From Syria to Ukraine, it is no secret that the Trump administration has its share of challenges coordinating messaging, policy goals, and the means to achieve them. But the White House’s approach to Iran and its nuclear program, long a fixture of the president’s speeches and an area the administration spent considerable time and political capital on, should not be so difficult. Despite leaving the nuclear deal in May 2018, the Trump administration is still pulling its punches on Iran’s nuclear program. The coming days offer an opportunity to correct course.
This week, the Trump administration will move to either renew or cancel waivers for select Iranian nuclear projects. These waivers render Iran’s civil nuclear cooperation initiatives, which were authorized by the Obama administration and its European, Chinese, and Russian counterparts, immune from U.S. sanctions.
If the administration is serious about driving Iran to the negotiating table, it will need to, at least, terminate one waiver and conditionally suspend the other. Reauthorizing these waivers—one for work at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant and the other for the Arak heavy water reactor—undercuts U.S. nonproliferation aims as well as the “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.
It also supports what amounts to foreign assistance to key nodes of Iran’s past weapons efforts, a move fundamentally at odds with Washington’s objectives. Lastly, it signals that the administration will ignore more recent Iranian failures to live up to its commitments under the 2015 deal pertaining to Fordow and Arak.
In May, the administration cancelled two waivers related to Iran’s ability to exchange enriched uranium for natural uranium with Russia and on its ability to sell heavy water abroad or store it at a consignment point in Oman. It also dropped the timeline for waiver renewal down from 180 to 90 days, signaling that it wanted to revisit this decision more frequently. Given that Iran is now incrementally reducing its compliance with the deal, Washington should capitalize on the opportunity that the waiver deadline offers.
Five other waivers remain in place and were reissued this summer. Three are for imports, exports, and other assistance relating to the Tehran Research Reactor and the electricity-producing Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant; the latter was previously tightened to preclude any expansion of the plant. The last two waivers, and the ones posing problems, are for stable isotope separation at Fordow, with Russian assistance, and for the conversion of the Arak reactor to be less proliferation-sensitive, a project currently shared by China and Britain.
The Fordow facility is a living testament to the prowess of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, which fought hard, despite initial Western negotiating aims, to prevent its shuttering. Despite the passage of four years since the deal entered into force, Tehran has still not converted the facility into a “nuclear, physics, and technology centre” for relevant international scientific cooperation, as it pledged. Moreover, Tehran has slow-rolled any genuine reorientation effort, using only 11 machines of the 348 permitted for stable isotope production, according to reporting by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Since the 2015 deal was reached, information from a treasure trove of secret archive documents relating to Iran’s nuclear program indicates that this once covert and highly fortified facility was originally planned for weapons-grade uranium production for one to two nuclear weapons per year. Its past intended use, coupled with the fact that it is buried deep underground, is why Iran considers Fordow a strategic facility and, accordingly, delayed its conversion for more peaceful purposes.
With the intensification of Washington’s maximum pressure campaign, Iran has sought to use the threat of resuming enrichment at Fordow as leverage. In June 2018, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) stated that “when [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] gives the order, we will announce the programs for operating outside of the nuclear deal for reviving Fordow.”
With the intensification of Washington’s maximum pressure campaign, Iran has sought to use the threat of resuming enrichment at Fordow as leverage.
Months later, at a visit to Fordow, Iran’s AEOI chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted as saying, “We currently have 1,044 centrifuges … and if the establishment wants, we will restart 20 percent uranium enrichment.” Canceling the waiver for Fordow would signal that Washington will not bless any of these moves, and it would be a step toward righting a wrong from the nuclear deal that permitted Fordow to remain open in the first place.
The second problematic U.S. waiver is for the ongoing reorientation of Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak, also known as the IR-40. Under the deal, the British and Chinese share an effort to make the 40-megawatt thermal reactor less of a proliferation risk as it relates to potential weapons-grade plutonium production.
But Arak’s conversion has been delayed multiple times, and the IAEA notably has not described the work in its limited quarterly safeguards reporting, making its status an open question. However, Iranian announcements now place the reactor’s planned return to operations for 2021.
At issue in Arak is whether Iran has already circumvented restrictions on the plutonium pathway toward nuclear weapons. This January, Salehi bragged in an interview on Iranian television that while negotiating the 2015 deal, Iran imported tubes for another reactor fuel lattice inside the core. If true, this makes the IAEA’s confirmation that Iran poured cement into the reactor’s core irrelevant.
As Salehi stated, “We had bought the same quantity of similar tubes. When they told us to pour cement into the tubes … we said: ‘Fine. We will pour.’ But we did not tell them that we had other tubes. Otherwise, they would have told us to pour cement into those tubes as well. Now we have the same tubes.”
This statement renders the conversion work at Arak meaningless if Iran is preparing another reactor project. Under the deal, Iran committed to not build additional heavy water reactors for 15 years. Suspending the waiver for Arak can be a stick in Washington’s diplomatic arsenal to incentivize greater transparency while punishing Iran’s illicit procurement. Continuing to waive sanctions related to Arak would amount to the administration throwing its hands up in the face of
Iran’s bragging about how it bypassed one of the few nonproliferation achievements of the nuclear deal.
While Washington should carefully balance the need to complete the reactor’s conversion and render it less of a proliferation threat, it also must obtain clear answers about Iran’s illicit procurement of tubes, including their storage and how they were paid for. Currently, the IAEA considers the matter pertaining to the tubes outside of its purview. But blocking Iran’s uranium as well as plutonium pathways to a bomb is a key U.S. national security interest, and Washington cannot afford to stand by if the IAEA falls short in enforcing its own mandates.
Washington cannot afford to stand by if the IAEA falls short in enforcing its own mandates.
Instead of again waiving sanctions on Iran’s activities at facilities that it has failed to convert, or where it is actively subverting its commitments, Washington should take the initiative by canceling the Fordow waiver and conditionally suspending the Arak waiver. It can also recommend that all parties to the 2015 deal call for Fordow’s shuttering—or at least deliver on its reorientation—as well as urge the IAEA to get answers from Iran about its past plans for producing nuclear weapons at both sites.
There is no substitute for U.S. leadership on the matter. The Trump administration continues to use the rhetoric of maximum pressure against Iran. Revoking and suspending two waivers related to the regime’s illicit nuclear activities would go a long way toward backing up this rhetoric with concrete policies.
Andrea Stricker is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @StrickerNonpro. Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.