to proceed with nuclear activities well beyond the limits of the JCPOA, and to take measures such as suspending the implementation of the Additional Protocol (AP) if the lifting of sanctions is not agreed upon by February 2. (Nasser Karimi, "Iran's parliament approves bill to stop nuclear inspection," Associated Press, December 1, 2020)(*) The law was immediately approved by the Council of Supervisors and went into effect.
If the content of the law is as described on this Persian news site and its English translation in the following Twitter thread (https://twitter.com/AliVaez/status/1334282112200040448), then this is not just a measure to assuage the anger over Fakhrizadeh's murder. It appears to be a calculated escalation measure that is useful in terms of gaining leverage for future negotiations. The law enumerates a number of measures, of which this analysis will focus on those considered particularly important: increase of enrichment level and installation of new centrifuges in the first phase, and easing of sanctions by the P4+1 and suggesting the termination of provisional (or "voluntary" as Iran calls it) application of the AP as the second phase.
(1) First Phase
As a premise, Iran appears to envisage the escalation of countermeasures using the Statute of the IAEA and the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement as the basis for its legal nonproliferation obligations, while keeping in mind a return to the JCPOA as a policy objective. Accordingly, the measures stipulated in the law are also designed to exploit the gap between the measures (enrichment levels and stockpile) set by the JCPOA and the rules in the Statute of the IAEA and the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.
The law states that enrichment of uranium to 20% will begin "immediately" and that 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20% will be accumulated every month. While the IAEA defines the uranium enriched up to 20% as low level, this would mean that the time needed to produce high level enriched uranium suitable for the use in nuclear weapons (assumed to be 90%) will be halved compared to the case in which the enrichment starts from 3.67 to 4.5% level (it should be noted that the JCPOA limits enrichment level at 3.67%). From 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium, about 27 kg of 90% enriched uranium can be produced, which exceeds the IAEA's definition of a significant amount (≈ the amount needed for a nuclear weapon) of 25 kg. This means that Iran is continuing to produce enough enriched uranium every month for use in one nuclear weapon, with a shortened process to reach weapons-grade concentration. This is a major challenge to the main intention of the JCPOA, which is to secure a suffficently long time for Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons (breakout), on top of the fact that Iran has been increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium as a countermeasure to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Until now, reports on verification submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors reported that the enrichment level had been increased to 4.5% (which exceeds the JCPOA's provision) (IAEA, GOV/2020/51, November 11, 2020), but the increase of the enrichment level of uranium to 20% was not implemented although such steps were mentioned by the Iranians. This time, however, the Iranian government has stated that it will "immediately" implement 20% enrichment. If sufficient amount of uranium enriched to 20% for one nuclear weapon is accumulated every month, the lead time to acquire nuclear weapons will be shortened in terms of acquiring fissile materials for weapons.
However, considering the fact that this is being done under IAEA safeguards, it cannot be said to be a violation (non-compliance) in light of the Statute of the IAEA and the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which are the standards for international nuclear non-proliferation obligations, although it certainly violates the JCPOA. On the other hand, the fact that 20% enrichment remains "low enrichment" under the IAEA's classification suggests that Iran will continue to maintain a certain distance from acquiring nuclear weapons. In a sense, it means that while leaving the way open for a return to the JCPOA, Iran will escalate as closely as possible toward a breakout within the framework of international standards.
In addition, the law provides for the installation of 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges and 164 IR-6 centrifuges within three months, and 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges within one year, both of which have higher performance than the existing IR-1 centrifuges. This is also a measure breaching the JCPOA.
The IR-2m has four times the capacity of the IR-1 (the Separating Work Unit (SWU) of an IR-1 is 0.9, while that of the IR-2m is 3.7). Theoretically, the cascade consisting of 1,000 IR-2m units can reach a level close to the enrichment capacity, although it is slightly lower than the higher limit of 4,550 SWU of the cascade with 15,060 IR-1 units. Furthermore, as the IR-6 has a capacity of 6.8 SWU, if a cascade of 1,000 units is constructed, Iran will have three times its current enrichment capacity together with the cascades of IR-1 and IR-2m.
