Republicans Wallop U.S. Over Nuclear Deal as Tehran Violates U.N. Sanctions
State Department pushes back on Foreign Policy magazine report implying United States silent on Iran's efforts to equip nuclear facility with the potential to produce plutonium.
The State Department asserted Monday that it has repeatedly raised concerns about Iran’s efforts to illicitly import supplies for its nuclear facilities, saying that a Foreign Policy report on an Iranian push to buy new supplies for a controversial heavy-water reactor unfairly implied that the United States had remained silent about Tehran’s ongoing efforts to purchase equipment for its nuclear program.
Foreign Policy reported early Monday that the United States recently warned a U.N. panel of experts monitoring Iran’s compliance with U.N. sanctions that Tehran had stepped up its efforts to acquire materials for a research reactor at Iran’s Arak nuclear power facility. The Arak site is of particular concern to American officials because it could potentially be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
A confidential report produced by the eight-member panel of experts noted that an unnamed state briefed them on a decrease by Iran in its efforts to procure supplies for its nuclear enrichment program, but described an increase in efforts to buy equipment for its IR-40 research reactor at the Arak nuclear complex. Diplomats familiar with the report confirmed that the United States had provided the briefing.
The State Department did not challenge FP’s report about Washington’s private warning to the U.N. panel. Still, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and other officials insisted that the United States routinely raises concerns about a range of Iranian violations surrounding its nuclear program, including about the Arak facility.
“We have a regular and ongoing dialogue with the United Nations on sanctions evasions issues related to Iran, and we bring possible issues to its attention when we have relevant information,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told FP.
For instance, Harf noted that since December 2013, one month after the interim nuclear pact was signed, the State Department added four entities to a U.S. sanctions list for their role in supporting construction at Arak. But the official sanctions designations don’t say whether the sanctions violations occurred before or after the Iran began nuclear talks with the United States and other key powers.
The distinction is important because the United States has been highlighting Tehran’s improved cooperation on the nuclear front since nuclear talks began last year. Foreign Policy’s report makes it clear that Iran has intensified its efforts to acquire equipment for the Arak reactor even as it has sought to demonstrate its goodwill by agreeing to halt new construction and other activities at the nuclear facility site.
The Foreign Policy report has sparked concern from the loud chorus of Iran hawks in Congress. On Monday afternoon, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called Iran a “determined cheater, showing no willingness to accept an effective verification regime.”
“Today’s report is that Iran is trying to illicitly acquire components for its ‘plutonium bomb factory’ at Arak,” Royce said. “Iran is not addressing our fundamental verification and enrichment concerns.”
At the heart of the dispute between congressional critics of Iran and the State Department is that a landmark November 2013 interim nuclear deal between Iran and the so-called P5+1 — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States — does not specifically prohibit Tehran from engaging in a range of activities that have been banned by the U.N. Security Council.
In practice, that means that the Obama administration can correctly maintain that Iran is in compliance with the pact even while Tehran continues to flout long-standing Security Council resolutions put in place under the leadership of the United States to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.
The United States has previously raised its concerns in general terms about Iran’s ongoing procurement of components prohibited under Security Council resolutions. Back in March, for instance, Vann Van Diepen, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told Reuters that Iran “still continue[s] very actively trying to procure items for their nuclear program, missile program and other programs.”
United States officials, however, could not cite another instance this year in which they had publically described an increase in efforts by Iran to purchase equipment for the Arak facility.
Facing sharp criticism from Iran’s Republican critics in the wake of the FP report, the State Department found itself in the awkward position of having to defend Tehran’s record of compliance with the interim pact, known as the Joint Plan of Action, of JPOA.
“Iran has kept all of their commitments,” Psaki told reporters Monday, referring to Iran’s agreement last year to freeze aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. “We continue to believe that.”
In an email, Harf said it was “just factually inaccurate that we have not spoken about these concerns publicly; we have, and we have imposed sanctions against those engaged in illicit procurements including even since the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action] was agreed last year. Anyone who suggests otherwise either isn’t paying attention or is trying to advance a specific political agenda.”
Psaki added that America’s lingering concerns about Iran’s nuclear procurement activities underscore the importance of securing a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program — a reference to ongoing talks in Vienna where P5+1 negotiators are trying to secure a deal that encompasses a range of concerns related to Iran’s nuclear program.
“We’ve talked about our concerns about procurement in the past. I’m not going to get into specifics. We know that there are still steps that they need to take and they haven’t gone far enough on. Frankly, that’s why we want a comprehensive agreement,” Psaki said.
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Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch