“Iran must stop enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing. This includes closing its heavy water reactor.” – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, May 21, 2018
Iran has two pathways to nuclear weapons: uranium and plutonium. While the Trump administration made clear that a new agreement with Iran must permanently and irreversibly close both, it continues issuing a sanctions waiver that endorses the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and keeps Iran’s plutonium pathway alive. It’s time for the administration to reconsider this waiver and align its sanctions policy with its negotiating demands.
With this backdrop, it’s no surprise that when it came time for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue America’s demands to Iran as the basis of any future agreement, he rightly called on Iran to close the Arak reactor.
Surprisingly though, six months after issuing the demand to close Arak, the administration issued a sanctions waiver to allow European and Chinese firms to continue working with Iran on the JCPOA project. That waiver was renewed three times in 2019 and again earlier this year – each time with robust lobbying by the United Kingdom, France and Germany (the “E3”), and each time contradicting a key Trump administration demand.
Despite all the tough talk of maximum pressure, the administration has repeatedly undermined its own negotiating posture at Europe’s request – not only with sanctions waivers like the one for Arak but also by refusing to trigger the restoration of all international sanctions and restrictions on Iran – a mechanism in the UN Security Council known as “snapback.”
Why does the E3 care so much about the Arak waiver? They have no other way to show Iran they remain committed to the nuclear deal. With their private sectors in compliance with U.S. sanctions, technical support to the Arak reactor is their Iran deal “Alamo.”
What then does President Trump gain from giving Europe this JCPOA lifeline that outweighs undermining his own negotiation position? If the answer is anything less than European support for “snapback,” it’s time to end this pro-JCPOA waiver.
Supporters of the JCPOA will argue that the administration should renew this waiver no matter what. Since Iran has threatened to reconstitute its old reactor design as part of its counter-maximum pressure campaign, ending the waiver could give the regime the pretext to do just that.
But Iran’s threat is hollow. Facing a perfect storm of maximum pressure, coronavirus and plunging oil prices, the Iranian economy is likely to collapse sooner than the time it would take to build a new reactor core. Tehran also knows that Arak is an easier target for the Israeli Air Force than an underground enrichment facility like Fordow.
Moreover, Secretary Pompeo was unmoved by similar threats when he revoked a sanctions waiver last May that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for natural uranium – a program established by the JCPOA to legitimize enrichment on Iranian soil. Rather than fearing an Iranian breach of its enrichment limits, Pompeo aligned America’s sanctions policy with its enrichment policy – no waiver for the swap and no enrichment in a future agreement.
Another reason revoking the Arak waiver is easy: Russian uranium suppliers are not a factor. Unlike other nuclear activities in Iran, including the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, Russian firms are not involved in the Arak project – alleviating concerns among America’s uranium importers that sanctions could disrupt their nuclear fuel supply.
In January, reportedly at the urging of the Trump administration, the E3 took the first step toward a UN snapback by invoking the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism. If European leaders are seriously considering taking the final step – accusing Iran of violating its nuclear commitments under the deal – they will want to appear to be the aggrieved parties who faithfully upheld the agreement until the end. By pointing to their work at Arak, European capitals could say they are upholding their commitments, but Iran is not.
If the E3 commits to snapback within 60 days, but say they need the Arak waiver as part of their political and communications strategy, one more waiver is worth the benefit. Otherwise, it’s time for the administration to end the European addiction to the deal and align its sanctions policy with its negotiating demands.