As for the new centrifuges, IAEA Director General Grossi announced on November 18 that a high-performance centrifuge had been put into operation at Natanz. (IAEA, GOV/INF/2020/16, November 17, 2020; "High-performance centrifuge in operation in Iran, IAEA says," Nihon Keizai Shimbun, November 19, 2020)
(2) Second Phase
The second phase is the deal for the withdrawal of the provisional application of the AP and the lifting of sanctions, with a deadline set for February 2, just 13 days after the launch of the Biden administration.(*) This part of the story seems to implicitly indicate Iran's true intentions. Iran will shorten the lead time to breakout by accelerating enrichment activities and, if sanctions are not eased, will withdraw from the provisional application of the AP, which will make it difficult for the IAEA to check Iran's nuclear activities. In reality, based on the IAEA's inspections and safeguards activities to date, it seems possible, at least for the time being, to verify whether Iran is diverting nuclear materials to develop nuclear weapons through inspections under a normal comprehensive safeguards agreement. However, if the provisional application of the AP were dropped, Iran would be able to refuse the IAEA's request for access to suspected facilities. This would impair the clarification of "Possible Military Dimension" activities (IAEA, GOV/2011/65, November 8, 2011), i.e., past alleged nuclear weapon-related activities which were also revealed by "Israel's Iran documents". On August 26, 2020, the IAEA and Iran reached an agreement on access to two sites and issued a joint statement (IAEA Press Release, "Joint Statement by the Director General of the IAEA and the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the AEOI," August 26, 2020), and access by the IAEA based on this agreement was implemented in September. However, if the provisional application of the AP is suspended or terminated by Iran and if further access or data provision is requested in the future, the August agreement may be revoked. Needless to say, once the AP is suspended, it will be difficult to clarify other questions, and it would become more likely that the IAEA will face serious challenges in detecting the expansion of Iran's nuclear-related activities in a timely and accurate manner.
After the first phase of improving the physical capability of uranium enrichment, which would shorten the lead time for the development of nuclear weapons, the second phase could be interpreted as staging a crisis in which the suspension of the provisional application of the AP would set back the intention (determination) to clear the suspicion of developing nuclear weapons, i.e. a return to the situation before the JCPOA, where Iran had a relatively large free hand in its nuclear activities, and could start to produce nuclear weapons if it so wished.
While fomenting a crisis in two stages in this way, Iran is demanding that the P4+1 (i.e., the parties other than the United States) ease sanctions. Given the need to loosen the secondary sanctions imposed by the United States, should this be read as Iran asking the P4+1 to put pressure on the United States to ease sanctions?
In any case, Iran's new legislation seems to be a well-thought-out package of escalation: first, to increase Iran's breakout capability (by accumulating LEU with higher level of enrichment), then to display its intention (suspension of the AP), and finally to reveal its true motive by demanding the lifting of sanctions without crossing the red line of suspending the IAEA's comprehensive safeguards agreement, which could lead to international isolation similar to that of North Korea.
2. Difficult choices for the US and Iran
Whether or not the Iranians' game plan will work will depend on the political situation in the United States. The successive tightening of sanctions and provocations by the Trump administration have increased Iran's distrust of and repulsion to the United States. On the other hand, the Biden administration may believe it has more cards in its hand to play in negotiations with Iran. The US government's withdrawal from the JCPOA and the tightening of sanctions have been done through executive authority, such as amendments to administrative regulations, and no legislative action by Congress is required to revoke these measures. In addition, if the US Congress were to legislate against executive authority to make it impossible to return to the JCPOA, the President would use his veto power.
However, there will be a certain amount of caution in the Democratic Party, not to mention the Republican Party, regarding the lifting of sanctions, given concerns about missile threats and threats to regional security as well as human rights issues beyond the nuclear problem. The Iranian issue has divided the US and even the Democratic Party. It is not simply a question of returning to the JCPOA, but of how far the United States should go in negotiating with Iran on a range of issues, including missiles, regional security (or interference by the Revolutionary Guards in various places), and the extension of expiring JCPOA measures. It remains to be seen to what extent the Biden administration will relax its stance on Iran in light of all these factors.
Moreover, if Iran makes a mistake in deciding how much it should demand the Biden administration concede, it may push the Biden administration into a corner, making future negotiations with the United States even more difficult. On the other hand, with Iran's presidential elections coming up in June, an easy compromise could give momentum to the hard-line conservative faction in Iran, making it difficult for that country's government to find where to reach a compromise.
(*) The series of tweets referred for the translation of the new law to at the time of writing this article said that the deadline was 2 February, but recent news report that an Iranian MP has said that the deadline is 21 February. ("Iran will expel U.N. nuclear inspectors unless sanctions are lifted: lawmaker," Reuters, January 9, 2021)