June 27, 2016 | Memo

EU-Iran Nuclear Cooperation: The Case for Stronger Safety and Nonproliferation Standards

FDD Research

The constraints imposed on Iran’s activities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) curb Tehran’s nuclear program for eight to 15 years. The key restrictions on the program, however, disappear over time, leaving Tehran with an industrial-size nuclear program with near-zero nuclear breakout time and an easier, advance-centrifuge-powered clandestine “sneak out” time.

The agreement, along with auxiliary International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification arrangements, institutes transparency measures that in some cases extend beyond the agency’s traditional practices. However, the weaknesses of the procurement channel mean that after 10 years, its manufacturing industry to support nuclear activities will be under only limited constraints. In some cases, these constraints will be weaker than those required of responsible nuclear exporters such as Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Under the JCPOA, the P5+1 negotiators (the EU, France, Germany, China, UK, and U.S.) agreed to assist Iran across a spectrum of nuclear activities. The parties will facilitate Tehran’s acquisition of modern light-water research and power reactors to generate electricity and desalinate seawater.

Iran will also be given support for the redesign and rebuilding of its Arak facility into a modernized heavy-water research reactor that produces less nuclear-weapons grade plutonium. The JCPOA commits the P5+1 to supply Tehran with nuclear fuel, modern fuel-manufacturing technologies, and related equipment. P5+1 countries are further committed to cooperate with Iran in the safe, effective, and efficient management and disposition of nuclear and radiological wastes, including for waste management and disposal facilities within its borders. As for research and development, Iran will be given support in setting up the production of stable isotopes using gas centrifuges at its Fordow facility, as well as neutron-imaging and materials-characterization studies using neutron beams.

In terms of nuclear safety, the EU will provide support and assistance to enable Iran to join relevant conventions. This cooperation provides an important opportunity to ensure the agreement covers all nuclear material, assistance, and products, and that it provides long-term assurances of their peaceful end use.

Existing nuclear cooperation agreements can provide important benchmarks, many of which go beyond IAEA safeguards. The EU’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan – a country with sensitive fuel-cycle activities but, unlike Iran, a strong nuclear nonproliferation record – covers nuclear material and equipment use of EU origin. Australia has added specific conditions to its bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with two dozen parties over its own nuclear material. Canada likewise has cooperation agreements that provide control over all items subject to the agreement, including those retransferred to a third party. Both the Canadian and Australian agreements require their prior consent if nuclear material originating in their countries is used for reprocessing to separate plutonium.

An EU-Iran bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement should draw on the best practices from these examples. A strong agreement that requires the return of equipment and nuclear materials (including items manufactured through “reverse engineering” of EU technologies) will protect the EU in the case of substantial Iranian noncompliance. Since European nuclear cooperation and assistance to Iran is based only on a provisional implementation of the Additional Protocol, the EU should require Tehran’s early ratification of the Protocol before any further nuclear cooperation steps are taken.

The Islamic Republic is also the only country apart from North Korea that operates industrial fuel-cycle facilities but has not signed and ratified the Nuclear Safety Convention and amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. At the least, the EU-Iran bilateral nuclear agreement should require that Tehran ratify these conventions by a fixed date.

In other words, at a minimum, Brussels should apply the same levels of safety, security, and nonproliferation standards to Iran as it has with Japan. Enforcing such standards is the responsible course of action, protects the cooperation agreement, and requires the Islamic Republic to behave like responsible nuclear powers – among whom it has always claimed to be.

Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior 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.