The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the international community limits Tehran’s heavy water inventory to no more than 130 metric tons for the current Arak reactor before reconfiguration to a smaller capacity. In February, the first International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report following the nuclear deal’s implementation confirmed that the Islamic Republic had briefly exceeded this limit before shipping 20 metric tons “out of Iran.” A look at the corresponding footnote, however, indicates otherwise: “The quantity of heavy water shipped out of Iran will be verified by the Agency.” In other words, the IAEA was merely confirming a statement made by the Iranians themselves rather than presenting facts on the ground.
This is not the first time the IAEA’s reporting has been insufficiently clear regarding Iranian inventories of nuclear material. In its January report, for example, the agency also provided insufficient information on how Tehran had reduced its enriched uranium inventories to the agreed limits.
Iran’s February statement to the agency that it had shipped out its excess heavy water also raises questions. U.S. officials said the heavy water was shipped to Oman to await transport to the United States. According to standard IAEA verification practices, however, inventory changes are only registered when material has left a country’s territory and receipt of material is acknowledged elsewhere. Until then, it continues to be considered part of the original country’s inventory.
According to the State Department, a contract for 32 tons of heavy water was signed in Vienna on April 22 to be delivered to the U.S. “in the coming week.” It remains unclear, however, whether this refers to an additional 12-ton shipment on top of the 20-ton shipment cited in the IAEA’s February report, or as a separate shipment altogether.
Whatever the case, the real concern is Iran’s excess production above the agreed-upon limits. If the heavy water’s destination is unclear due to Tehran not being able to find a partner to take it, then U.S. negotiators should say so. Even if that were the case, however, Iran should have simply halted heavy water production until it was able to comply with the agreement.
After all, the JCPOA’s nuclear inventory limits were set for a purpose. Iran is continuously enriching uranium and producing heavy water, and exceeding the JCPOA’s limits threatens to cut its nuclear breakout time – namely the time needed to produce material for a nuclear bomb.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has said that the U.S. will not be buying Iranian heavy water “forever.” Russia is also apparently in talks with Tehran to purchase heavy water, but the market for heavy water is small, given the limited worldwide construction of new reactors to produce it. India, which currently has a surplus heavy water supply, has sought to sell its excess capacity on the open market. Under such conditions, Iran will continue to face difficulties in finding buyers.
It is Iran’s responsibility to comply with the limits delineated in the JCPOA by exporting or diluting excess material as stipulated in the deal. And when no buyer can be found, it is not the international community’s responsibility to become a buyer in an already saturated market where both heavy water and uranium are in excess supply.
The JCPOA called for establishing a Joint Commission of the P5+1 negotiators and Iran to monitor the deal’s implementation. On April 22, the commission held its first post-implementation meeting in Vienna. The commission’s work is confidential, so we do not know if it discussed Iran’s excess heavy water inventory. A clear, unambiguous IAEA accounting of Tehran’s nuclear inventories is therefore all the more essential.
Dr. Olli Heinonen is an advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.