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Iran Continues to Advance Nuclear Program

Phony Compliance
Threat Assessment
Secret Archive
American Plotters
Iran Cheating Confirmed
Iran Openly Violates JCPOA
Iran Withdraws from Agreement

Phony Compliance

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 has imported some 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 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).

Threat Assessment

While many of Iran’s actions were alarming, U.S. intelligence issued its annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” in January 2019 and concluded that Iran was not taking 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, but 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 production of 20% enriched uranium and deposited the excessive fuel in Russia in nearly 10 batches. Iran announced on August 11, 2018, it asked for the return of the first batch seven months earlier and plans 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 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 10 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.

Meanwhil, Iran has also been employing cyberwarfare 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, and Arab atomic scientists, Iranian civil society figures and D.C. think tank employees (AP, December 13, 2018).

Secret Archive

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 on-going 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 for peaceful purposes. In addition, Iran may still have undeclared nuclear 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. The production of uranium 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 deal 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):

While Iran’s activities involving fissile material are well-known and subject to IAEA scrutiny, the current location of equipment relevant to weaponization remains unknown, and the modest scale required for weaponization efforts means that overall confidence that such activities are not occurring at secret locations is lower. In short, Iran seems likely to be in a strong position to launch a reconstituted weapons program, should it ever choose to do so, and should it have a plausible path to acquiring fissile material without being detected and stopped

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?

American Plotters

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 as well as some types of 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).

Iran Cheating Confirmed

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 Zarifas 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 will reduce its breakout time to a nuclear weapon by approximately two months. That can be reduced to six months, he said, if Iran installing 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 in 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 prior to 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 to be 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 used 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, which had trace amounts of radioactive material. The failure to declare the site violated the JCPOA, but the agency did not make this information public (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 despite the fact that 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 that was no longer under IAEA oversight (MEMRI, July 2, 2019).

Iran Openly Violates JCPOA

Iran announced it plans to violate yet 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 site near Abadeh, south of Isfahan. According to Netanyahu, the Iranians destroyed the site when they realized Israel 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).

Iran has committed another breach of the nuclear deal by enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges according to the IAEA. The deal 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 with the intention of using 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 most important consideration when assessing Iran’s actions and intentions is the Iranian mindset. 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 “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 Withdraws from Agreement

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 Israeli estimage was bolstered by the latest report from the IAEA. 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 level of purity. 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 is continuing to build Arak’s heavy water research reactor and new nuclear reactors in Bushehr and southern Iran and, in the midst of 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 as pre-JCPOA levels (Radio Farda, April 8, 2020).