by Kelsey Davenport
A critical decision in the long-running effort to block Iran’s potential path to nuclear weapons is just days away. The Trump administration must decide by May 2 to renew sanctions waivers allowing required nuclear cooperation projects with Iran detailed in the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal to continue or let the waivers lapse. Failure to grant the waivers would jeopardize U.S. nonproliferation priorities and increase the risk that the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will collapse. Tehran is already threatening to withdraw from the JCPOA and, more seriously, the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) after the United States announced April 22 that it would no longer grant waivers to states seeking to purchase Iranian oil.
When the Trump administration first issued the 180-day nuclear cooperation waivers November 5, it stated that allowing these projects to go forward would “impede Iran’s ability to reconstitute its weapons program and lock in the nuclear status quo until we can secure a stronger deal”—a clear acknowledgement that the U.S. benefits from these crucial nonproliferation projects.
The waivers were necessary after U.S. President Donald Trump violated the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions on Iran–despite Tehran’s clear record of compliance—and withdrew from the accord in May 2018. Had the Trump administration not issued the waivers, the United States could have penalized foreign entities involved in the nuclear projects for conducting legitimate work required by the JCPOA and endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231.
Despite the fact that these nuclear cooperation projects help to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential, the White House may allow the waivers to expire in order to try to ratchet up the pressure on Iran even further. Six Republican Senators wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo April 9 encouraging the Trump administration to allow the waivers to lapse in order to put additional pressure on Tehran. These members of Congress and some officials within the Trump administration appear to believe that the United States can coerce Iran’s leaders into a new set of negotiations designed to produce a “stronger deal” that addresses Iranian regional activities that Washington views as destabilizing and requires Tehran to capitulate to all U.S. demands on the country’s nuclear program. So far, this strategy has only isolated the United States and damaged Washington’s credibility.
In an April 11 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Pompeo said the decision regarding the nuclear cooperation projects is “complicated,” but did not indicate if the waivers would be renewed. Reportedly, Pompeo favors granting the waivers, but Iran hardliners in the National Security Council are opposed to renewal.
Failure to renew the waivers for JCPOA-related nuclear cooperation projects will not advance the Trump administration’s plan to maximize pressure on Iran in pursuit of a mythical “better deal,” which appears to be a thinly disguised call for regime change. Rather, it would be an own goal that sets back U.S. nonproliferation priorities and compounds Trump’s irresponsible decision to jeopardize the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions. It also risks putting the remaining P4+1 parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the EU) in violation of the deal by preventing them from meeting obligations under the agreement to assist Iran with certain nuclear projects, thus giving Iran a further justification to abandon the agreement.
Jeopardizing Critical Nonproliferation Projects
If the Trump administration does not issue the waivers, it will put at risk critical projects that serve U.S. and international nonproliferation and security interests, particularly the conversion efforts at the Arak reactor and the Fordow facility, a former uranium enrichment site.
Arak: Prior to the negotiation of the JCPOA, the unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak posed a proliferation risk that the United States and its negotiating partners sought to mitigate with the nuclear deal. If Iran had completed the reactor as originally designed, it would have produced enough plutonium for an estimated two nuclear weapons per year.
As a result of the JCPOA, Iran removed the calandria, or core, from the Arak reactor, filled it with concrete, and committed not to undertake any additional work at the site based on the original design. The IAEA verified the removal of the calandria and continues to monitor the reactor site. In addition, Iran committed to modify the reactor so that, when operational, it would produce a fraction of the necessary plutonium for a nuclear weapon on an annual basis.
Iran also agreed to ship out the spent fuel from the reactor for 15 years, preventing Tehran from accumulating several years’ worth of plutonium and then reprocessing it into a form suitable for nuclear weapons. The JCPOA established a working group “to support and facilitate the redesign and rebuilding” of the Arak reactor. (See JCPOA, Annex III, Section B, Paragraph 5.1.) China agreed to lead the work with the United States providing critical support verifying the design. When the Trump administration withdrew from the deal, the UK took over the U.S. role.
If China is prevented from fulfilling its contract on the Arak work, Iran may decide at some point to restart construction on the reactor, perhaps based on the original design. If Tehran were to go down that path, it would pose a proliferation risk and provide Iran with a source of plutonium, which when separated, could be used for nuclear weapons.
