America is purchasing 32 tons of heavy water from Iran, a critical component in a nuclear weapons program, indicating that a weapons program was implicit in the agreement signed in June. Ironically, the purchase is part of the agreement signed last June between Iran and P5+1 powers, brokered by US President Barack Obama, that was touted as an effective diplomatic path to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The State and Energy departments said the sales agreement was signed last Friday in Vienna by officials from the six countries that negotiated the nuclear deal. The heavy water will initially be stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before being resold. Some of the heavy water could also be sold to private companies that use it for commercial applications, such as the production of semiconductors and fiber optic equipment.
Heavy water is a byproduct of nuclear reactors that create fuel for nuclear weapons and is used to produce weapons grade plutonium. The importance of heavy water to a nuclear weapons program is that it provides one more route to produce plutonium for use in weapons, entirely bypassing uranium enrichment and the related technological infrastructure. In addition, heavy-water-moderated reactors can be used to make tritium, essential to the construction of boosted-fission nuclear weapons.
Under the nuclear deal, Iran is allowed to use heavy water in the Arak nuclear reactor, but must sell any excess supply of both heavy water and enriched uranium on the international market. The nuclear accord limits Iran to 130 tons of heavy water during the initial years of the deal, and under 90 tons after that.
In a statement, the US Energy Department said, “The United States will not be Iran’s customer forever. It is exclusively Iran’s responsibility to find a way to meet its commitments.” Iran will be responsible to find a way to sell, dilute or dispose of the heavy water in order to meet its commitments. It was not stated whether adherence to this obligation is monitored under the accords.
In what the Wall Street Journal called, “a new gambit in a growing White House effort to encourage Tehran to stick to the nuclear agreement reached last year”, Washington is easing Iran’s economic hardship caused by years of sanctions. Some new sanctions have been put in place as a result of Iranian violations of international agreements limiting their ballistic missile program, support for violent organizations and human rights abuses.
The sale of heavy water has been criticized by those who opposed the deal with Iran, saying it essentially funds their nuclear program, keeping it alive. Iran is prevented by the signed agreement from accessing the US financial system or direct access to US dollars, however it is assumed that the heavy water deal was structured in a way to bypass that restriction. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to address Iranian concerns that it is not getting the sanctions relief it deserves under the nuclear accord.
Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said it was “another unprecedented concession to the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism”.
“For Tehran, the nuclear agreement is the gift that keeps on giving. This purchase—part of what appears to be the administration’s full-court press to sweeten the deal—will directly subsidize Iran’s nuclear program.”
The chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce, wrote a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, questioning the implications of the heavy water purchase.
“What assurances can you provide that U.S. taxpayer funds that Iran receives through this purchase will not be used to fund Iran’s nuclear program…or Tehran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere?” Mr. Royce wrote.
David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, said to the Wall Street Journal, “We shouldn’t be paying them for something they shouldn’t be producing in the first place.”