Don’t Rely on Iran’s Good Intentions

| Olli Heinonen
Olli Heinonen
Former Deputy Director-General, International Atomic Energy Agency

There is a small window of time for the United States and its allies to determine what kind of nuclear technologies are delivered to Tehran, and by whom. And the clock is already ticking.

The spokesman of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization recently announced that Tehran is holding talks with foreign states over constructing additional nuclear power plants. A week earlier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Baku, and Putin reiterated his country’s intent to build up to eight nuclear reactors in the Islamic Republic.

An unnamed State Department official said earlier this month that last summer’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) does not prevent Tehran from pursuing new light-water reactors, but that any new nuclear reactors in Iran would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards obligations. These IAEA safeguards would not block or deter Iran proceeding with reprocessing – especially after 15 years, when the main restrictions of the JCPOA expire.

For example, the nuclear agreement and the UN Security Council resolution endorsing it establish a dedicated “procurement channel” for the transfer of materials, equipment, and technology required for Iran’s nuclear activities. This is intended to ensure that the international community knows what nuclear items Iran is purchasing, and that the country can’t illicitly procure nuclear technology.

However, prior approval by the Security Council is not necessary if Tehran wants to purchase specified nuclear equipment for light-water reactors, low-enriched uranium fuel elements for the reactor, or dual-use items if they are used exclusively in light-water reactors.

In other words, the nuclear deal does not set any limitations on the scope and content of Iran’s light-water reactor program.

Moreover, after 15 years, the nuclear agreement relies only on voluntary commitments by Iran to discard its spent fuel and not engage in spent fuel reprocessing. Reprocessing means the separation of plutonium, which is nuclear material suitable for nuclear weapons. Tehran has stated that it does not intend to reprocess spent fuel. However, intentions may change with time. If Iranian leaders change their minds, Tehran can reprocess spent fuel from its light water reactors, enabling Iran to separate plutonium without technically violating the terms of the agreement. All of this can happen without any approval from the parties that provide the equipment and fuel for the light-water reactors.

Therefore, any contracts between Iran and foreign countries for the provision of nuclear goods should require that the technology provider be able to intervene if Tehran uses the nuclear material for reprocessing to separate plutonium without prior approval from the technology provider. Such arrangements also cover the use of reactors, fuel manufacturing technologies, and single- and dual-use items.

This is not unusual in the nuclear cooperation sector. Canada and Australia have agreements with several countries requiring prior consent when nuclear material originating in their countries is used for reprocessing to separate plutonium. From a non-proliferation perspective, it is also important to include in delivery agreements that the supplier has the right to verify the end use and end-use location of any supplied item.

Including these provisions in nuclear-delivery agreements becomes all the more important as Iranian officials continue to make statements about maintaining nuclear-weapons readiness. Last month, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a foreign affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, called for building a “massive institute for nuclear research” and said that to deter a Western attack, Iran must convince the world that it can build a bomb within 48 hours.

This is not the language of a country that wants to build nuclear reactors simply to generate electricity.

The international community cannot rely on Iran’s good intentions. It must build robust long-term assurances into all nuclear contracts that any separation of plutonium from spent fuel requires prior consent from the technology provider. Moreover, if necessary, the provider can request that the items in question be returned from the Islamic Republic.

The ongoing nuclear reactor negotiations between Russia and Iran will set a precedent for the subsequent delivery of nuclear technologies to Tehran. As those talks progress, this is the time for Washington, the European Union, and all parties invested in international security to influence the provisions that will set the tone of future nuclear agreements with Iran.

The Author is Olli Heinonen

Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.

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