The Academy held a timely briefing on “Iran's Nuclear Program, Regime Protests, and Regional Stability” on March 1, 2023 for congressional staff. The panel featured Kelsey Davenport, the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and was chaired by the Academy’s Raymond Frankel Nuclear Security Policy Fellow, Doreen Horschig. The briefing was sponsored by the Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group with co-chair Representative Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) providing brief remarks.
Just a day before the panel, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that their inspectors found traces of near weapons-grade nuclear material. Previously, Iran had been producing at 60% enriched uranium. Now, it has increased to 84%, which is just below the 90% enrichment needed for weaponization and yet another demonstration of Tehran's advancing nuclear program since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. In light of this recent development, the briefing was especially timely.
Davenport started her talk with a status update of Iran’s nuclear program, explaining that Iran has systematically breached the limits put in place by the JCPOA. Intentions behind the rapidly advancing enrichment are not fully clear. Tehran could either be secretly experimenting and got caught or is testing political responses of the international community toward higher-level enrichment. Either way, she continued, the growth of Iran’s nuclear program is serious, and creative diplomatic options are needed to deescalate the situation and create space for further diplomacy.
One specific concern of Iran’s advancing program is that the breakout time to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb continues to drop. The growth of enrichment capacity at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant has severely shortened the timeframe for Iran to produce warheads. This is further complicated by the IAEA not having access to certain facilities since February 2021 and not having recorded surveillance available since 2022. For the first time ever, the IAEA acknowledged that the limited inspections have prevented it from maintaining its continuity of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear sites. That means any baseline will have a high degree of uncertainty to accurately verify any JCPOA limits. This increases the risk of diversion and provides significant challenges to the international community to detect experimentations. However, the United States has said that there is no evidence of weaponization, including the assembling of warheads and preparing them for delivery.
On the status of the JCPOA renegotiations, Davenport explained that they have stalled since August 2023. Tehran claims to want the JCPOA back, but there are no indications that Iran is willing to drop its demands at this time. Other political challenges such as Iran’s brutal crackdown on protesters and drone sales to Russia have further complicated diplomacy. In addition, the political mood in the United States and Europe has soured because of the repetitive stalling of the talks.
However, with all these challenges, the preference for negotiations might grow stronger and provide an opportunity for a new diplomatic approach. In addressing some options going forward, Davenport explained that while none are ideal, an interim gesture-for-gesture option with an informal set of measures might be possible. She urged that Iran needs a diplomatic off-ramp option to stabilize. It is crucial that the current escalatory spiral is stabilized through prioritizing transparency, negotiating IAEA access to nuclear sites, and creating time and space for further talks which are unlikely to include the restoration of the JCPOA but can include a new paradigm.
Davenport advised the audience of Congressional staff to be mindful that a new diplomatic approach need not take place in a vacuum: it can be accompanied by sanctions enforcement and a clear indication of the consequences of military action. If Iran develops nuclear weapons, it will cause a broader regional conflict because U.S. troops in the area can become potential targets. Washington still can work to support protesters and counter drone sales. Approaches to these issues should not become a precondition for a nuclear deal.