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Iran Is About To Exceed Uranium Limits. Is The Nuclear Deal Dying?

Jun 26, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 10:09 pm

Iran is on the verge of crossing a key line included in the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other powers in 2015. As soon as Thursday, it's expected to announce that its uranium stockpiles have exceeded limits set by the deal.

"I think it's a major bridge for them to go across," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which monitors Iran's nuclear program. Albright and other experts believe that breaching the limit could spell the beginning of the end for the nuclear agreement, which the U.S. exited in May 2018.

The nuclear deal is full of numbers and figures, but its purpose is simple: to slow down Iran's nuclear program. Before the deal, Iran was within a few weeks of getting enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb if it chose to. The deal pushed that timeline back from weeks to about a year.

Under the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran was forced to get rid of lots of low-enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium is kept at levels far below the 90% level considered suitable for building nuclear weapons. But large quantities of low-enriched uranium can be refined to bomb-grade relatively quickly. So the deal capped Iran's stockpile of low-enriched material to just 300 kilograms, or 661 lbs.

But that was then. Last year, President Trump pulled out of the deal. Without the economic benefits Iran was promised in exchange for limiting its nuclear program, it has begun going back on the agreement. In May, it announced it would begin accumulating more low-enriched uranium.

"We will exceed the 300-kg limit," Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told reporters last week. By the organization's calculations, Iran will cross the line on June 27.

Albright says from a technical perspective, crossing the line is not that big a deal. Low-enriched uranium cannot be directly turned into a weapon.

"Not much is going to change," he says. "They're going to have to produce around a ton, or a thousand kilograms, before you really start to get nervous."

But the 300-kg limit is not the only number in the agreement. Iran has warned it will begin crossing other lines in coming weeks as well.

It plans to increase the levels at which it enriches its uranium fuel, and to walk back modifications it planned to make to a key nuclear reactor at Arak.

"With the threats now that Iran might start violating some of the core principles of the deal, this deal that's been on life support might be dead," says Corey Hinderstein, the Nuclear Threat Initiative's vice president of international fuel cycle strategies. As an official at the U.S. Department of Energy, she oversaw parts of the nuclear deal until 2017.

She says that a big part of why things are falling apart now goes back to the sanctions the U.S. reimposed last year. They punish anyone who does business with Iran, including companies in other places that remain in the agreement: Europe, China and Russia.

European companies had hoped to do business with Iran. But in the face of U.S. sanctions, "We've seen those companies have to step back and say, 'We can't afford to lose the U.S. market,' " Hinderstein says.

Iran is now stepping across one line in the deal at a time, in an effort to pressure European nations to provide promised economic relief. European negotiators are racing to complete a package of humanitarian aid by early July, says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi with Great Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

"They are working towards that end goal, to showcase to the Iranians that they are actually working in practical terms to address some of these issues," Tabrizi says.

If that aid — which includes things like medical supplies — can be delivered without U.S. objection, then it may open the possibility of more economic benefits flowing to Iran. But Tabrizi says it remains to be seen whether it will be enough.

"Iran has made it clear that it needs also to be able to continue to export its oil, to see the incentive of remaining a party of the nuclear deal," she says.

For now, Hinderstein says, Iran is still about a year away from getting material together for a bomb — should it decide to do so. "We still have some time to work with," she says.

But with each line that Iran crosses, the timeline shrinks, and the nuclear deal fades further.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As soon as tomorrow, Iran could announce that its uranium stockpiles have exceeded limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel looks at what it means to cross that line.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The Iran deal is full of numbers and figures, but its purpose is simple - to slow down Iran's nuclear program. Before the deal, it was within a few weeks of making enough material to build a nuclear bomb if it wanted to. The deal pushed that timeline back to about a year, but that was then. In 2018, President Trump pulled out of the deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime.

BRUMFIEL: And without the economic benefits Iran was promised, it has begun going back on parts of the agreement. For example, the deal made Iran get rid of lots of low-enriched uranium which can be refined into much more dangerous bomb-grade uranium. After signing up to the deal, Iran had a cap on low-enriched uranium - 300 kilograms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEHROUZ KAMALVANDI: We will exceed the 300-kilogram limit.

BRUMFIEL: That was the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran last week. He says Iran will cross the line on Thursday. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security says from a technical perspective, it's not that big a deal. Low-enriched uranium can't be turned directly into a weapon.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: They're going to have to produce around a ton or a thousand kilograms before you start to really get nervous.

BRUMFIEL: But the 300-kilogram limit is one of those key numbers in the agreement.

ALBRIGHT: It's a major bridge for them to go across.

BRUMFIEL: Corey Hinderstein is with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She was a U.S. official overseeing parts of the deal until 2017. She agrees. Technically it's not that important. But politically it matters.

COREY HINDERSTEIN: With the threat now that Iran might start violating some of the core principles of the deal, this deal that's been on life support might be dead.

BRUMFIEL: She says a big part of the reason Iran is reneging goes back to those sanctions the U.S. reimposed last year. They punish businesses who work with Iran even if they're outside the U.S.

HINDERSTEIN: So we've seen large companies that had intended to do business with Iran and provide that economic benefit that was keeping Iran complying with their nuclear commitments - we've seen those companies have to step back and say, we can't afford to lose the U.S. market.

BRUMFIEL: Without investment from companies in places like Europe, China and Russia, Iran's economy is tanking. Iran is threatening to cross more lines in coming weeks unless another party to the deal, Europe, can come through with some economic relief. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is with the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K. She says European negotiators are racing to complete a package of humanitarian aid by early July.

ANISEH BASSIRI TABRIZI: They are working towards that end goal to showcase to the Iranians that they're actually working in practical terms to address some of these issues.

BRUMFIEL: If the U.S. doesn't object to the aid delivery, that may open the possibility of more economic relief flowing to Iran. But Tabrizi says it remains to be seen whether Europe's help will be enough.

TABRIZI: Iran has made it clear that it needs also to be able to continue to export its oil.

BRUMFIEL: For now, Iran continues to push the limits, and with each line that it crosses, the nuclear deal is fading. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.