However, once the reactor is converted, it would be more difficult and time consuming for Iran to use it for weapons purposes or to revert back to the original design. Given the nonproliferation benefits of modifying the Arak reactor and the risks of Iran returning to its original plan for the reactor, supporting and allowing conversion efforts to continue clearly serves U.S. interests.
Fordow: A similar argument can be made for the Fordow site. Prior to the negotiation of the JCPOA, Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent uranium-235 at Fordow. While 20 percent uranium-235 is still far below the 90 percent considered weapons grade, it poses a greater proliferation risk as it is easier to increase enrichment from 20 percent to 90 percent than it is to move from 3.67 percent (reactor grade and Iran’s current limit under the JCPOA) to 20 percent.
As a result of the JCPOA, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium and having any nuclear material at the Fordow facility for 15 years. Iran also had the reduce the number of centrifuges at Fordow from about 2,700 first generation IR-1 machines to 1,044. Of the 1,044 centrifuges, two cascades (348 centrifuges) will be used for stable isotope production.
The JCPOA stipulates that Iran will convert the facility into a “nuclear physics, and technology centre ” and encourage international collaboration in certain areas of research. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section H, Paragraph 44.) The IAEA is also permitted daily access to the site under the JCPOA and the deal notes that Russia will assist with the conversion efforts.
Turning Fordow into a nuclear physics center, reducing the centrifuges at the site, and using a portion of them for stable isotope production serves U.S. and international nonproliferation interests. It significantly reduces the risk that Iran will reconstitute the facility for uranium enrichment and, by having a regular Russian and IAEA presence at the site, it provides greater assurance that if Iran were to begin to transition Fordow back to a uranium enrichment plant, the international community would quickly be alerted to that fact.
Additionally, the Fordow facility is located within a mountain that would render it nearly impossible to destroy using conventional military means. A military strike is not a viable option for addressing Iran’s nuclear program should Tehran exit the JCPOA and resume more troublesome nuclear activities, and it is more likely to incentivize the country to pursue nuclear weapons. But the invulnerability of Fordow to a strike underscores the importance of retaining the JCPOA and preventing the proliferation risk that would come if Iran were to reconstitute uranium enrichment at the Fordow site.
Other Projects: Additional JCPOA-supported projects that could be impacted if the United States does not grant waivers include the transfer of 20 percent enriched uranium fuel to Iran for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes, and Russia’s assistance at the Bushehr nuclear power reactor.
Under the JCPOA, Iran is allowed to import limited quantities of fuel enriched to 20 percent uranium-235 under IAEA monitoring for the TRR. The P4+1 are required by the deal to assist Iran in obtaining the fuel. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section J, Paragraph 60.) If Tehran is unable to purchase the 20 percent material, it could lead Iran to resume enrichment to that level, which poses a far greater proliferation risk than the 3.67-percent uranium-235 limit that Iran is required to abide by for 15 years under the JCPOA.
At Bushehr, Iran’s sole civil nuclear power reactor is fueled by the Russians. Russia also removes the spent fuel. Sanctioning Russian entities involved in the operation of the reactor and the spent fuel removal risks incentivizing Iran to increase its enrichment capacity to fuel that reactor, again posing a greater proliferation threat.
Additionally, these projects, particularly the conversion of Fordow to a stable isotope production and research center and the modifications of the Arak reactor, are tangible benefits for Iran that incentivize its continued compliance with the nuclear deal. Currently, as a result of Trump violating the JCPOA by reimposing sanctions, Iran’s economy has suffered, and foreign entities have withdrawn from the Iranian market. Nevertheless, research and development activities like the Fordow and Arak projects still provide Iran with benefits and incentives to remain in the agreement.
Putting U.S. Partners and Allies in Violation of the JCPOA
In addition to halting projects that benefit U.S. security and nonproliferation objectives, failure to grant the waivers allowing nuclear cooperation projects to continue risks putting the remaining P4+1 parties to the deal in violation of the agreement.
The impact of halting nuclear cooperation differs from the impact of foreign entities exiting the Iranian market in order to avoid being penalized under U.S. sanctions reimposed by Trump. Reimposing sanctions put the United States in violation of the JCPOA, but the deal does not guarantee Iran any particular level of economic benefit or require the P4+1 to guarantee that companies will do business with Iran. Therefore, the decision by companies to sever contracts with Iran did not abrogate P4+1 commitments under the deal.
However, unlike the economic sanctions, certain nuclear cooperation projects are required by the JCPOA and have been endorsed by the UN Security Council. If entities involved in these projects halt work out of fear of being sanctioned and the P4+1 are unable to meet their obligations to assist with these projects, it risks putting them in violation of the deal.
