November 17, 2023 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Nuclear Program Expands Despite U.S. Sanctions Relief 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, reported new data on Wednesday indicating Tehran has expanded its nuclear program since September. The Islamic Republic’s nuclear advances — which have occurred despite U.S. sanctions relief and amid attacks by regime proxies on America and Israel — underscore that the Biden administration’s Iran policies have failed to restrain Tehran.  

In reports reviewed by FDD, the IAEA found that Iran increased its enriched uranium stocks, including at the 5, 20, and 60 percent levels, which could be used by the Islamic Republic in a breakout to nuclear weapons. Using this new data, the Institute for Science and International Security issued a preliminary estimate that Iran can now make weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon in as little as seven to 10 days and enough for up to 12 nuclear weapons within four to five months. This represents a slight increase from the institute’s September estimate that Tehran could have enough material for 10 weapons in four months. 

The IAEA reported that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization chief, Mohammad Eslami, told the agency during a September 25 meeting that he expected no significant progress on instituting stronger monitoring and surveillance measures at Iran’s nuclear-related sites while Western sanctions remain in place. Tehran has steadily degraded IAEA oversight of its nuclear activities since February 2021 and has advanced its program overall since President Biden’s election, exploiting his desire to revive a nuclear deal.   

The IAEA also reported Iran has no plans to reverse its decision to disbar several agency inspectors with expertise in uranium enrichment. The agency called Tehran’s move “extreme and unjustified” and said it “seriously affected the agency’s work.” Iran ejected a reported eight inspectors after 63 countries, including the United States and European nations, issued a statement in September condemning Iran’s failure to cooperate with a five-year IAEA investigation into Tehran’s undeclared nuclear weapons work.  

There were no new developments in that investigation, which pertains to the regime’s fundamental non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations in relation to activities at two sites. The IAEA report underscored that one year had passed since the board’s last censure of Tehran, yet still, “Iran has not clarified all outstanding safeguards issues.”  

During the reporting period, the IAEA also sought to persuade Tehran to implement Modified Code 3.1, a provision of Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA that Tehran said it would no longer observe. The provision requires the regime to notify the IAEA and provide design information when it decides to construct a new enrichment facility. If Tehran refuses to provide such notification, it could construct new enrichment facilities in secret, easing a future breakout to nuclear weapons. 

Washington will have an opportunity at next week’s IAEA Board of Governors meeting to push for a censure resolution to hold Iran accountable for its actions and demonstrate the board’s full support for IAEA inspectors. A firm censure could also initiate a pivot to a more effective U.S. policy toward Iran that imposes substantial costs for its nuclear violations, support for terrorism, and other provocations. 

Following a censure, the administration should refer Iran to the UN Security Council, where the United States and its European allies should initiate the reimposition or “snapback” of all UN sanctions on Iran. Under the provisions of the Security Council resolution that affirmed the 2015 nuclear deal, Russia and China cannot veto this move. Washington should also respond forcefully to Iranian proxy attacks against U.S. troops, eliminate Tehran’s access to unfrozen funds in Qatar, Oman, and other jurisdictions, and fully implement U.S. oil sanctions.  

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the program and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. For more analysis from the authors and FDD please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea and Anthony on X @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. 


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