As a knee-jerk reaction to Iran’s launch of the Noor-1 military satellite into space, the United States announced the revocation of Iran nuclear cooperation sanction waivers.
“I am announcing the end of the sanctions waiver covering all remaining JCPOA-originating nuclear projects in Iran – the Arak reactor conversion, the provision of enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor and the export of Iran’s spent and scrap research reactor fuel,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on May 27. The waivers will end after a 60-day wind-down period for foreign companies to cease their operations.
The US decision aims to limit Iran’s technological progress, it will target three nuclear facilities where British, Chinese and Russian experts and companies are currently working. The Arak heavy water reactor is being redesigned and converted into a light water reactor with the help of British and Chinese experts. The waiver was revoked to ensure that Iran cannot produce enough plutonium for use in its nuclear bomb. The decision will also bar Russia from supplying 20 percent enriched uranium to the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. The third and final impact of the US revoking sanction waivers will be on the export of residue and nuclear-spent fuel from the Tehran research reactor.
The US also announced that Iran’s nuclear officials Majid Agha’i and Amjad Sazgar would be sanctioned “for engaging or attempting to engage in activities that have materially contributed to, or pose a risk of materially contributing to, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
Tehran reacted with its trademark defiance stating that the US decision to revoke nuclear cooperation would not impact the country’s nuclear activities. The Spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the US move is intended to cause “media commotion and nothing more.”
Kamalvandi mentioned that Iran would continue its nuclear work despite the absence of foreign technical support. He said, “Our fuel in Russia will come to Iran whenever we need without any problem and even if that fuel runs out, we are able to produce it ourselves in the future without any country’s help.”
The US annulling its own sanction waivers brings the Iranian quagmire into the limelight again. Is it really trying to obstruct Tehran’s nuclear ambitions? The sanction waivers on Iran’s nuclear program were deliberated at great length during the nuclear negotiations resulting in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Their purpose was to ensure Iran’s compliance with its nuclear non-proliferation commitments while allowing Tehran to benefit technologically from the waivers.
Washington’s May 27 decision not only antagonizes the three JCPOA states engaged in nuclear projects in Iran but also undermines its own efforts to weaken Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability. The most vivid case in point is the resulting halt in the conversion of the Arak heavy water reactor to a light water enrichment facility. Heavy water reactors are vital to the development of nuclear weapons capability. The sanctions aim to stop Iran benefitting from foreign cooperation, but they have actually undermined the nuclear non-proliferation objective initially set out during the negotiations leading to the JCPOA.
According to the United States, the launch of the Noor-1 military satellite is linked to Iran’s quest for long-range ballistic missiles despite the technological differences between the two. There is no doubt that the successful placement of the Noor-1 satellite into orbit signifies Iran’s gradual mastery of complex materials and is also a testament to the IRGC’s communication and surveillance capability.
What impact will the US decision to revoke sanction waivers have on Tehran’s ballistic missile ambitions? At best, marginal. Is the United States really looking to contain Iran’s space program with nuclear sanctions? No, it is not. Washington has taken such a step to punish Iran for violating its nuclear commitments and disrupting regional peace and stability. However, it does indicate a lack of coherence in Washington’s strategy towards Tehran. Why did it extend sanction waivers to Iran’s nuclear program in the first place on March 31? Washington’s assessment that such ‘‘favors” would break the ice and lead to Iran being more receptive towards renegotiating the JCPOA was inherently flawed. Meanwhile, Paris, Berlin and London have already operationalized the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) by transacting medical goods worth $5.5 million.
The May 27 decision signals that the Pompeo-led State Department has been able to win the battle it lost on March 31. At the time, US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin had the upper hand while responding to pressure from friendly countries i.e. the E-3.
The stage is now set for September when Nigeria will chair the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the United States will initiate proceedings under the snapback clause to reimpose the pre-JCPOA UNSC sanctions.