By Fred Fleitz — October 28, 2015
Amid growing indications that Iran does not plan to comply with the July nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), there is a new report that the huge U.S. concessions offered to Tehran to get this agreement are already undermining global efforts against nuclear proliferation.
One of the most significant of these concessions allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium even while the JCPOA is in effect. This contradicts years of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to halt all uranium enrichment, and previous U.S. policies that have strongly discouraged nations from beginning peaceful uranium-enrichment programs due to the ease with which they can be used to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
Although Obama-administration officials deny it, this concession has been interpreted by Iran and other nations as conceding to Iran the “right” to enrich uranium. Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Review in August that this denial is hard to take seriously, since John Kerry conceded Iran’s right to enrich in 2009, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The chickens have already come home to roost on the uranium-enrichment concession: The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which in 2009 signed an agreement with the U.S. barring it from pursuing uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, is now considering renouncing these commitments.
On January 15, 2009, just before President George W. Bush left office, his administration signed an agreement to share peaceful nuclear technology with the UAE (known as a Section 123 agreement), which prohibits UAE uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. After renegotiating these provisions to strengthen them, the Obama administration signed an amended version of the agreement with the UAE in May 2009. In October 2009, the UAE adopted legislation to permanently forgo the acquisition of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.
The UAE’s language barring uranium enrichment is so strong that it has been called the “gold standard” of 123 agreements. The hope was that this agreement would become a template for all future U.S. agreements to share peaceful nuclear technology.
The Obama administration began to back away from the “gold standard” language in 2011, when it decided, over the objections of Congress, to no longer pursue blanket prohibitions on uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing in 123 agreements, deciding instead to negotiate these issues on a case-by-case basis. Senator (then Representative) Ed Markey (D., Mass.) and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton denounced this decision at the time in a February 10, 2012 Christian Science Monitor op-ed titled, “How an Obama shift helps unstable regimes get nuclear weapons.”
Despite this flip-flop on the “gold standard” 123 language, the UAE until now has stood by its promise not to pursue uranium enrichment.
During a September 2015 hearing, however, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce said UAE ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al-Otaiba told him that his country no longer felt bound to its commitment not to pursue uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing due to concessions made to Iran in the JCPOA. Royce told the Associated Press that al-Otaiba told him, “Your worst enemy has achieved this right to enrich. It’s a right to enrich now that your friends are going to want, too, and we won’t be the only country.”
Royce explained that he interpreted al-Otaiba’s comment as meaning the UAE believed it had the right to walk away from its 123-agreement commitments and was considering doing so. The UAE embassy responded to an AP query about this issue with a one-sentence e-mail that said “the government has not formally changed its views or perspective on the 123 Agreement or commitments.”
Reports that the UAE may renege on its agreement not to pursue uranium enrichment confirm what critics of the JCPOA predicted — that the Obama administration has made unacceptable and dangerous promises to Iran that will both worsen the nuclear threat from Iran and undermine nuclear non-proliferation efforts worldwide.
In a March 2015 BBC interview, Saudi Arabian prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, said that his country and others would want the same nuclear rights awarded to Iran in the nuclear talks. According to Prince Turki, “If Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that.”
The Saudi prince predicted that concessions to Iran would lead nations all over the world to pursue uranium enrichment when he told the BBC, “The whole world will be an open door to go that route without any inhibition, and that’s my main objection to this P5+1 [the six world powers] process.” Since the JCPOA has conveyed what is widely regarded as Iran’s right to enrich uranium, I fear Prince Turki is right that the deal will make it difficult if not impossible to bar other states from pursuing it as well.
In addition to these warnings by Prince Turki, there have been reports that Saudi Arabia may buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan in response to the nuclear deal with Iran.
As the UAE’s reported plan to renege on its commitment suggests, the JCPOA is likely to lead to new nuclear-proliferation risks in the Middle East and around the world as other nations seek to exercise their uranium-enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing “rights.” Given how far America’s prestige has sunk under President Obama, I believe there is a good chance Russia and China are already discussing deals to help these nations develop nuclear technologies to exercise these rights.
January 20, 2017, cannot come fast enough to reverse this disastrous Obama foreign-policy legacy.
— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst, followed the Iranian nuclear program for the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. He is senior vice president for policy and programs at the Center for Security Policy. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz