Washington is Compelling Iran to Withdraw from the JCPOA

The US is seemingly goading Iran into withdrawing from the JCPOA. That might lead to some nasty surprises, for both them and us.

Whilst attention continues to be drawn to North Korea, important developments continue to characterise the Iranian nuclear file with Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, describing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as being moved to the Intensive Care Unit following the US withdrawal from the agreement. He also added that the deal could collapse within weeks.

In perceptive comments, the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also stated that the US is seeking to compel, or perhaps goad, Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA. There appears to be an element of truth to that assertion. One of the potentially ominous features of the Iran case is a clear connection that can be drawn to the North Korean nuclear file.

Earlier in the month Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, directed the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran to prepare for developing the capacity to enrich to 190 Separative Work Units without delay, which takes Tehran up to but not beyond what is prescribed under the JCPOA. A 1000MWe light water reactor typically consumes 25 tonnes of light enriched uranium, which corresponds to 100,000 SWUs. For a brief discussion of the historical significance of that 190,000 figure see this brief discussion from Project Alpha (note the comparative ranking of enrichment capacity). I can’t help but point out that the concept of the Separative Work Unit for isotope separation is due to Paul Dirac, of the Dirac equation.

The business of moving toward developing the capacity to begin enriching to 190,000SWUs is not what interests me here so much as Khamenei’s emphatic statement that Iran would not allow itself to be both sanctioned and constrained in its nuclear programme at the same time.

That was also the stand of North Korea following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under the terms of the Agreed Framework the United States was required to take steps to reduce trade and investment sanctions, but it did not even partially do so until June 2000. By 1998 that led North Korea to take a harder line, resuming missile testing for instance. It may even account for the advancement of North Korea’s clandestine uranium enrichment programme. The diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington that marked the tail end of the Clinton administration occurred within that escalatory context borne, in part, by lack of sanctions relief as agreed to under the Agreed Framework.

That’s a little bit of history that we have too easily forgotten.

At any rate, as we know, the incoming administration of George W Bush reversed course on North Korea policy and the sanctions continued. As is clear to all and sundry, North Korea refused to accept constraints on its nuclear programme whilst being subject to economic sanctions. One of the interesting things at the time was the atmosphere that permeated the Bush White House, what was known as “ABC” or “Anyone But Clinton.” The 1994 Agreed Framework and détente with Pyongyang was associated with slick willie so therefore was anathema. Note how that accords with the prevailing attitude of the Trump White House, namely “anyone but Obama.” The Trump administration has a felt psychopathic need to scuttle anything associated with the name Barack Obama, and that includes the JCPOA.

Anyone but Clinton with North Korea and anyone but Obama with Iran are essentially the same thing, and they might yet lead to similar outcomes. As we know Trump has withdrawn from the JCPOA, but even before that withdrawal the US was not compliant with the JCPOA. In popular discourse on these matters discussion is framed by the question of Iranian compliance; are they compliant, or aren’t they? But we forget that the JCPOA is only partly about Iran’s nuclear activities. It is also about sanctions relief and trade, and the JCPOA calls for the parties to act in ways consistent with the elimination of sanctions and trade barriers. However, the US still was seeking to prevent Iran’s full reintegration to the global economy, especially the international financial system, which was a JCPOA violation. Even under Obama rumblings to this effect, as with Clinton and the Agreed Framework, from the Iranians, especially the hawkish end of Iranian opinion, could have been heard.

As we know Iran, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, continues to abide by its obligations under the JCPOA. Although all the attention recently was taken by Khamenei’s statements on 190,000S SWUs the more interesting, for me, was some news on Iran’s advanced centrifuges.

In an interview on Iranian television earlier in the month with the head of Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran again showed off, as it has done previously, three types of advanced centrifuge the IR-2m, the IR-4 and the IR-6. By advanced centrifuge is meant more advanced than the IR-1, derived from the Pakistani P-1. The image below depicts a gas centrifuge

The efficiency of a centrifuge theoretically is proportional to the rotor’s length and the fourth power of its peripheral velocity, although in practice it is less than the fourth power. To prevent long, high speed rotors from crashing into smithereens as they rotate up to the required velocity the length of the rotor is broken up by using flexible bellows of thin, flexible but very strong material precisely machined most often maraging steel.

