The “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamic Republic of Iran is one-year old. So too, ironically, is the Trump administration’s policy of providing sanctions waivers for select Iranian nuclear projects permitted by the 2015 nuclear deal. The most troublesome of these waivers — as we have previously written — is for an underground nuclear bunker called Fordow. Recently, Iran undertook enrichment-related activities at the Fordow facility that are prohibited until 2030. In response, Washington should revoke Fordow’s sanctions waiver and use the opportunity to clarify its Iran policy.
Iranian officials declared that every 60 days after May 8 — the one-year anniversary of Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) — Tehran would violate the nuclear accord. Iran’s November 7 feeding of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas into one third of the 1,044 primitive IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow, and subsequent uranium enrichment there, constitutes its fourth round of JCPOA violations since May 2019.
Consistent with past attempts to publicize violations in a bid to generate leverage, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani touted how “sensitive” the West was to the Fordow facility when he announced Iran’s latest move. And with good reason. Fordow is buried deep underground, making it relatively impregnable to most conventional weaponry.
According to Iran’s captured and exposed “atomic archive,” the facility was once a key fixture of Tehran’s past nuclear weapons efforts aimed at producing 1-2 nuclear weapons per year. Moreover, Iranian officials are cognizant of the political value of the facility, which remains open to this day despite the pressure Western powers brought to bear to have the facility shuttered. It is no wonder that Iranian outlets call Fordow a “symbol of Iranian power.”
The most popular argument against revoking the sanctions waiver for Fordow is that it would pave the way for Iran to escalate nuclear activities at the very site the waiver was intended to restrain. But Iran’s recent moves — which came just days after receiving a waiver from the Trump administration in late October, despite much congressional disapproval — torpedoes that thesis. Tehran has shown that Fordow has always been a strategic nuclear asset despite a central JCPOA promise that it would be reoriented into something more peaceful.
Another, less public, argument has emerged in favor of keeping nuclear waivers: not destabilizing the price and supply of uranium. The U.S. nuclear industry recently expressed concern that canceling the Fordow waiver would affect either the supply or price of uranium for the U.S., where some 20 percent of domestic resources are provided by TENEX, or Techsnabexport of Russia. Indeed, the uranium market was shaken until the administration announced that waivers would be extended in late October.
A closer look, however, reveals that TENEX would be unaffected by canceling the Fordow waiver. It works only at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor, which produces electricity. The administration has repeatedly allowed the Bushehr waiver to continue “to ensure safe and transparent operations, as well as to facilitate foreign fuel supply and take-back.”
If anything, the end of the Fordow waiver could affect only the work of the TVEL Fuel Company of Rosatom, also of Russia. TVEL has been working on a project to convert to non-enrichment purposes roughly one-third of the 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges permitted at the Fordow enrichment plant (as of the November 2019 International Atomic Energy Agency report, however, it was only using 11 for this stable isotope project). The assumption that TVEL would not cooperate with a canceled Fordow waiver also seems unfounded.
Conversely, however, there is evidence to support the claim that if Iran’s nuclear and other military provocations are not responded to firmly, it will continue to escalate further.
Since May, the regime has gone from targeting ships near the Strait of Hormuz with limpet mines, to taking a tanker hostage, to downing an American drone, all the way to reportedly firing cruise missiles and drones at what is arguably the most important oil installation in the world in Saudi Arabia.
Sustaining the Fordow waiver even after Iran violated its JCPOA obligations at that facility risks underwriting additional, more destabilizing Iranian nuclear violations.
Just over a decade ago in the fall of 2009, President Obama — alongside his British and French counterparts — exposed the Fordow facility to the world, calling its “size and configuration … inconsistent with a peaceful program.” Keeping a waiver in place for Fordow means that the Trump administration would be adopting a standard for that facility well below what Washington believed to be true over a decade ago.
It is time to accept that the Fordow facility assists Iran in maintaining nothing other than a latent nuclear weapons production plant. President Trump promised to take a tougher line on Tehran — he can do so by ending the waiver and insisting on the facility’s closure.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on a host of Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at FDD focusing on nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, and other security topics. She has written in-depth studies of strategic commodity trafficking and proliferation financing. Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro