Article: Nuclear Energy: Enrichment and Sanctions – Part 3

Iran always claimed that it has the right to nuclear energy like any other country in the world and maintained that its nuclear program is purely and exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, the world powers always suspected that Iran has not been honest about its nuclear program, believing that Iran was acquiring the ability to build a nuclear bomb.

The purpose of the recent diplomatic efforts in the name of the P5+1 group (Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany, and the United States) was to seek a deal with Iran that would allow Iran to have nuclear energy but ensure that the likelihood of it gaining nuclear weapons is reduced. Here is a summarized version of negotiated points: What Iran will do:

  • Halt production of near-20 percent enriched uranium and disable the configuration of the centrifuge cascades used to produce it;
  • Start to dilute half of the near-20 percent enriched uranium stockpile that is in hexafluoride form, and continue to convert the rest to oxide form not suitable for further enrichment;
  • Not enrich uranium in roughly half of the installed centrifuges at Natanz facility and three-quarters of the installed centrifuges at Fordo (Read our guide to Iran’s nuclear facilities);
  • Limit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines;
  • Not construct additional enrichment facilities;
  • Not go beyond its current enrichment research and development practices;
  • Not commission or fuel the Arak heavy-water reactor;
  • Halt the production and additional testing of fuel for the Arak reactor;
  • Not install any additional reactor components at Arak;
  • Not transfer fuel and heavy water to the Arak reactor site;
  • Not construct a facility capable of reprocessing at Arak, preventing the separation of plutonium from spent fuel;
  • Agree to a cap on the permitted size of Iran’s up-to-5 percent enriched uranium stockpile; and
  • Allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit the Natanz and Fordo enrichment sites daily and the Arak reactor at least monthly.
  • What the world powers will do:
  • Provide “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible relief”;
  • Not impose further nuclear-related sanctions if Iran meets its commitments;
  • Transfer $4.2bn of oil revenue to Iran in instalments;
  • Suspend the implementation of sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports and its imports of goods and services for its automotive manufacturing sector;
  • Pause efforts to further reduce purchases of crude oil from Iran by the six economies still purchasing oil from Iran;
  • Suspend sanctions on Iran’s imports and exports of gold and other precious metals;
  • License the supply of spare parts and services for the safety of flight of Iran’s civil aviation sector;
  • Facilitate the establishment of a financial channel to support humanitarian trade already permitted with Iran and facilitate payments for UN obligations and tuition payments for students studying abroad; and
  • Modify the thresholds for the European Union (EU) internal procedures for the authorization of financial transactions.

The nuclear deal with Iran indeed a huge success but perhaps the question should be asked if this is a fruit of diplomacy or a consequence of covert efforts invested in sabotaging Iran?

As far as Iran’s current situation is concerned, after many years of construction, a large nuclear power reactor is operating in Iran and a second nuclear power reactor is planned. Iran also has a program to develop uranium enrichment. Furthermore, they are also working on heavy water-related projects. Consequently:

  • Iran produced 254 billion KiloWatt Hours (kWh) gross in 2012, with consumption of about 200 TeraWatt Hours (TWh), per capita about 2600 kWh/yr;
  • Its 2012 electricity production comprised 170 TWh from gas, 69 TWh from oil, both of which it has in abundance, 12.5 TWh from hydro which is less reliably available, and 2 TWh from nuclear power;
  • Demand is growing about 4 percent per year, and Iran trades electricity with Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Net export is about 7 TWh/yr; and
  • In mid-2013 Iran’s generating capacity was 68 GigaWatt Electric (GWe). The country plans to boost generating capacity to 122 GWe by 2022, with substantial export potential.

Every country in the world seems to be colossally concerned for a different reason about the degree of enrichment when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. Enrichment capacity was the main obstacle to a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the group of six major powers took part in negotiations in Vienna. There is no doubt that western negotiators want Iran to be restricted to a research-scale capability to minimize the risk it could build a nuclear weapon at short notice but by publicly stating Iran’s position, Khamenei could have made it harder for his negotiators to compromise.

It is true that enriched uranium is a critical component for generating both civil nuclear power and military nuclear power. Civil nuclear power is a form of energy produced by an atomic reaction, capable of producing an alternative source of electrical power to that supplied by coal, gas, or oil whereas military nuclear power is known as an explosive device whose destructive potential devices from the release of energy that accompanies the splitting or combining of atomic nuclei.

Here is the nuclear reality, there are 500 commercial nuclear power reactors operating or under construction around the world and each of those reactors require enriched uranium in the uranium 235 (U-235) isotope for their fuel. An isotope is an atomic form of an element having a particular number of neutrons. Different isotopes of an element have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons and hence different atomic masses, e.g. U-235, Uranium 238 (U-238). Some isotopes are unstable and decay (qv) to form isotopes of other elements.

