September 11, 2020

New IAEA Report on Iran’s Nuclear Program & U.S. Military Reduces Forces in Iraq

This week, an IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program was released and the joint commission under the JCPOA convened its 16th meeting. Also, Iran plans to build a new centrifuge assembly plant after its factory was destroyed and the U.S. military announced a reduction in U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. Please see our analysis and breakdown below:

New IAEA Report on Nuclear Program Follows JCPOA Joint Commission Meeting

  • Iran Also Begins Rebuild of New Centrifuge Assembly Plant After Sabotage
    • The IAEA released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program to member countries, stating in the confidential document that, as of August 25th, Iran had stockpiled 2,105.4 kilograms  of low-enriched uranium, up from 1,571.6 kilograms in the IAEA’s last report on May 20. While far higher than the 300 kg of enriched uranium permitted under the JCPOA, the stockpile still remains far below the many tons of enriched uranium Iran had accumulated before the 2015 deal. The report also states that Iran continues to enrich uranium at 4.5%, above the 3.67% cap codified in the nuclear deal, but still below levels that would spark immediate proliferation concerns.
    • The IAEA also confirmed that it had begun inspecting two sites of concern after the agency and Iran struck an agreement on the parameters of the inspection. The IAEA said inspectors had already visited one site to collect environmental samples and would visit the other this month. They did not detail their findings.
    • The IAEA’s concerns regarding the two sites, which were revealed following the publishing of the “nuclear archives,” compelled IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi to travel to Iran to resolve the questions on access to the sites. A joint statement on Aug. 26 said, “Iran is voluntarily providing the IAEA with access to the two locations specified by the IAEA and facilitating the IAEA verification activities to resolve these issues.”
    • Also, the joint commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — which included the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal (Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the EU, Russia and China) — met in Vienna for the 16th time following U.S. attempts to snapback sanctions. All parties signed a joint statement affirming that the United States could not initiate “snapback” sanctions on Iran because the U.S. is not “considered as a participant State” following its withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.  Participants also reaffirmed the “importance” of the nuclear deal and “welcomed” the recent agreement struck by Iran and the IAEA over the two undeclared sites.
    • In response to the IAEA’s report and the joint commission statement, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tweeted his displeasure with European allies, stating that “the E3 and other nations must wake up to the reality that the nuclear deal is history and should join us in imposing strong sanctions.”
    • On Sept. 8th, following the leak of the IAEA report and the conclusion of the joint commission meeting, Iran announced that it would rebuild its nuclear centrifuge assembly plant in a new location after the factory at the Natanz nuclear facility was destroyed in a suspected sabotage attack in July. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s domestic nuclear agency, said, “it was decided to build a more modern, larger and more comprehensive hall in all dimensions in the heart of the mountain near Natanz.” The Natanz uranium-enrichment site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
    • At the time of the explosion, the spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the most prominent national security institution in the country, said that the cause of the incident at Natanz has been found, but will not be revealed for now due to “security reasons.” However, in late August, Iranian officials publicly stated that the explosion was an orchestrated effort, saying that “security investigations confirm this was sabotage,” but still refused to name the perpetrators. 
  • Key Takeaways
    • The increase of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is concerning, and has dropped Iran’s potential breakout time – the time it would take Iran to accumulate sufficient fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so – from more than a year under the JCPOA to a matter of 3-4 months. Still, given the intrusive inspections over Iran’s nuclear activities and steady rate of accumulation, Iran’s activities do not appear to pose immediate proliferation risks.
    • Iran’s slow, steady accumulation of nuclear material plays into a larger strategy of rebuilding its nuclear leverage while rebuking the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. Iran will look to build more and more pressure in the lead up to November, but keep their actions below a threshold that could promote public condemnation from Europe or give cause for the U.S. to take retaliatory measures.
    • Iran’s agreement with the IAEA over the two undeclared sites similarly plays into its broader ‘maximum patience’ strategy. Iran could have stalled for longer or outright refused to give access, sparking more serious concerns from Europe about Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, it upheld its IAEA obligations to give access to these sites, reducing its tensions with Europe and shoring up the coalition of countries united against the U.S. snapback ploy.
    • Salehi’s comments seem to realize fears that the sabotage at Natanz would only push Iran to rebuild the facility underground in a more fortified position. While the explosions seemed to succeed in slowing down Iran’s centrifuge production in the short term, it has medium and long term consequences that could be detrimental both to U.S. and Israeli security interests.
    • The sabotage will harden Iran’s fortification around its nuclear sites and push them to build more facilities underground. When looking at the effects of past sabotage attempts by Israel and the U.S., they did nothing to change the ultimate trajectory of the program. Iran’s construction of centrifuges accelerated following the ‘Stuxnet’ cyberattack in 2009, which went from over 8,000 centrifuges installed at Natanz in 2009 to 19,000 by 2013. The only thing that reduced proliferation risks from Iran’s nuclear program has been the JCPOA, which is why the Trump administration and Israel’s efforts to undermine it have been so dangerous. 