On Fordow, Annex III of the JCPOA states that “the transitioning to stable isotope production of two cascades will be conducted in a joint partnership between the Russian Federation and Iran, on the basis of arrangements to be mutually agreed upon.” (See JCPOA, Annex III, Section C, Paragraph 7.1.) Russia’s work at Bushehr would also be at risk if the Trump administration does not issue a waiver. In addition to providing fuel for the reactor and removing spent fuel, Rosatom, Russia’s state-run energy organization, is currently working on an additional two reactor units at the site.
If the United States does not grant a waiver allowing Russia’s state-run energy organization Rosatom to continue working at Bushehr and Fordow, it will put Moscow in the difficult decision of deciding between meeting its explicit commitments under the JCPOA and risking U.S. penalties or violating the nuclear deal.
Similarly, Annex III of the JCPOA states that the Arak working group “will provide assistance needed by Iran for redesigning and rebuilding the reactor” and agree upon steps to provide an “assured path forward to modernize the reactor.” (See JCPOA, Annex III, Section B, Paragraphs 5.1; 5.5.)
The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is the primary entity involved in the Arak reactor redesign project and the CNNC and Iran agreed upon a contract in 2017 for the initial phases of the work. However, despite receiving a wavier in November, Iran has raised concerns about the pace of work at Arak, as CNNC reportedly considers the guidance provided by the Trump administration on the waiver to be vague and insufficient. Given CNNC’s global reach and ambitions, the company is likely adverse to any risk of sanction by the United States and would be unwilling to continue the project without a waiver.
There are additional implications for revoking the waivers beyond the nuclear deal with Iran. Rosatom, for instance, is involved in a number of nuclear cooperation projects with U.S. entities. If Washington refuses to grant the waivers allowing legitimate work under the JCPOA to continue, Rosatom and others could choose to retaliate by terminating projects with U.S. based entities. That could inhibit competitiveness of the U.S. nuclear industry and adversely impact their operations.
The General Nonproliferation Value of Nuclear Cooperation
Beyond the nonproliferation and JCPOA-compliance benefits of issuing the waivers, there is value to encouraging and supporting additional nuclear cooperation projects suggested in Annex III of the agreement. Unlike the work at Arak, Fordow, the TRR, and Bushehr, these projects are optional, yet fulfilling them would have significant nuclear security and safety benefits. Additionally, it would continue to provide greater transparency into Iran’s civil nuclear activities.
Iran currently operates two reactors, the TRR and the Bushehr reactor, and has ambitious plans to expand its nuclear program for energy generation. Yet Iran lags behind international standards and best practices for nuclear safety and security. Iran is not a party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment, nor the Nuclear Safety Convention. Iran also does not publish its nuclear regulatory practices, so it is difficult to determine if Tehran is meeting international standards for governing its civil nuclear activities. Annex III of the JCPOA encourages cooperative work to address these critical gaps on nuclear security and safety, including measures such as strengthening emergency preparedness, training and workshops on nuclear safety and security, the establishment of a nuclear safety center, and assistance to strengthen physical protection at nuclear facilities.
Cooperative work on several of these areas is already underway. The EU-Iran high-level seminars on nuclear cooperation have begun the initial phases of constructing a Nuclear Safety Center and assisting Iran with updating its regulatory frameworks to reflect international best practices. This work is proceeding and does not appear, at this time, to be impacted by U.S. sanctions.
This type of assistance project benefits not only Iran, but the entire region. A nuclear incident, caused either by accident or an intentional act of sabotage, would have an impact beyond Iran’s borders. It is in the best interests of Middle Eastern countries, particularly those in the Persian Gulf, that Iran’s nuclear activities are safe and secure. Without the JCPOA, or if the United States aggressively targets entities involved in legitimate nuclear cooperation, it is unlikely that these projects will continue.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions was irresponsible and unjustified. If the Trump administration refuses to renew the waivers allowing nuclear cooperation projects to continue it would compound his dangerous decision to abandon the agreement.
Supporting nuclear cooperation with Iran benefits U.S. nonproliferation priorities and national security. It also allows the remaining parties to the deal to meet JCPOA requirements. Additionally, these projects provide greater insight and transparency into Iran’s nuclear activities and can provide important safety and security benefits.
Kelsey Davenport is the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. Reprinted, with permission, from the Arms Control Association.