December 23, 2016 | Memo
Iranian Moves Offer Opportunity to Improve JCPOA
FDD Research Memo
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Congress extended the Iran Sanctions Act earlier this month, prompting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to order retaliatory steps. Tehran protested to the EU, claiming the extension is a violation of last summer’s nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – and requesting a meeting of the joint committee established to settle disputes over the deal’s implementation. Based on Rouhani’s same directive, Iran has also ordered its scientists to develop a plan to design and manufacture a nuclear-propulsion system and fuel for marine transportation.
Initiating plans to build nuclear-powered vessels would not itself be a violation of the nuclear deal, but Tehran’s steps do undermine the agreement’s spirit, as they would require uranium enrichment beyond the limits allowed by the deal. The United States and its partners in negotiating the deal should respond by initiating a process to address the flaws in the JCPOA that Iran can exploit.
Will Iran’s Plan Violate the JCPOA?
Among other restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the JCPOA places several limitations on Iran’s production of enriched uranium and use of nuclear power and research reactors. Over the next fifteen years, the deal prevents Tehran from enriching uranium above 3.67 percent, and requires it to rely only on light-water nuclear power and research reactors for development, testing, and supplying electricity and desalination. Because marine reactors produce electricity to propel ships, Iran is arguing that any work on nuclear propulsion will be in compliance with the deal. The State Department has taken a cautious approach, noting that Iran’s plans remain unclear and that a marine nuclear propulsion program is a “massive undertaking for any nation” that would likely take decades to realize.
Recent comments by the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, however, raise concerns that the Islamic Republic will violate the JCPOA. He acknowledged during a recent joint press conference with the IAEA’s director general that currently, fuel used in all naval propulsion systems is enriched to between five and 90 percent, depending on the type of fuel, the goal of its use, and the needed refueling period. Even enrichment to five percent, however, would exceed the uranium enrichment caps set by the JCPOA.