April 16, 2021 | Insight
Washington Must Confront Iran Over Sensitive Nuclear Work
April 16, 2021 | Insight
Washington Must Confront Iran Over Sensitive Nuclear Work
With Israel’s alleged covert action against Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant on April 11, Tehran’s latest breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal are in danger of premature burial by the news cycle. Yet the Islamic Republic’s violations merit more attention, since they involve Tehran’s work relevant to potential nuclear weapons technologies. Instead of orchestrating an impracticable return to a flawed nuclear accord at ongoing talks in Vienna, Washington should fulfill its pledge to seek a longer and stronger agreement.
Tehran is carrying out four key activities in the areas of enrichment and weaponization – all violations of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – for the alleged peaceful purpose of producing fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Alas, these activities provide Iran gains in knowledge that are irreversible even should Tehran come back into compliance with the JCPOA.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly informed member states last week that Iran was carrying out a sensitive process at the Esfahan Fuel Fabrication Plant using near-20 percent highly enriched uranium. With further enrichment, this fissile material can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The IAEA reported that Iran had “dissolved six unirradiated scrap fuel plates for the TRR.” These plates contained near-20 percent enriched uranium. Under the JCPOA (Annex 1, Section J, Paragraph 58), Iran is prohibited from recovering 20 percent enriched uranium from what are known as “scrap fuel plates” – the unused fuel components for the core of a nuclear reactor.
Under the deal, Iran must either dilute the enriched uranium in scrap fuel plates to a level of 3.67 percent or transfer them to a foreign party. Yet in 2016, the JCPOA executive committee, or Joint Commission, authorized Iran to keep the scrap fuel and labeled it “unrecoverable.” Nuclear expert David Albright warned that Iran could, in the future, recover the highly enriched uranium. The Joint Commission also exempted the near-20 percent enriched uranium from the JCPOA provision that Iran may not possess uranium enriched above 3.67 percent.
In the second breach of the JCPOA, Iran told the IAEA that it will convert the material made from the near-20 percent enriched uranium extracted from scrap fuel plates “to produce enriched uranium targets for irradiation at the TRR for the production of molybdenum.” Iran is forbidden from producing its own enriched uranium targets under the JCPOA (Annex I, Section J, Paragraph 60) and is supposed to import them only as necessary. Molybdenum, or “moly-99,” is a material with medical uses. Yet other proliferant states have used a cover story of producing moly-99 for medical applications to justify carrying out nuclear weapons-relevant processes.
In addition, Iran may use Joint Commission-exempted hot cells, equipment used to handle radioactive materials, to carry out its planned production of uranium targets. Under the JCPOA (Annex I, Section E, Paragraph 21), Iran is not permitted to operate hot cells above a certain size. However, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Iran may be planning to use exempted oversized hot cells for this process, which are of dimensions that “can be misused for secret, mostly small-scale plutonium separation efforts, [raising] serious questions over the rigorousness of this JCPOA exemption.” In retrospect, the Joint Commission’s series of 2016 exemptions appear, to put it politely, unwise.
Iran’s third breach, which occurred in February 2021, involves production of a highly sensitive material called uranium metal in gram quantities at the Esfahan plant. Uranium metal can be used to produce nuclear reactor fuel – and this is Iran’s stated reason for developing it – but is almost always used as a primary material for making cores of atomic weapons. To make these cores, Iran would need to use a chemical process to turn uranium hexafluoride, or UF6 (the fissile material produced by centrifuges), into uranium metal and then melt and cast uranium metal components for nuclear warheads.
Analysis of materials from Iran’s nuclear archive, seized by Israel in 2018, indicate Tehran was already preparing to produce uranium metal for nuclear cores. Prior to 2003, under its crash nuclear weapons program known as the Amad Plan, Iran was constructing both pilot and large-scale uranium metallurgy facilities to make nuclear cores and was practicing the use of surrogate materials for weapons-grade uranium. The Iranians seek to continue harnessing work on these important and time-consuming processes to shorten the weaponization path to nuclear weapons. Under the JCPOA, Tehran is restricted from producing uranium metal only until 2031.
The fourth major breach of the JCPOA, which Iran announced on April 13 in response to the alleged Israeli action at Natanz, entails installing 1,000 more centrifuges and enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent. Enrichment to 60 percent marks the first time the Islamic Republic has enriched past 20 percent purity, positioning Tehran to quickly dash to 90 percent enriched uranium, or weapons-grade material.
Tehran again claimed the 60 percent enriched uranium would be used to make moly-99 for medical uses, ostensibly through irradiation in the TRR. The Islamic Republic showed its true hand, however, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated on April 14 that higher enrichment “was in response to malicious acts” by Iran’s enemies. Shortly thereafter, he said Iran might produce 90 percent enriched uranium next. Iran’s moves are likely intended to gain leverage and increase pressure on Washington and Europe to lift sanctions.
The United States and its partners – including Russia and China – should view Iran’s activities related to enrichment and weaponization as highly provocative and worthy of UN Security Council action. Tehran’s endeavors provide it with irreversible knowledge gains. All violations to date constitute preparation for future nuclear weapons efforts.
Now, with JCPOA member states and Washington mistakenly seeking to engineer U.S. and Iranian re-entry to the JCPOA, they are not confronting Iran’s unnecessary and inflammatory nuclear activities, including the latest violations. They are also ignoring the JCPOA’s failure to address Iran’s technical progress since 2015 in many key areas. While the accord offers Tehran massive sanctions relief, it does not prevent Tehran from carrying out sensitive nuclear activities in the long run.
Iran, for its part, is exploiting the unwillingness of JCPOA members and the United States to condemn its actions at the IAEA Board of Governors and refer matters to the UN Security Council. In March, the IAEA was prepared to issue a report detailing Iran’s non-compliance with the IAEA’s ongoing investigation into undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, but the Biden administration halted its release. Washington did not want a slap on the wrist to dissuade Iran from coming to the negotiating table.
It is time for the Biden administration to recognize that the JCPOA did not deal with Iran’s ability to dial up its nuclear provocations at will, and that underpinning Iran’s nuclear program is an ongoing readiness to make nuclear weapons. Only by demanding a longer and stronger deal, backed by more intrusive IAEA investigations and inspections to ensure Iran’s nuclear weapons programs have ended, along with follow-up actions by the IAEA Board, will Washington stand a chance of preventing a future Iranian nuclear breakout.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP), and Iran Program. For more analysis from Andrea, Jacob, CMPP, CEFP, and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_CMPP, @FDD_CEFP, and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.