February 12, 2021

Middle East Roundup: U.S. and Iran Remain at Impasse & Iran Further Reduces Compliance in JCPOA

This week, a key figure in Iran’s security establishment signaled a potential change in the country’s nuclear calculations. Also, Iran further reduced its compliance in the nuclear deal and has detained another U.S. dual national. For a breakdown and analysis of these events, please see below: 

U.S. and Iran Remain at Impasse; Iran Continues to Further Reduce Compliance in JCPOA

  • Iranian Intelligence Minister’s Comments Signal Possible Change in Nuclear Policy Thinking
    • In a televised interview with Iranian state TV, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said that “Our nuclear program is a peaceful program and the supreme leader clearly said in his fatwa that producing nuclear weapons is against religious law and the Islamic Republic will not pursue it and considers it forbidden,” he said on state television. “But let me tell you, if you corner a cat it might behave differently than a cat roaming free. If they push Iran in that direction, it would not be Iran’s fault but the fault of those who pushed Iran.”

    • In response, the State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price said regarding Mr. Alavi’s comments that “it’s not yet clear to us that Mahmoud Alavi was speaking for anyone but himself. I would say that we, of course, took note of those remarks. They are very concerning.”
    • Mr. Alavi’s voice carries weight within the Iranian system because he controls the Intelligence Ministry, a parallel security service to the IRGC’s domestic operations.
  • Iranians Maintain that the U.S. Must Move First
    • Iran’s Supreme Leader spoke out about the JCPOA in what he called Iran’s “final position.” He said that the U.S. has “no right to set conditions on this. The side that has the right to set conditions on JCPOA’s continuation is Iran because Iran fulfilled all its commitments from the beginning.

    • He went on to say that, “if they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments, the US must completely lift sanctions. And not just verbally on the paper. They must revoke the sanctions in action and we will verify it.”

    • Last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed that the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, could “choreograph” steps by Iran and the US to return to nuclear deal compliance. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani also said, “we’re ready to properly meet our commitments the day we see the P5+1 meet their commitments.”
  • Parliamentary Bill Continues to Mandate More Breaches of JCPOA
    • Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency verified on Feb. 8th that Iran had produced a small amount of uranium metal at a nuclear plant in Isfahan. The IAEA informed member states that Iran had so far accumulated 3.6 grams of uranium metal – the JCPOA bars Iran from producing any.

    • Iran outlined last month how it will turn its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium into metal plates for its research reactor, which in turn produces isotopes used for medicine and industry.

    • A law passed in response to the assasssination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in November called for an increase to 20% enrichment, reducing access to IAEA inspectors on Feb. 21st if sanctions are not lifted, and opening a uranium metal plant.

    • The IAEA’s report prompted a warning from European governments who said there was “no credible civilian use” for uranium metal and that the move is a “key step in producing a nuclear weapon.” 
    • However, former manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s centrifuge and plutonium metallurgy programs Robert Kelly said that the move may make it more difficult for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon with its existing stockpiles. If used to create fuel for the Tehran Nuclear Reactor, the metal would be more difficult to convert into usable material for a nuclear weapon.

    • When asked if Iran’s plan to reduce inspector access on Feb. 21st is a red line or a deadline for JCPOA reentry, Price said “no – if they’re out of compliance then, they are still out of compliance.”
  • Key Takeaways
    • Mr. Alavi’s interview is a sign that Tehran’s calculations on a nuclear weapon may fundamentally change. Iran’s past nuclear weapon’s program is perhaps the most sensitive issue both domestically and internationally for Iran. For a senior official, whose selection must be approved by the Supreme Leader, to make comments on the issue is significant.

    • While there are no indications to suggest that Iran is pursuing a weapon, there are many within the Iranian establishment and broader public who think Iran should be or should have pursued nuclear weapons to ensure regime survival. The longer the U.S. and Iran wdelay returning to the nuclear deal, the more these voices will feel vindicated in their position that engaging with the West has limited to no benefits.  
    • Moreover, the lack of movement on the JCPOA is potentially making the Iranian government nervous, pushing them to a highly problematic direction, predicated on pressuring the U.S., that is counterproductive.

Iran Imprisons Another Dual National, Reza Eslami

  • Convicted for “Cooperating with Foreign Powers”; 7 Year Sentence

    • Reza Eslami, a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen legal scholar was sentenced on Monday, Feb. 8th, to seven years in prison on charges of “cooperating with hostile foreign powers.” Mr. Eslami was arrested after attending a training seminar in the Czech Republic conducted by a Czech NGO that receives U.S. funding.

    • Eslami reportedly dismissed the charges against him as “baseless” in an audio recording released from prison, where he also said that his academic work was free of “political, security and foreign-relations issues.”

    • Mr. Eslami’s conviction comes after Iran jailed and convicted another dual national in January, Iranian-American businessman Emad Sharghi. In November 2020, only days after the assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iranian authorities summoned Sharghi back to an Iranian court, convicted him on charges of espionage, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison without a trial.

    • Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said Sharghi was convicted on espionage charges and of providing military information to foreign countries. His imprisonment marks at least 4 U.S. dual nationals imprisoned in Iran, including Baquer and Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz.

    • For more info, please see NIAC’s Human Rights Tracker on the imprisonment of Mr. Eslami and Mr. Sharghi.  


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