The Trump administration’s May 3 announcement to extend waivers for critical nuclear international cooperation projects with Iran is a mixed bag.
It is clearly in the U.S. and international interest to allow the continuation of projects at key nuclear sites that reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential, as required by 2015 multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, the U.S. decision to cut down on the length of the waivers (from 180 days to 90 days) and tighten nuclear-related sanctions in other areas puts the deal in further jeopardy.
The announcement puts a question mark over U.S. support for nuclear cooperation down the road that could slow or halt progress on these projects, risking one of the remaining tangible benefits Iran receives from remaining in compliance with the deal. Given the uncertainty over the future of these projects and the U.S. refusal to issue new waivers allowing states to buy Iranian oil, it is hardly surprising that Tehran is threatening to resume nuclear activities currently limited by the deal or even withdraw from the agreement altogether.
While compliance with the JCPOA is in Iran’s interests and clearly benefits the international community, there are fewer and fewer incentives for Tehran to continue abiding by its commitments so long as the Trump administration recklessly and irresponsibly seeks to deny Iran any benefit under the deal.
Waivers for nuclear cooperation projects specified by the JCPOA were necessary after Trump’s decision to violate the nuclear deal by reimposing sanctions and withdraw from the agreement in May 2018. The State Department first issued 180-day waivers allowing for nuclear cooperation projects to proceed when nuclear-related sanctions went back into effect in November. According to a May 3 factsheet from the State Department, the United States renewed waivers for several of these activities:
Issuing waivers to allow these critical projects to continue was a common-sense decision. First, these projects clearly benefit U.S. nonproliferation interests, which the State Department noted in November when it first issued waivers. Converting Arak and Fordow reduces the proliferation risk at these sites and provides another layer of transparency into Iran’s activities at these sites. Additionally, ensuring that Iran can import reactor fuel for Bushehr and the TRR removes Tehran’s incentive and any justification to increase its uranium enrichment capacity. Furthermore, shipping out spent fuel prevents plutonium from accumulating in the country that could be separated and used for nuclear weapons.
Second, the other parties to the deal are required by the JCPOA to assist on these projects. If the United States had withheld the waivers, it would have put the remaining P4+1 parties in the difficult position of fulfilling their JCPOA commitments and risking U.S. sanctions or violating the deal.
(For more information on the nonproliferation benefits of these projects and the JCPOA’s requirements, see the Arms Control Association April 29 Issue Brief, Renewing Waivers for Nuclear Projects with Iran Serves U.S. Interests.)
Given the clear benefits of these projects, there was no good reason to cut the waivers from 180 days to 90 days and the Trump administration’s decision to do so raises questions about long-term U.S. support. These projects will not be completed within 90 days and several, such as the provision of reactor fuel and spent fuel takeback, are 15-year commitments that would ideally become permanent arrangements.
Reducing the waiver period only contributes to the uncertainty surrounding the future of these projects. In the May 3 press release announcing the waiver decision, the State Department even said that the administration reserves “the right to revoke or modify our policy covering these nonproliferation activities at any time if Iran violates its nuclear obligations or commitments or we conclude that such projects no longer provide value in constraining Iranian nuclear activities.” This uncertainty risks cooperation slowing, or even halting, out of concern that the Trump administration may not renew the waivers down the road, putting a tangible benefit for Iran in jeopardy and reducing the incentive for continued compliance with the deal.
Waivers Not Renewed
In what appears to be a concerted effort to provoke Iran into breaching the JCPOA, several waivers initially issued in November were not renewed. The May 3 State Department factsheet states that the United States will target any transfer of enriched uranium from Iran and the storage of heavy water outside of Iran.
Revoking waivers for these projects appears aimed at pushing Tehran to breach the deal without putting the P4+1 in violation of their obligations. Unlike the activities at Arak, Fordow, TRR, and the existing Bushehr unit, selling enriched uranium and storing excess heavy water outside of Iran are not required under the deal.
According to the JCPOA, Iran must stay below the limit of 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent by either down-blending enriched uranium to natural levels or selling it on the international market in exchange for natural uranium. If Iran were to trade enriched uranium for natural uranium, the P5+1 would facilitate that contract when applicable. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section J, Paragraph 57.)
On the heavy water, there is no provision in the JCPOA detailing how Iran is to stay below the 130 metric ton cap. The deal does note that “contingency stocks” can be sold on the international market, but the JCPOA does not specify that the P4+1 must facilitate a sale if Tehran is unable to find a buyer. (See JCPOA, Annex I, Section C, Paragraph 14.) When Iran exceeded the heavy water limit in 2016, the other parties to the deal made clear that there is no expectation that they facilitate a sale to keep Iran below the cap. The JCPOA also does not specify that Iran must be allowed to store excess heavy water outside of the country to avoid breaching the 130-ton limit.
Based on the May 3 statement, it appears that the United States will even pressure Oman, the country storing Iran’s excess heavy water, to dispose of it. The factsheet states that the Trump administration will “no longer permit the storage” of heavy waver and that the excess “must not be made available to Iran.”
While Iran has other pathways for staying below the caps on enriched uranium and heavy water, Tehran could argue that U.S. sanctions prevent it from meeting the limits imposed by the JCPOA.
Additionally, activities to expand Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr beyond the current reactor “will be exposed to sanctions,” according to the factsheet, despite the JCPOA allowing for (but not requiring) additional light-water reactor units to be constructed in Iran. This targets Russia’s state-run nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, which has broken ground on two additional reactor units at Bushehr.
The State Department factsheet also references that the United States “will not accept actions that support the continuation of [uranium] enrichment.” It is unclear what exactly that means in terms of the U.S. pressure campaign, as the remaining P4+1 parties to the deal are not assisting Iran in uranium enrichment and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is already subject to sanctions. Some have interpreted this as revoking U.S. recognition of Tehran’s right to enrich, but the United States never recognized enrichment as a right for any country, including Iran. In the negotiations, the United States only acknowledged that Iran had developed uranium enrichment capabilities and would be permitted to enrich as part of the final deal.
The Trump administration argued that its decision to issue waivers for select nuclear activities and revoke waivers for others is part of the “unprecedented maximum pressure campaign to address the full range of Iran’s destructive activities.”
Trump may be laboring under the delusion that enough pressure will force Iran to capitulate and meet U.S. demands on its nuclear and missile programs, as well as regional activities, but his administration’s approach is only putting an effective nuclear nonproliferation agreement at risk.
If Iran withdraws from the deal or resumes worrisome nuclear activities currently limited by the JCPOA, Trump will own the consequences for manufacturing a new nuclear crisis in the Middle East.