In other words, uranium found in nature consists largely of two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The production of energy in nuclear reactors is from the ‘fission’ or splitting of the U-235 atoms, a process which releases energy in the form of heat. U-235 is the main fissile isotope of uranium. The difference between U-235 and U-238 isotopes is that natural uranium contains 0.7 percent of the U-235 isotope. The remaining 99.3 percent is mostly the U-238 isotope which does not contribute directly to the fission process (though it does so indirectly by the formation of fissile isotopes of plutonium).

Isotope separation is a physical process to concentrate (‘enrich’) one isotope relative to others. Most reactors are Light Water Reactors which represents two types of reactors – Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR); and Boiling Water Reactor (BWR). These reactors require uranium to be enriched from 0.7 percent to 3 percent to 5 percent U-235 in their fuel.

Uranium-235 and U-238 are chemically identical, but differ in their physical properties, notably their mass. The nucleus of the U-235 atom contains 92 protons and 143 neutrons, giving an atomic mass of 235 units. The U-238 nucleus also has 92 protons but has 146 neutrons – three more than U-235 – and therefore has a mass of 238 units.

The difference in mass between U-235 and U-238 allows the isotopes to be separated and makes it possible to increase or “enrich” the percentage of U-235. All present and historic enrichment processes, directly or indirectly, make use of this small mass difference. Some reactors, for example the Canadian-designed Candu and the British Magnox reactors, use natural uranium as their fuel. (For comparison, uranium used for nuclear weapons would have to be enriched in plants specially designed to produce at least 90 percent U-235).

According to World Nuclear Association, enrichment processes require uranium to be in a gaseous form at relatively low temperature, hence uranium oxide from the mine is converted to uranium hexafluoride in a preliminary process, at a separate conversion plant.

In 2015 there is significant over-supply of enrichment capacity worldwide. Although 13 countries have enrichment production capability or near-capability, about 90 percent of world enrichment capacity is in the five nuclear weapons states. These plus Germany, Netherlands and Japan provide toll enrichment services to the commercial market.

Nevertheless, Iran doesn’t have access to this market. Perhaps this is simply because since international controls on nuclear proliferation began in 1970, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have obtained nuclear weapons demonstrating the link between civil and military nuclear power.

Lifting the existing sanctions to Iran was another major topic of the negotiations.

The US had imposed sanctions on Iran for the first time in 1979, following the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the taking of American hostages by an Iranian radical group (the US froze $12 billion in Iranian assets including bank deposits and gold). However, in addition to some other sanctions, the US joined the United Nations (UN) as well as the EU in 2005 in imposing numerous and wide-range sanctions on Iran. The main reason was the report from IAEA that Iranian President, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, failed to comply with its safeguards agreement by breaking the injunction against uranium enrichment. Those sanctions prohibited companies and individuals from having dealings with Iran, including trade and financial transactions. Here is a brief description of each category of sanctions:

  • Goods and Services:

Under the Iran sanctions, no goods, technology, or services may be imported or exported, supplied or sold, directly or indirectly to or from Iran or the Government of Iran. This includes providing financing for import or export transactions with Iran, and brokering transactions that benefit Iran or its government;

  • Oil and Gas:

Under the Iran sanctions, companies may not be involved with petroleum development in Iran. This includes investment and trade in petroleum products from Iran and Iranian oil and gas companies, plus all petroleum and petrochemical companies identified as being under Iranian government control;

  • Financial Transactions:

Under the Iran sanctions, nobody may make any new investments (including loans or extensions of credit) in Iran or Iranian companies, including banks, or perform transactions or contracts with Iran. “U-Turn” transfers involving Iran, where the transfer originates and ends with non-Iranian foreign banks, are also prohibited. U.S. persons may not enter or facilitate entry to Iran. U.S. banks or their foreign branches may not service any financial accounts belonging to the Iranian government or persons in Iran; and

  • Exceptions to the Iran Sanctions:                          

Certain types of goods and services are exempt from the prohibition against transactions with Iran, including gifts of up to US$100 in value and donations of articles intended to relieve human suffering. However, all commercial dealings are restricted.        

The criminal penalties for violating the Iran sanctions or trade embargo including monetary fines up to $10,000,000, freezing and/or seizure of assets, and imprisonment of up to 30 years.