The IR-2m is said to be based on the Pakistani P-2 centrifuge which features carbon fibre rotors and maraging steel bellows, and is often attributed to have an efficiency of 3-5 SWU/yr. The IR-4 is attributed to have both carbon fibre rotors and bellows and is attributed an efficiency of 3-5 SWU/yr. The IR-6 is not as well known, analysts have usually also attributed to it an effectiveness of 3-5 SWU/yr however Salehi in his television interview stated that it is 10 times more effective than the IR-1, making that, if true, 10 SWU/yr. The IR-8, according to Salehi, is 16 times more effective making that, again if true, 16 SWU/yr. Iran wants to make the IR-6 and the IR-8 the mainstays of its enrichment programme. The image below is taken from that interview. Note the relative diameter of the centrifuges.

Under the JCPOA Iran’s centrifuge research and development programme is restricted, but if the JCPOA should collapse those constraints will no longer apply. We should not make the same mistake of downplaying the scientific and engineering capabilities of Iranian technicians after so many years of working on a uranium enrichment programme in the same way that we did with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. According to Salehi, in the TV interview spoken of above, Iran could produce 60 IR-2m, IR-4 centrifuges day and after dealing with faults in the more advanced IR-6 that too could be produced at a rate of 60 a day, but this would not apply to IR-8 centrifuges which, it appears, is years away from being able to be produced and at such numbers. If that is true, then it’s a significant statement of capability because, at 10 SWU/yr (if true), Iran could develop a clandestine enrichment plant using far fewer centrifuges than a similar plant using the much less efficient IR-1 centrifuge. To produce enough weapons grade uranium for one nuclear weapon a year using the IR-1 requires about 5,832 centrifuges, yet, according to Salehi, the IR-6 is 10 times more effective and could soon be produced at 60 a day.

This is what an uncontrained Iranian uranium enrichment programme amounts to, and it shows that JCPOA withdrawal by the United States had very little to do with nuclear weapons. To the extent that it did, then it was more about compelling Iran toward the bomb so that harsher policies can be justified.

Developments on the missile front have been no less interesting. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps recently reaffirmed Iran’s policy to limit its missile programme to developing missiles no longer than 2000km in range. However, superb and creative detective work by the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey provides solid evidence for inferring that Iran has a clandestine programme to develop high thrust solid fuelled motors for a space programme, however the know how is more conducive for a solid fuelled ICBM programme given that space launch vehicles are optimally designed to use liquid propellants.

The United States has yet to reimpose the full array of sanctions against Iran, but US withdrawal from the JCPOA is already wreaking havoc on Iran’s economy especially given that many multinational firms do not want to come under US financial sanctions given the central role that the United States plays in the global financial system. If the other parties to the JCPOA are not able to prevent external shocks to the Iranian economy then there is even reason to suppose that Iran will walk from the JCPOA. That will, in turn, justify further harsh measures against Iran and so we might get a familiar cycle of graduated external pressure as Iran passes certain milestones in its nuclear and missile programmes directed toward encouraging regime change by an economic elite willing to subordinate itself to US power and the global order, much as during the days of the Shah. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in recent marks has even left open a military option.

An invasion is unlikely, but a forceful air campaign to destroy Iran’s strategic facilities and degrade its military power is conceivable. A likely effect of such action is to precipitate a clandestine military fuel cycle parallel to Tehran’s civil.

Whilst all this occurs the Iranians can observe Kim Jong-un crisscrossing the globe in one summit after another, in a graphic display of the first axiom of the affairs of state namely the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

A lot has been said about human rights with regard to North Korea following the Singapore summit, but very little about a Saudi-UAE led attack against a Houthi controlled airport in Yemen. The airport is considered to be the vital lifeline for millions of people on the brink of famine, and the fighting threatens to shut that lifeline off thus leading to famine. That is a predictable consequence of an offensive waged with US-UK arms, and with US-UK support but it hardly garners attention as compared to the latest diversionary antic from the White House.

The thing about the Iran case, unlike the case of North Korea, is that Iran is involved in a vicious conflict that has racked the region, critical to the global system of power, since the US invasion of Iraq. There also exists the standoff with Israel, which has long sought to degrade Iranian strategic power since the 1990s, given that Tehran and its allies form the main deterrent to Israeli action in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is developing a nuclear energy programme of its own, and it may well leave open the nuclear weapons option should Iran withdraw from the JCPOA. For those who remember 9/11 and its aftermath there is more than a dose of irony here.

To paraphrase Paul Wolfowitz, Iran simply sits on a sea of oil. North Korea doesn’t. Any Iranian civil nuclear energy programme no longer constrained by the JCPOA, let alone a nuclear weapons programme whether overt, covert or virtual for that reason alone has potentially more ominous consequences than North Korea’s nuclear programme.

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