Yellow-Cake

Reuters is reporting about the Obama administration taking the Iranian side regarding a long list of violations to the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed to at the beginning of April as well as the United Nations Security Council resolutions by seeking to procure illicit nuclear infrastructure and refusing to cooperate with the IAEA. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Obama administration is denying they ever happened, or labeling them as inconsequential. 

[F]or a month now the U.S. State Department has been defending Iran from suggestions that it was on the verge of violating a requirement to reduce its low-enriched uranium stockpile under a 2013 interim nuclear with major powers… It was not the first time Washington has defended Iran. After the IAEA reported that Iran had begun feeding uranium into a single advanced centrifuge last year, which would be a violation of the 2013 deal, U.S. negotiators said it was apparently a mistake on Iran’s part… A U.N. panel of experts that monitors compliance with Security Council sanctions has repeatedly reported that Iran is suspected of buying equipment linked to the activities it is now negotiating to suspend. But in its annual report in April, the panel said it had received no formal notifications from U.N. member states of Iranian breaches of sanctions, and suggested this may be because countries were trying to avoid damaging nuclear talks.

That most recent and perhaps most serious example of Iran’s cheating was the oxidation violation which was confirmed last week (and still denied by the administration.)   The Iranians were obligated by the JPOA to turn all of their excess uranium gas (UF6), anything over 7,650kg, into dioxide powder (UO2) also known as yellowcake. But the Iranians converted it to a different type of oxide easily converted back to usable uranium.

In the JPOA factsheet the requirement was broadly written as the Iranians having to create “oxide.” But there are different kinds of uranium oxide and this is an area where precision is very important. Therefore the Congressional Research Service reports about the JPOA – which were also posted on the state department’s website – noted that:

“Iran is also to, in effect, freeze its production of enriched uranium hexafluoride containing up to 5% uranium-235 by converting the material to uranium dioxide.”

Once it became news that the Iranians cheated on the conversion, the Obama administration went to work retroactively rewriting the deal on Iran’s behalf.

With great fanfare last week the State Department reported that Iran had complied with that key condition of the interim agreement, significantly reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium – an accurate statement as long as one ignores Iran’s violations. Along with some of the people interviewed by Reuters, a leading non-proliferation think tank is bashing the Administration for trying to sweep the violations under the rug.

At the beginning of this month the NY Times reported that Iran’s “stockpile of nuclear fuel increased about 20 percent over the last 18 months of negotiations,” partially undercutting the Obama administration’s contention that the Iranian program had been “frozen” during that period.” This made it unlikely that Iran would be able to hit its target of converting its oversupply into yellowcake by the June 30th deadline.

After the State Department hit back at the NY Times report, non-proliferation think tank the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) wrote a position paper explaining why the violation was important to the wonks at Foggy Bottom. It ended the paper with:

The State Department has some explaining to do, publicly. Shooting the messengers is not going to make this issue go away. The deal is too important to all of us.

Following up on the white paper mentioned above, ISIS published a one-page report which describes what the Iranians most likely did instead of meeting their oxidation obligation. ISIS says Iran probably left the uranium in an intermediary, more-easily-reversible form between the gas and the yellowcake they were supposed to produce. It also explains what it means for the final deal that the U.S. is letting Iran “get away” with violations.

When it became clear that Iran could not meet its commitment to convert the LEU into uranium dioxide, the United States revised its criteria for Iran meeting its obligations. In this case, the potential violation refers to Iran not producing the enriched uranium dioxide by the end of the initial six month period of the JPA and again after its first and second extensions. The choosing of a weaker condition that must be met is not a good precedent for interpreting more important provisions in a final deal.

This case poses several other potential problems about the enforcement of a final deal with Iran. The United States accepted an unproven technical method for converting the LEU. Is it doing so now in a final deal? Are the technical methods in the final deal reliable? Iran will need to reduce, by shipping out of Iran or blending down to natural uranium, a much larger amount of roughly 10,000 kilograms of LEU down to a 300 kg cap within a matter of months. The U.S. government handling of the case of the newly produced LEU under the JPA leads to legitimate doubts about how well that major endeavor will go.

On the first of July, the IAEA published a report confirming the Iranians have met the 7,650kg hexafluoride cap but didn’t meet the oxidation requirement. That would put them in violation of the JPOA. But the administration declared it wasn’t a violation because they contend what the Iranians did was above and beyond:

However, the report indicated that only several hundred pounds of the oxide that is the end product had been made. A U.S. official told The Associated Press the rest of the enriched uranium in the pipeline has been transformed into another form of the oxide that would be even more difficult to reconvert into enriched uranium. The official said that technical problems by Iran had slowed the process but the United States was satisfied that Iran had met its commitments to reduce the amount of enriched uranium it has stored.

It seems as if the Obama Administration has “switched sides,” playing the role of Iran’s attorney and explaining away their violations, rather than protecting the country by guaranteeing that Iran follow the JPOA.  As the AP article about the IAEA report reminds readers, it is in the administration’s best interests to ignore or spin away any violations.

“Violations by Iran would complicate the Obama administration’s battle to persuade congressional opponents and other skeptics.”

Even more serious than the administration saying the Iranians cheated but it doesn’t count, is that they are also saying that Iran complied with the JPOA— a legal statement – even though Iran didn’t. It’s the administration that invented the compliance.

When the administration officials go to the Hill to explain the “science” behind the one-year breakout timeline (which they insist they can achieve, despite giving into Iran’s demand to spin thousands of centrifuges because Iran will convert any overages into yellowcake) they will be misstating the truth (lying). The evidence suggests that the Iranians can’t or won’t implement those requirements.

Some may say reports of Iranian violations are just a “neocon” effort to question the administration’s policy of sitting down with Iran, or that they should agree to separating the issues of Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism and holding of American prisoners from the talks. Nonsense. Even those who support the talks must realize that what we are seeing here is that the president is so desperate for a deal that he will wish away Iranian malfeasance and risk a nuclear conflagration that has the potential to kill millions here in the United States and throughout the world.