Additionally, on June 9, 2010 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1929 imposing additional international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program and military activities.  The Council passed the measure with 12 out of 15 votes—Turkey and Brazil voted against and Lebanon abstained—in response to Iran’s noncompliance with IAEA nonproliferation safeguards and oversight.  UNSCR 1929 expands the arms embargo on Iran by banning a wider range of conventional arms and equipment related to nuclear proliferation and missile development and by allowing states to search vessels suspected of transporting such cargo to Iran. The resolution also attempts to target Iran’s financial sector, restrict firms linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and restrain Iran’s nuclear proliferation activity.

President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), expanding unilateral US sanctions to target Iran’s energy sector, banking industry, and IRGC activity on July 1, 2010.  The CIA director Leon Panetta had noted that these new sanctions could “help weaken the regime” and “create serious economic problems,” but he cautioned that they would probably not limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Previous sanctions measures have had a limited effect on Iran’s nuclear policy.  The impact of these additional sanctions on Iran’s decision-making and behavior depends greatly on the extent to which the US, foreign nations, private sector companies, and international organizations enforce the provisions of various measures.

Sanctions were imposed against Iran by numerous governments and multinational entities around the world from 1979 to 2012. These sanctions restricted Iran’s energy, financial, and transport sectors and, in the case of the United States, penalized foreign companies and governments that support these sectors.

As a result of the EU embargo and the US sanctions targeting other major importers, Iran’s oil exports had fallen to 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) by May 2013, compared with an average 2.2 million bpd in 2011. In January 2013, Iran’s oil minister acknowledged for the first time that the fall in exports was costing the country between $4bn and $8bn each month. Iran is believed to have suffered a loss of about $26bn in oil revenue in 2012 from a total of $95bn in 2011.

In April 2013, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) would shrink by 1.3 percent in 2013 after contracting by 1.9 percent the previous year.

The White House estimated that Iran’s oil exports would remain at a level of about one million bpd during the six months of the previous interim agreement. It estimated that Iran would accrue $1.5bn during that period from sales of petrochemicals, trading in gold and other precious metals, and the renewed transactions with foreign firms involved in the automotive sector.

Iran wants the UN sanctions suspended soon after any agreement is reached. The loss of oil revenue, which accounted for a half of government expenditure, and isolation from the international banking system, had caused Iran’s currency, the Rial, to lose two-thirds of its value against the US dollar and caused inflation to rise to more than 40 percent, with prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel soaring.

As far as the humanitarian impacts of the sanctions are concerned, pharmaceuticals and medical equipments do not fall under international sanctions but the country is facing shortages of drugs for the treatment of 30 illnesses including cancer, heart and breathing problems, thalassemia and multiple sclerosis (MS) because Iran is not allowed to use the international payment systems. A teenage boy died from hemophilia due to a shortage of medicine caused by the sanctions on Iran. Delivery of some agricultural products to Iran have also been affected for the same set of reasons.

In 2013, The Guardian reported that some 85,000 cancer patients require chemotherapy and radiotherapy which are now scarce. Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by the unintended consequences of international sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and blood clotting agents for hemophiliacs. Western governments have built waivers into the sanctions regime to ensure that essential medicines get through, but those waivers are not functioning, as they conflict with blanket restrictions on banking, as well as bans on “dual-use” chemicals which might have a military application.

In addition, there are 40,000 hemophiliacs who can’t get anti-clotting medicines. Operations on hemophiliacs have been virtually suspended because of the risks created by the shortages. An estimated 23,000 Iranians with HIV/AIDS have had their access to the drugs they need to keep them alive severely restricted. The society representing the 8,000 Iranians suffering from thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder, has said its members are beginning to die because of a lack of an essential drug, deferoxamine, used to control the iron content in the blood. To make matters worse, Iran can no longer buy medical equipment such as autoclaves (sterilizing machines), essential for the production of many drugs because some of the biggest western pharmaceutical companies refuse to have anything to do with Iran.

In recent reports, the development of a medicinal black market has come to the forefront of international news, a desperate population resorting to any means to obtain, at times lifesaving, medications. Though vital medicines are not affected by sanctions directly, the amount of hard currency being made available to the Minister of Health is what’s causing a huge backlash on the amount of vital medicines being made available to the public. Iran’s first female Minister Marziyeh Vahid Dastjerdi (since the Iranian Revolution) was dismissed in December for speaking out against the lack of support from the government in times of economic hardship.

