By FPI Senior Policy Analyst Tzvi Kahn
The planned U.S. purchase of 32 tons of heavy water from Iran will help the regime preserve a key capability necessary for the development of a plutonium bomb. The Obama administration has presented the $8.6 million transaction as a necessary step to secure Iran’s compliance with the letter of the nuclear agreement. In reality, the sale will strengthen the nuclear program that the deal purports to constrain.
Iran’s Heavy Agenda
The nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), requires Tehran to limit its stockpile of heavy water — an integral component of a nuclear weapons program — to 130 tons for the accord’s initial years. “There will be no additional heavy water reactors or accumulation of heavy water in Iran for 15 years,” the agreement states. “All excess heavy water will be made available for export to the international market” (Paragraph 10). At the same time, the deal in no way requires any country to purchase the excess nuclear material. Should Iran prove unable to find a buyer, it would need to dilute its existing stockpile before producing any more heavy water.
By allowing Iran to maintain a limited heavy water industry and inviting other nations to purchase its surfeits, the JCPOA created an opportunity for the Islamist regime to seek external subsidization of its nuclear program. The White House — in response to an apparent Iranian threat to abandon the deal if no buyer steps forward — has offered precisely that. Such an outcome allows Tehran both to profit from its nuclear activities and to preserve its ability to produce far more heavy water in the future.
The sale may also provide Iran a pathway into the U.S. financial system. To date, the Obama administration has refused to explain how it would transmit the funds to pay for the heavy water — and specifically whether it will conduct the transaction in dollars. Such a move not only would contradict the administration’s insistence last summer that U.S. restrictions on the dollar would endure under the deal, but also amount to a new concession with no basis in the JCPOA’s text. Perhaps more troublingly, it may lay the groundwork for future U.S. steps to provide Iran with more expansive access to the U.S. financial system, further undermining U.S. leverage to punish the Islamist regime for its illicit ballistic missile launches, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses.
America’s Heavy Concessions
The existence of Tehran’s heavy water reactor, located in the western Iranian city of Arak, first became known to Western governments in 2002 thanks to the efforts of an Iranian opposition group. As Robert Einhorn, a former senior official in the Obama administration, observed in November 2006, Arak constitutes a “plutonium bomb factory,” since a heavy water reactor serves no other plausible purpose. “Could the reactor Iran is constructing at Arak,” he asked, “actually be used to produce isotopes for peaceful purposes? Yes it could. A 12-inch hunting knife also could be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.” A month later, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737 required Iran to suspend all heavy water-related activities — a demand the regime spurned.
Although the JCPOA ultimately placed limits on Iran’s heavy water stockpile, such controls in fact represented a diminution of America’s prior demand, during the nuclear negotiations, for the wholesale dismantling of the Arak facility. “From our point of view, Arak is unacceptable,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in December 2013 House testimony. “You can’t have a heavy water reactor.” Nevertheless, the final deal not only lifts restrictions on heavy water accumulation after merely 15 years, but allows Iran to continue producing heavy water and sell any excess material on the international market.
As a result, notwithstanding the agreement’s requirement to remove Arak’s core and fill it with cement, which Tehran completed in January, the regime can produce excess heavy water without violating the terms of the accord — and collect millions of dollars doing so. As Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes, “These U.S. subsidies will help Tehran perfect its heavy water production skills so it will be fully prepared to develop its plutonium bomb-making capabilities when restrictions on the program sunset over the next 10-15 years.”
A Lightened Nuclear Deal
The Obama administration and its backers have facilitated Iran’s ambitions. Last week, Senate Democrats blocked a vote on a spending bill that included an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to prohibit the heavy water purchase. The Obama administration, which threatened to veto the bill if it included the measure, argued that it would torpedo the agreement. “Senator Cotton has long made it clear that he will do anything to prevent the effective implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
In fact, Tehran has made it clear that it will do anything to exploit the terms of the nuclear deal to extract further concessions from the White House. By conceding to Iran’s machinations rather than challenging it for its ongoing violations of international laws and norms, the Obama administration tacitly encourages the regime to continue its misbehavior, ultimately threatening the nuclear deal’s viability in the long term.