In Iran, Distrust and Verify
By Gregory S. Jones
As the U.S. enters the final phase (assuming there is not another extension) of its nuclear negotiations with Iran, there has been much discussion of what the proper terms of such an agreement should be. But before the U.S. concludes any new nuclear agreement with Iran, one must ask the question: How well is Iran complying with the terms of the current nuclear agreement — the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPOA)?
In November 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, as part of his justification for extending nuclear negotiations with Iran, said, “The interim agreement [JPOA] wasn’t violated.” Kerry has made similar statements a number of times over the course of the negotiations. However, these statements appear to be incorrect, since Iran has not fulfilled one key condition of the JPOA — namely, that any enriched uranium that Iran produces after the JPOA took effect (January 20, 2014) must be chemically converted from hexafluoride form into oxide form.
As of early February 2015, Iran had not converted any of this newly produced enriched uranium into oxide, even though the deadline for such conversion to begin was July 20, 2014. Further, it seems that this is a willful violation by Iran, since the plant where such conversion would take place has been in operation for nearly seven months, but Iran has not produced any enriched uranium oxide, choosing to produce only natural (i.e. unenriched) uranium oxide instead. Kerry’s remarks regarding Iran’s compliance with the JPOA are just one of a number of inaccurate statements that have been made regarding the JPOA.
In November 2013, speaking just after the JPOA had been agreed to by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and Iran, President Obama stated, “We have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.” Writing in December of that year, Henry Sokolski and I pointed out that the JPOA did not constitute a true halt of Iran’s nuclear program, since Iran’s centrifuges would continue to operate and would be permitted to produce uranium with an enrichment of less than 5 percent (low enriched uranium, or LEU), which can be further enriched into uranium for weapons. Over time, this point has become more widely recognized. When, in this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama again claimed that Iran’s nuclear program had been halted, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post awarded the president three Pinocchios, meaning “significant factual error.” Nevertheless as recently as February 9, the president continued to claim that Iran’s nuclear program had been “frozen.”
One reason the president may believe that Iran’s centrifuge enrichment program has been frozen is that the JPOA requires any LEU that Iran produces after the agreement took effect to be converted from uranium hexafluoride to uranium oxide. The hexafluoride form used to produce the LEU is also needed to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use in a nuclear weapon. Between January 2014 and early February 2015, Iran produced some 2,100 kilograms of LEU, about 28 percent of its total stockpile of LEU.
Uranium oxide can be converted back into uranium hexafluoride, of course, but keeping it in oxide form adds a step to the process and thus increases the time before this uranium can be used to build a bomb. However, the reconversion would not add any time to Iran’s overall push to produce nuclear weapons: Iran could start producing HEU from the large part of its LEU stockpile that is already hexafluoride, while simultaneously reconverting the post-JPOA oxide into hexafluoride.
Further, as Sokolski and I pointed out in December 2013, Iran’s plant for producing the uranium oxide was not yet in operation, so it was likely that the conversion of the LEU hexafluoride to oxide would not start by the required July 20, 2014, deadline. The February 19, 2015, safeguards report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed our concerns and then some: As of early February 2015, Iran had not converted any of these 2,100 kilograms of LEU into oxide.
Iran’s failure to produce the required LEU oxide has been masked by the IAEA’s statement that Iran had “fed into the conversion process” 1,835 kilograms of LEU in the form of hexafluoride. The IAEA has said that this material is “in different stages of the process.” At best, what this statement means is that the uranium is in intermediate chemical forms that could be more readily reconverted into uranium hexafluoride than uranium oxide could. However, in the past the IAEA has counted material as being fed into a conversion process when in fact it had merely been delivered to the conversion facility. This could mean that some or all of those 1,835 kilograms is still in the form of hexafluoride. Supporting this view is the fact that Iran’s conversion plant, which has been in operation since July 2014, could easily have produced at least some LEU oxide by now, but instead has converted only natural uranium hexafluoride into oxide. It is unlikely that the plant would process LEU at the same time, since the natural uranium would contaminate the LEU, reducing its enrichment. Iran seems to be willfully not processing the LEU hexafluoride into oxide.
It is time for the Obama administration to more accurately describe the impact of the JPOA on Iran’s nuclear program and to explain why Iran’s failure to produce the required LEU oxide does not put it in violation of the terms of the JPOA. If Iran is in fact in violation of the JPOA, what steps does the administration plan to take to bring Iran into compliance? By continuing to ignore this apparent violation, the administration will be setting a bad precedent. If violations of the JPOA are ignored, what hope do we have that any violations of any follow-on nuclear agreement will be acknowledged and dealt with?