Furthermore, Iranian patients are at risk of amplified side effects and reduced effectiveness because Iran is forced to import more medicines, and chemical building blocks for other medicines, from India and China, thereby replacing the higher quality products from Western manufacturers. Imports from American and European drug makers were down by an estimated 30 percent in 2012 and falling. Given the nature of patents in the world of pharmaceuticals, substitutions for advanced medicines is often unattainable, particularly when it comes to diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

While the US recognized that the new sanctions are wreaking havoc on the Iranian economy, which relies on oil exports for about eighty percent of its public revenue. But while the economic impact of sanctions is becoming apparent, the political impacts have not yet crystallized.

In late 2012, just as President Obama and his aides began secretly sketching out a diplomatic opening to Iran, American intelligence agencies were busy with a parallel initiative: The latest spy-vs.-spy move in the decade-long effort to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.

For the past decade or so, the covert war to halt Iran’s nuclear program has included high-profile assassinations of their top scientists — widely attributed to Israel — and cyberattacks. The assassinations suddenly stopped a few years ago, after they were publicly denounced by the United States. The cyberattack efforts may be continuing, probably at a lower level in the future.

Investigators uncovered an Iranian businessman’s scheme to buy specialty aluminum tubing, a type the United States bans for export to Iran because it can be used in centrifuges that enrich uranium, the exact machines at the center of negotiations entering a crucial phase in Switzerland this week. Rather than halt the shipment, court documents reveal, American agents switched the aluminum tubes for ones of an inferior grade. If installed in Iran’s giant underground production centers, they would have shredded apart, destroying the centrifuges as they revved up to supersonic speed. According to the court documents, in late 2012 the Iranians discovered that cheaper aluminum had been substituted for the tubes, and they complained to a business associate who, it turns out, was an undercover agent.

It is entirely possible that if an accord is reached, President Obama could call a pause in what has been more than a decade of attacks, the most famous of which was a year’s long effort, code-named Olympic Games, which inserted into Iranian facilities the most sophisticated cyberweapons ever deployed. One of them was the Stuxnet worm that disabled about 1,000 centrifuges, but also spread around the world, revealing the program.

Iran’s biggest claim of sabotage centers on its Arak reactor complex, which is still under construction. It is a central issue in the last stages of the negotiations, because if the facility goes into operation, it will create plutonium — a second route to a bomb, and a way to make smaller, often more powerful weapons. Israel has made it clear it will consider attacking the facility the way it destroyed a Syrian reactor in 2007, and the remote site at Arak is ringed by miles of security fences and dozens of antiaircraft batteries.

The ultimate goal of the covert program of industrial sabotage, according to intelligence and weapons specialists, is to produce damage obscure enough to evade easy detection, but extensive enough to result in random failures that seriously impede Iran’s nuclear drive.

But if negotiators succeed in reaching a deal with Iran, does the huge, covert sabotage effort by the United States, Israel and some European allies come to an end? “Probably not,” said one senior official with knowledge of the program. In fact, a number of officials make the case that surveillance of Iran will intensify and covert action may become more important than ever to ensure that Iran does not import the critical materials that would enable it to accelerate the development of advanced centrifuges or pursue a covert path to a bomb.

Here is another perspective on the subject. According to an American analyst, a global conflict between the US, Russia, and China is likely in the coming months should the world powers fail to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Senior editor at the Executive Intelligence Review Jeff Steinberg told Press TV that “If the talks fail, if the agreements being pursued are not successfully carried forward and implemented, then there would be enormous international pressure to drive towards a conflict with Iran before President Obama leaves office and that’s a very great danger that no one can underestimate the importance of”.

“The United States could find itself on one side and Russia and China on the other and those are the kinds of conditions that can lead to miscalculation and general roar,” Steinberg said. “So the danger in this situation is that if these talks don’t go forward, we could be facing a global conflict in the coming months and years and that’s got to be avoided at all costs when you’ve got countries like the United States, Russia, and China with” their arsenals of “nuclear weapons,” he warned. The warning came one day after the White House told Congress not to impose new sanctions against Tehran because failure in talks with Iran could lead to war. 

Resources:

  1. BBC News: Iran Nuclear Deal – Key Points;
  2. World Nuclear Association – Nuclear Power in Iran;
  3. The Guardian – Iran;
  4. World Nuclear Association – Uranium Enrichment;
  5. Foreign Trade Compliance Solutions – Iran Sanctions and Embargoes;
  6. AEI Iran Tracker – Sanctions on Iran – Reaction and Impact;
  7. BBC News – Iran Nuclear Crisis – What are the sanctions;
  8. Wikipedia – Sanctions Against Iran;
  9. The New York Times – Unstated Factor in Iran Talks – Threat of Nuclear Tampering; and
  10. Global Nuclear Conflict between US, Russia, China likely if Iran talks fail.

 Nuclear Deal: Hypocrisy and Obsession – Part 4

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