FPI Bulletin: Iran Violates Nuclear Deal Again

November 15, 2016

Iran has violated the nuclear deal again. Last Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Tehran had exceeded its allotment of heavy water, which it can utilize to produce fissile material for a plutonium bomb. Predictably, the Obama administration, eager to protect its increasingly brittle foreign policy legacy, has refused to call the Islamist regime’s action a violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The task of stemming Tehran’s misbehavior will thus fall to the incoming Trump administration, which must wield Washington’s economic leverage to ensure Iranian compliance with its international obligations.

The latest violation marks the second time Tehran has accumulated excess heavy water. In February, the IAEA reported that Iran had stockpiled 130.9 tons of the substance, directly violating the JCPOA’s limit of 130 tons for the accord’s initial years. The U.N. watchdog noted that Tehran subsequently shipped 20 tons of its heavy water out of the country, thereby placing the regime into compliance. In April, the Obama administration declared that it would purchase 32 tons of Iran’s heavy water for $8.6 million, effectively rewarding the regime for surrendering illicit nuclear material that it should not have possessed in the first place.

By demanding payment for its heavy water, Iran merely exploited an opportunity embedded within the provisions of the deal. The JCPOA, after all, allows Tehran to retain a limited heavy water industry, and explicitly states that any excess heavy water “will be made available for export to the international market” (Paragraph 10). At the same time, the JCPOA in no way requires any country to purchase Tehran’s surfeits of the nuclear material. Rather, should no buyer step forward, the regime would need to dilute its leftover heavy water to ensure that it remains below the 130-ton limit.

Iran’s renewed development of excess heavy water represents the inevitable consequence of a U.S. policy that seeks to accommodate rather than halt Iran’s misconduct. To be sure, the latest surplus leaves Iran only with 130.1 tons of heavy water — a marginal but clear violation of the accord’s terms. Still, Iran’s illicit behavior, and the Obama administration’s failure to hold the regime accountable, suggests that Tehran seeks to test Washington’s determination to enforce the agreement. In this context, President Obama’s passivity may encourage further, and perhaps more dangerous, violations of the JCPOA in the future.

The Obama administration has defended its inaction by attempting to minimize the significance of Iran’s latest infringement. In a press briefing last week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner argued that Iran’s open and immediate acknowledgment of its excess allotment, as well as the Islamist regime’s pledge to ship the material out of the country, demonstrates the JCPOA’s success. “They’ve not made any effort to hide that,” he said. “And they are taking immediate steps to address it, and as I said, going beyond in actually what they need to do to address it. That, to us, shows that the agreement’s working.”

In fact, during the JCPOA’s congressional review period last year, the Obama administration pledged that it would impose sanctions in response to any Iranian violation — large or small. “If there are small violations, we have a host of calibrated penalty tools to respond,” said Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin in September 2015. “We retain full flexibility — from small measures to sectoral measures to full snap-back of the current sanctions — and we won’t hesitate to use our tools if Iran cheats.” Fourteen months later, the administration not only has repeatedly hesitated to punish Iran, but actively defended the Iranian regime despite evidence of its noncompliance.

Likewise, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in April that the Washington would not buy any additional heavy water following the purchase of the February excess, but he did note that U.S. companies may retain the future ability to purchase the nuclear material. In July, the House passed the No 2H20 from Iran Act (H.R. 5119), which would have prevented further U.S. government payments for Iran’s heavy water, but the legislation, facing a veto threat from President Obama, failed to receive a Senate vote. To date, neither the IAEA nor the Obama administration has specified the destination of Iran’s new allotment of excess heavy water — or whether its recipient would provide Iran with financial remuneration.

Perhaps more troublingly, the timing of the IAEA’s disclosure, just one day after the U.S. presidential election, raises suspicion. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told The Weekly Standard that the Obama administration likely pressured the agency to delay the report’s release for political reasons. “[Director General of the IAEA Yukiya] Amano would not have wanted to risk the wrath of the Obama administration by publicizing another non-compliance case just prior to the U.S. election,” Albright said.

The election of Donald Trump may have rendered Amano’s concerns moot, but it does offer an opportunity to reverse the Obama administration’s repeated accommodations of Iranian misbehavior. The next president will have opportunities both to impose the sanctions that Iran has earned and to seek a renegotiation of key terms of the JCPOA. President-elect Trump will find this path fraught with Iranian intransigence and allied reluctance, but he should recall the maxim that Barack Obama often articulated during the JCPOA’s negotiation: “No deal is better than a bad deal.”

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