Exemptions and Loopholes

Scary headline: U.S., others agreed to ‘secret’ exemptions for Iran after nuclear deal. But no.

The report on which that article is based is here. It is from the Institute for Science and International Security, which has been beating the drum for airtight and public inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Both technical and diplomatic issues are in play. 

The issue is whether Iran was fully in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Implementation Day. The report does not identify the sources of its information beyond “one senior knowledgeable official.” Irresistable snark: Seems strange that a report demanding more transparency doesn’t identify its sources.

Let’s say the information is reliable, though. Without doing a lot of checking, I recall that some of it has been made public before, like the heavy water overage.

The amounts of 3.5% enriched uranium and “lab contaminant” are not known. It would be helpful to have more information on the nature of the “lab contaminant.” That terminology usually refers to trace amounts; the report notes that it is not recoverable, which would be consistent with trace amounts.

Nineteen large hot cells seems like a lot, but they are spread across three locations, so there are maybe six or seven in each location. For a reprocessing line, they would have to be grouped together. So I would have more concern if there were seventeen in one location and one each in the others, but I doubt that is the case. Again, the report doesn’t say.

The United States bought heavy water that was in excess of the JCPOA’s limits. As noted in the report, the Institute has been critical of that action before.

The JCPOA’s Joint Commission, formed to arbitrate questions of enforcement, is examining questions relating to Iran’s holdings of 3.5% enriched (reactor grade) uranium. No decision has been reached yet. In any processing plant, holdup in pipes and other equipment, including material that may stick to interior surfaces, is a concern, and that is part of the discussion.

The IAEA defines a “significant quantity”, the amount that might signal bomb-making activity, as 25 kilograms of U-235 contained in a greater amount of uranium containing U-238 as well. For 3.5% enriched uranium, that total would be 714 kilograms, quite a bit of material. It is likely to be detected by the many means of inspection at Iran’s facilities.

Although the report claims that “Separating LEU from its chemical constituents in such products is typically straightforward,” recoverability varies with residues. That claim is sometimes correct, but the reality of various sludges and gunks can be much uglier.

The report refers to “exemptions” and “loopholes” and portrays them as secret annexes to the JCPOA, all loaded terms that have been used by opponents of the agreement. The Reuters article contains quotes from officials, also anonymous, that the characterization as “secret” is inaccurate.

None of the overages listed is a critical violation of the JCPOA that could easily lead to bombmaking activities, nor do they seem to constitute a pattern. James Acton argued on Twitter (thread) that they may not be violations at all.

It seems likely that these discrepancies were considered by the P5+1 and the decision was made that they were small enough that going ahead with Implementation Day was more important than holding things up. It’s a diplomatic tradoff.

The report continues the Institute’s call for more information on Iran’s nuclear activities and concern that Iran is pushing the envelope of what is allowed under the JCPOA. But part of the objective of the JCPOA was to put Iran closer to a normal status with the IAEA. That status involves a level of confidentiality higher than was applied to Iran previously. As for pushing the envelope, I am sure that the Institute will continue to acquire information and keep us informed in addition to the IAEA’s oversight.

Update: Acton notes that JCPOA specifies deliberations of the Joint Commission as confidential.

State Department refutes the report’s claims.


Top photo: Reuters


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