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Enrichment and the End of the JCPOA

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), implemented in 2016, was trumpeted as the best possible way to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. And, for the time, it was. In exchange for sanctions relief, Tehran had agreed to strict, verifiable limits on its nuclear activities.

Image courtesy of Nanking2012, © 2012.

Critics cite Washington’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and to reapply sanctions as the beginning of the end. If it is the end of the JCPOA, it is a slow death. Rather than crash out immediately with the United States’ withdrawal, the deal has lingered on. Only recently has Iran begun seriously violating the agreement. While the United States and the other members of the P5+1 should work to save the JCPOA, they must also begin thinking about a potential successor agreement based on nuclear nonproliferation.

At its core, the JCPOA’s most significant accomplishment was to place strict limits on Iran’s enrichment activities and enriched uranium stockpile. The restrictions placed on the number and type of deployed nuclear centrifuges is critical to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. That’s what makes Iran’s decision to deploy more advanced centrifuges all the more troubling. Other than spent fuel reprocessing, enrichment is the most proliferation-prone activity in which an aspiring nuclear power can indulge.

In order to create uranium suitable for reactor fuel or bombs, it must first be enriched. That is, it must be altered to contain greater than the naturally occurring amount of the U-235 isotope. Reactor-grade uranium is usually enriched to around 3%-5% U-235. Any enriched uranium under 20% U-235 is considered low enriched uranium. Above 20%, it becomes highly enriched uranium. Weapons grade uranium is usually 95% U-235. Critically, it takes a great deal of energy to enrich uranium from natural to 20% enriched; it becomes significantly easier to enrich uranium from 20% to 95%.

One of the central tenets of the JCPOA was to limit the number and type of centrifuges Iran may deploy. When enriching uranium, the most efficient way to enrich is to “cascade” banks of centrifuges together. The more centrifuges that are cascaded together, the more uranium can be enriched and it is easier to enrich large quantities of uranium. Tehran’s decision to violate the centrifuge limitations is so far the most damning blow dealt to the JCPOA since Washington’s decision to withdraw.

At the core of the enrichment compromise brokered in the JCPOA is the inherent tension between two aspects of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) – nonproliferation and allowing for peaceful use by non-weapons states. Articles I and II of the NPT forbid transferring nuclear weapons or explosive devices, “directly or indirectly,” to non-weapons states, and forbid non-weapons states from “receiving or accepting assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons,” respectively. Article IV grants non-weapons states the “inalienable” right to peaceful use of nuclear energy “in conformity with Articles I and II.” Iran currently argues that Article IV gives them an “inalienable” right to enrich uranium. And yet, having the ability to enrich uranium is the quickest path to a bomb outside of spent fuel reprocessing.

The United States and the other members of the P5+1 will need to act quickly if they want to try and save the JCPOA. Some form of sanctions relief, contingent upon IAEA inspections, coupled with a declaration of intent by Washington to work towards rejoining might be enough to save the dying agreement. Given recent tensions in the Persian Gulf, however, it is increasingly likely that the JCPOA may become unsalvageable and die. The United States should begin thinking of what kind of agreement should replace it. Any successor agreement should have as its objective nuclear nonproliferation as outlined in the NPT, and will need to address the issue of centrifuges and enrichment. To not address the issue would only serve to guarantee Iran a path to a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, in 2017 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) established its Low Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan.

The “Nuclear Fuel Bank” was created in order to provide countries without enrichment infrastructure the ability to purchase reactor fuel for power generation. The IAEA bank could now be the solution to the enrichment question. If Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, it shouldn’t have a problem purchasing its nuclear fuel from the IAEA bank, which is internationally controlled. This would also promote IAEA safeguards inspections by keeping the fuel supply under direct IAEA control. Using the fuel bank would help build confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, as well as save Tehran the costs of building enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

In exchange for Iran giving up its enrichment capability, the United States must be prepared to enforce the same standard on its allies, or any nation seeking to acquire nuclear power. This is especially true with regard to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival. The Kingdom is seeking a nuclear deal with the United States, and is reluctant to adopt a “gold standard” 123 Agreement. Crucially, the Saudi energy minister has recently announced that the Kingdom wants the ability to enrich its own uranium. Secretary of Energy Perry’s recent letter to the Kingdom stating that they will be required to forgo enrichment and reprocessing is a big step in the right direction towards a “gold standard” agreement. To do otherwise would only exacerbate regional tensions and all but ensure an Iranian nuclear bomb, and thereafter a Saudi nuclear bomb in response. A nuclear arms race over the Straits of Hormuz would have no winners.

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John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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