Pulling the plug on Iran's nuclear program

The one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal is just around the corner. Since last May, Washington has marshaled a wide array of penalties against Tehran as part of its maximum pressure campaign, and is achieving some measurable results. But the Trump administration risks undercutting its own pressure policy through the provision of a little talked about type of waiver — not for oil purchases — but for continuing international nuclear cooperation with Iran under the auspices of non-proliferation and nuclear safety.

On November 5, as the U.S. restored tough sanctions on Iran, the State Department issued waivers — yet to be made fully public — for efforts to “lock in the nuclear status quo” at three nuclear sites: Arak, Fordow, and Bushehr. These waivers permit civil nuclear cooperation projects that were greenlighted as part of the nuclear deal in 2015. While non-proliferation and nuclear safety are important, rolling-back, not locking-in, should be the operative term describing Washington’s nuclear policy toward Tehran.

For that reason, the administration should reverse its policy on nuclear waivers; the waiver pertaining to Fordow should be fully revoked and those related to Arak should be suspended. However, Bushehr is a light-water reactor that poses less of a proliferation risk and is the subject of genuine nuclear safety ventures like stress testing, and a waiver related to Bushehr should therefore continue to be granted, as well as made public.

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Fordow was at the heart of Tehran’s illicit nuclear weapons enterprise. Under the JCPOA, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium at Fordow until at least 2030. But the fact that the underground facility was not closed was a major flaw of the JCPOA. In October 2009, when Fordow was first made public, none other than President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Energy: Trump EPA finalizes rule to kill Obama climate plan | Trump officials delayed releasing docs on Yellowstone superintendent's firing | Democrats probe oil companies' role in fuel rule rollback Overnight Energy: Trump EPA finalizes rule to kill Obama climate plan | Trump officials delayed releasing docs on Yellowstone superintendent's firing | Democrats probe oil companies' role in fuel rule rollback House Democrats investigate oil companies' involvement in fuel standards rollback MORE stated that “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.” Nonetheless, Washington and its international partners soon gave up on their demands to have Iran shutter the subterranean plant.

Thanks to Israel’s exposure of Iran’s atomic archive as well as careful analysis of those materials by the Institute for Science and International Security — we now know that the Fordow facility was once known as the Al-Ghadir project, an integral part of Iran’s secret enrichment efforts. The facility’s purpose was to enrich uranium to weapon-grade levels “for at least one or two nuclear weapons per year.”

Given Iran’s varying rationales about its need for Fordow, providing a waiver so that the regime can engage in stable isotope production there legitimizes a facility that should have long-ago been closed. It is certainly ill-timed, when the atomic archive information makes clear that the focus on Fordow should now be investigating its origins. The waiver perpetuates the Iranian fiction that Fordow was part of a civilian nuclear program. Moreover, if none of this was a good enough reason to withdraw the waiver, Washington should note that the facility features prominently in threats by regime officials to restart their nuclear program. Given its location under a mountain, it is not hard to figure out why.

Conversely, due to allegations about Iranian deception, the U.S. should suspend the wavier for Arak, home to Iran’s IR-40 heavy-water reactor. Pursuant to the JCPOA, Iran is supposed to re-design the reactor as well as remove its calandria (the reactor’s metal core) and fill its openings “with concrete such that the IAEA can verify that it will not be usable for a future nuclear application.” While Iran did do this before receiving sanctions relief in 2016, it apparently hedged its bets to make sure it could keep the door open to a potential plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon.

According to an interview with Dr. Ali-Akbar Salehi, the chief of Iran’s sanctioned Atomic Energy Organization; the Iranians illicitly procured a spare set of tubes for the calandria of the Arak reactor prior to carrying-out their JCPOA commitment to fill its openings and crevices with concrete. Salehi acknowledged that Iran deceived the nuclear negotiators about the existence of these tubes prior to the implementation of the nuclear deal in January 2016.

Much like Iran’s careful curation and retention of the nuclear archive, the regime’s decision to procure and retain these tubes highlights its future intentions. By continuing to provide a waiver for Arak, Washington is turning a blind-eye to what appears to be Iranian subterfuge, as well braggadocio about the Islamic Republic’s ability to offset limitations imposed on the reactor. It is also unclear if the IAEA has asked for, or even intends to ask where the tubes are being held and why Iran needs them. Washington should tie the provision of a waiver for Arak to Iran providing the IAEA with access to the tubes, their verified destruction, and information related to their procurement.

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Deal supporters may argue that if America does not issue these waivers, Iran may opt to breach its JCPOA commitments by further circumscribing IAEA access and expanding the scope of its nuclear activities. This, they likely fear, could lead to a spiral of retaliatory and escalating measures, culminating in an Iranian dash towards a bomb and thus trigger a foreign (read: American and/or Israeli) military response. However, that argument is no different from the false dichotomy the previous U.S. administration offered when selling the JCPOA: That one must either legitimize Iran’s nuclear program or entertain war.

Such an argument is also devoid of an understanding of Iranian strategy and decision-making. Iran could technically choose to leave the JCPOA at any time, but to date has opted to remain a party to the accord even as its economic dividends are circumscribed. Pinning such blame on the potential revocation of one and suspension of another waiver for civilian nuclear cooperation would be insincere.

Some will surely argue that several of the waivers involve responsible international players constraining Iran’s nuclear program. But the involvement of China and Russia in these facilities, which can hardly be considered responsible actors given their past ties to elements of Iran’s secret nuclear and missile programs, should be met with suspicion.

For maximum pressure to bear fruit, the U.S. should be prohibiting nuclear know-how and related material from flowing into the country.

Ultimately, the provision of waivers for elements of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is at odds with the administration’s stated goal of getting Iran to ink a new, genuinely comprehensive accord. Last May, Secretary Pompeo outlined 12 parameters for what such a deal could look like. Six months later, the State Department granted civilian nuclear waivers for Iran without having to provide a full accounting of its program. If Trump sincerely desires a better deal, he will not achieve it by keeping parts of the old one alive that reward Iran when it deserves it least.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on a host of Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.