U.S. to Reduce Troop Presence in Iraq and Afghanistan 

  • Levels Will be Reduced from 5,200 to 3,000 in Iraq
    • Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command confirmed on Sept. 9th that the U.S. military will be reducing the number of active-duty troops in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000. In comments to reporters, McKenzie also said that the withdrawal should be complete by the end of September.
    • In his remarks, McKenzie said the force reduction in Iraq was agreeable to the Iraqi government and is due to “the great progress the Iraqi forces have made.” He stressed that the goal is “an Iraqi Security Force that is capable of preventing an ISIS resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance.”
    • The decision to scale back troops comes as the Islamic State (IS) slowly regains a foothold in Iraq. Since 2018, IS has had a steady resurgence following its supposed “defeat” in Iraq and Syria. Many open-source analysts and government officials agree that the group has altered its tactics to focus on more rural, low casualty attacks as opposed to big-city insurgencies. Since early 2019, there has been a general trend upward in attacks, with 566 attacks attributed to IS in the first quarter of 2020 inside of Iraq. They include targeted killings, small scale attacks on villages, car bombings, and roadside bombs.
    • The decision to reduce troop numbers also comes three weeks after Trump met with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, in Washington, in part to finalize details of the drawdown among other issues. During the visit, President Trump said “at some point, we obviously will be gone” and “we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there…”At the same event, Prime Minister Khadhimi reaffirmed Iraq’s need for a limited U.S. presence, stating that “ISIS sleeper cells are still operating in Iraq…The threat is still there.”
    • Undergirding all these dynamics has been tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq being a “battleground” for the two foes. Rocket attacks carried out by predominantly Shia militias linked to Iran have escalated over the last year as the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policies have intensified on Iran and its allies. One attack in late December 2019 set off a chain of events that led to the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a prominent Iraqi militia leader on January 2nd, prompting an Iranian retaliation on U.S. forces that left over a hundred injured. A rocket attack in March 2020 also killed three coalition soldiers, two of them American.
    • Following the January killing, Iraq’s Parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the withdrawal of American forces. The Iraqi government has chosen not to enforce the resolution with concerns about what a full U.S. withdrawal would mean for Iran’s growing influence in the country. However, discussions of withdrawal intensified after January, with the U.S. slowly consolidating its troops into few bases in response to the rocket attacks, diverting personnel from operations against ISIS.
  • Key takeaways
    • While the move to reduce forces in Iraq has been choreographed for months, it also comes eight weeks before the November presidential election, prompting President Trump to tell voters he is fulfilling a campaign promise to bring home the troops. However, while the Trump administration continues to reduce troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has added more troops to the Middle East than it plans to take out.
    • Between May and October 2019, it deployed 14,000 additional troops to Saudi Arabia and the surrounding Gulf states in their attempt to shore up their cooperation against Iran. In May 2020, they reduced troop numbers by 300, but that was more a result of restructuring U.S. force protection in Iraq than it was reducing our military footprint in the region. 
    • The administration’s commitment to end foreign entanglements stops when it comes to countering Iran, regardless of if their deployments have done little to deter Iran or if our presence creates more long-term challenges than it solves.
    • Concerns about an IS resurgence and growing Iranian influence in Iraq are legitimate, but a growing U.S. military footprint is not the answer. Regarding IS, Iraqi military officials have said that the U.S. is most needed in training Iraqi forces and supporting their efforts via reconnaissance flights and air support – tasks that can be maintained with a reduced force.
    • When it comes to Iran, U.S. military presence has only exacerbated tensions between the two countries over the last few years. Realizing this, the Pentagon is reported to be reluctant to keep more than the absolute minimum of troops in Iraq because they have been attacked by Iranian-partnered militias. As early as 2017, Iranian forces and US forces operated in close proximity amid the JCPOA’s implementation and the shared threat of ISIS. The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has instead turned that detente on its head.
    • The continued threat to U.S. troops in Iraq from Iran’s proxy network has given Iran leverage and altered America’s regional calculus by diverting attention from ISIS. Therefore reducing our troop presence in Iraq not only protects soldiers in harm’s way but serves U.S. regional interests in removing Iranian leverage. 
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