US extends Iran’s atomic facilities waivers but sanctions Zarif

Sanctioning Zarif raises the question of whether Trump really envisages talks or thinks Iran might be interested.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Concerns over breakout time. A general view of a heavy water plant in Arak, 320km south of Tehran. (AFP)
Concerns over breakout time. A general view of a heavy water plant in Arak, 320km south of Tehran. (AFP)

By extending 90-day sanctions “waivers” on Russian, Chinese and European companies working with Iran’s atomic facilities, US President Donald Trump has focused international attention, perhaps briefly, away from naval tensions around the Strait of Hormuz and back on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The decision followed Trump accepting the advice of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over that of hawks national security adviser John Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The sanctioning of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was perhaps a tasty morsel thrown at the hawks.

The nuclear waivers relate to modifications required by the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). These include the heavy-water reactor at Arak, the Fordow uranium enrichment centre, the Bushehr power plant and the Tehran Research Reactor.

Fifty Republican members of the US Congress argued in a public letter that the waivers undermined Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy but US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus justified their extension in terms familiar to architects of the JCPOA.

“The action today,” she said, “will help preserve oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear programme, reduce proliferation risks, constrain Iran’s ability to shorten its ‘breakout time’ to a nuclear weapon and prevent the regime from reconstituting sites for proliferation-sensitive purposes.”

That’s for now, anyway. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA last year and imposition of draconian sanctions — Iranian oil exports were just 100,000 barrels a day in July, said analysts Refinitiv Eikon, down from 2.6 million a day — led Iran to expand its nuclear programme beyond JCPOA limits. In June, its uranium stockpile passed 300 kilograms and, in July, began enriching uranium above 3.67%.

Ali Akbar Salehi, president of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, recently reiterated a suggestion from Iranian President Hassan Rohani that Iran would resume work at the Arak reactor, where potential production of heavy water could open a route to a nuclear weapon using plutonium rather than uranium.

The proliferation risk is low, said Peter Jenkins, former British ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): “The IAEA reported in 2016 that the original reactor core had been rendered unusable [under JCPOA terms]. In May 2019, the agency reported that Iran hadn’t pursued reactor construction at Arak based on the original design,” Jenkins said.

“Bearing in mind the slow pace at which construction occurred prior to the JCPOA in 2015, I think it likely that a heavy-water reactor is years away from completion.”

Even with a functioning Arak reactor, Iran would need the capacity, which it lacks, to extract plutonium from spent fuel. Jenkins pointed out that the IAEA unearthed evidence only of small-scale research into relevant technologies before the JCPOA, and that its May report said Iran no longer carried out such research.

“The probability, it seems, is that acquiring a reprocessing

capability, which there has been no hint that Iran intends to do, would take years, not months,” Jenkins concluded.

International concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme have long centred on “breakout” — the time Tehran would need to weaponise its nuclear programme. This is a function of the volume of enriched uranium stocks, their level of enrichment and the speed with which 90%-enriched uranium could be produced.

JCPOA signatories, including the Obama administration, calculated that “break out” would be extended to at least a year by the agreement’s limits on stockpiles, enrichment levels and the number and sophistication of centrifuges, the devices used for enriching uranium. This, proponents argued, would give time for an international response.

Experts agree that by extending its programme beyond JCPOA limits, Iran will reduce “breakout” time but the question of how far is technical, even with close IAEA monitoring. How close the United States or Israel would allow Iran to get to “breakout” without military intervention is both technical and political.

“If the [US] administration [officials are] looking for a pretext to attack, they  could seize on any Iranian move to start enriching to 20%, since 20% is more than three-quarters of the way to 90%, in terms of the amount of work required (to achieve weapons grade),” said Jenkins.

“If their concern is to stop Iran acquiring enough 90% HEU [highly enriched uranium] for one bomb, they could afford to wait for two conditions to be met: Iran having the requisite quantity of 20% material and Iran starting to configure its centrifuges to enrich to 90%.”

In its justification of extending the waivers, the Trump administration conceded the underlying logic of the JCPOA but sanctioning Zarif raises the question of whether Trump really envisages talks or thinks Iran might be interested.

“If you sanction diplomats, you’ll have less diplomacy,” US Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican whose recent meeting with Zarif to discuss possible back-channel communications would now, presumably, be outlawed, posted on Twitter.

Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to NATO, wrote that the move would “strengthen even further hardliners in Iran… increasing the chances that Tehran will take more provocative steps.”