Iran Wants to Import Tons of Uranium. Opponents of the Nuclear Deal Want the Trump Administration to Say No.
The amount goes beyond what Iran might need to replenish its stocks.
The Trump administration is facing pressure to definitively rule out a longstanding request by Iran to import 950 tons of natural uranium, according to government sources and proliferation experts who spoke to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Tehran has signaled it will petition again for the yellowcake next week at a quarterly meeting in Vienna regarding implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The Obama administration reportedly approved the Iranian request in its final weeks, but it was ultimately blocked by the United Kingdom. Iran has indicated of late that it will revive the request, setting up a key test for the Trump administration, which has placed the nuclear deal under a comprehensive review.
Trump officials suggested to TWS that the administration has not yet decided whether it will overturn the Obama-era decision and prohibit Iran from importing the natural uranium.
“I would certainly hope we would use all our leverage to prevent such a purchase by Iran,” one senior White House official said.
The White House’s weapons of mass destruction directorate refused to comment to TWS.
“We do not comment on the deliberations of the Joint Commission, as has been agreed to by all participating parties.”
The proposal is receiving resistance from Congress, with Florida senator Marco Rubio urging the administration not to approve Iran’s request.
“The Iranian regime remains an illegitimate nuclear actor, with international inspectors still unable to conclusively verify the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in Iran,” he told TWS. “Vetoing Iran’s proposal to buy 950 tons of uranium yellowcake from Kazakhstan should be a no-brainer. Iran does not need this nuclear material, which far exceeds its needs and could someday be further enriched for the purposes of nuclear weapons.”
Olli Heinonen, a 27-year veteran of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog and its former deputy director-general, cast doubt on claims that Iran had a legitimate reason to import the material.
“If the deal goes ahead, the Joint Committee should explain what is the justification for such a large amount of yellow cake,” he told TWS. “This is to keep the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan up and running and to justify—at a later time—uranium enrichment in a larger scale.”
Iran said in January that it had already imported 200 tons of yellowcake and would import roughly 130 more, a move supported by the Obama administration. Heinonen assessed at the time that the shipments, which went beyond Iran’s needs, suggested Iran “may be stockpiling uranium to reach nuclear breakout before the deal’s initial limitations expire in 2031.”
“The [nuclear deal] permits Iran to buy natural uranium to ‘replenish’ its stocks as it sells enriched uranium on the international market,” he wrote in a policy brief for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “To date, Iran has had difficulties locating a buyer for its enriched uranium stocks.”
“This, however, has not stopped Iran from buying and stockpiling more yellowcake.”
The Trump administration has increased its criticism of the nuclear deal ahead of the meeting.
“The [nuclear deal] fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday. “The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.”
President Trump slammed Tehran on Thursday for not living up to the spirit of the deal.
Iran announced its request for 950 tons of yellowcake from Kazakhstan in February. Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi suggested at the time that the Obama administration and other powers had approved the purchase, but the United Kingdom was hesitating.
“We had a memorandum of understanding with (US Secretary of Energy) Ernest Moniz and the Group 5+1,” Salehi said in March, according to comments published in Iranian media. “In the last meeting with Mr. Moniz in Frankfurt the MoU was approved and signed.”
“Unfortunately in the last moments one of these countries or Britain broke its promise which is under follow-up by the foreign ministry,” he said, and added, “[Britain’s representatives] claimed this amount of yellowcake is beyond Iran’s needs while it is us to assess the amount required.”
The transfer of natural uranium to Iran, as well as other nuclear and dual-use goods, must be approved by the P5+1 group that negotiated the nuclear deal.
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and Iran expert, told TWS the Obama administration consistently boosted Iran during negotiations similar to the one at hand.
“Whenever disputes arose along the margins, the previous State Department and Energy Department acted as Iran’s lawyers,” Rubin said. “There is no reason why we need to do that.”
Iran is continuing to push the limits of the nuclear deal, he warned.
“The [nuclear deal] has become Swiss cheese,” he said. “The Iranians are constantly trying to poke more holes into it.” source
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