July 8, 2021 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Latest Nuclear Escalation Exposes Biden’s Failed Iran Policy

July 8, 2021 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Latest Nuclear Escalation Exposes Biden’s Failed Iran Policy

Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Tuesday informed the IAEA Board of Governors that Iran will use indigenously enriched uranium to produce uranium metal. This is the latest nuclear provocation from Tehran as the Biden administration offers to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and lift economic sanctions.

The Islamic Republic informed the IAEA that it would convert into uranium metal some of the 20 percent-enriched uranium-235 that it began producing in January, which Tehran would then use to make fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Iran’s actions are a transparent attempt to manufacture a justification for its increased uranium enrichment activities and its previously announced production of uranium metal. Both activities develop crucial knowledge that Tehran can use in a nuclear weapons program.

The E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) were disturbed by this development and issued a strong statement that called Tehran’s actions a “serious violation of Iran’s [JCPOA] commitments.” The group also noted that the Islamic Republic has “no credible civilian need for uranium metal R&D and production, which are a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price called Tehran’s actions “another unfortunate step backwards for Iran.”

Iran also curtailed the IAEA’s monitoring of Tehran’s nuclear program when it did not extend an IAEA-Iran access agreement brokered in May. The Islamic Republic, meanwhile, has reportedly restricted IAEA inspectors’ access to its main enrichment plant while refusing to resolve outstanding IAEA questions about undeclared nuclear activities at several facilities in Iran. Importantly, Iran’s failure to comply with IAEA safeguards investigations constitutes a material breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — something that would not be resolved by rejoining the JCPOA.

Unfortunately, these developments were predictable when the E3 and the Biden administration decided to accommodate Iran’s stonewalling of the IAEA during the March 2021 IAEA Board of Governors meeting. The appropriate response would have been a resolution condemning Iran’s refusal to answer the agency’s legitimate questions. But the efforts to return to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal took precedence and, in the process, the E3 and United States signaled that the IAEA safeguards mission was a secondary priority.

These concessions weakened Grossi’s standing and made it more difficult for him to get Tehran to cooperate. Furthermore, the United States and E3 have perversely incentivized the director general to avoid disputes with Iran — instilling a fear inside the agency that a confrontation could be blamed for any failure to revive the JCPOA — which gives Iran greater latitude to extort the IAEA. Time will tell if the E3 and the United States have irreparably harmed the IAEA’s integrity, but they have likely weakened safeguards beyond the Iran case.

To address Iran’s latest violation, the E3 and United States should immediately call for a special Board of Governors meeting. The E3 statement hints that their patience is waning. However, by proposing the lifting of sanctions on Iran as a solution to this crisis rather than insisting on accountability at the IAEA board, the group signals weakness to Tehran.

A special Board of Governors meeting would be an opportunity to adopt a resolution that reinforces the board’s confidence in Grossi, condemns Iran’s nuclear escalation, and reaffirms that concerns related to Iran’s compliance with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement remain separate from any negotiated return to the flawed 2015 deal.

The Biden administration and America’s E3 partners made a serious mistake by appeasing Iran’s nuclear extortion under the misguided notion that Tehran would moderate its behavior following concessions. JCPOA proponents now know that the Islamic Republic is determined to proceed with its nuclear program and will exploit any weakness. The Biden administration should restore its leverage and deal with the incoming Raisi administration from a position of strength.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor. Anthony previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. Richard previously served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the National Security Council. They both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from the authors, the Iran Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Anthony and Richard on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @rich_goldberg. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Military and Political Power