IAEA Confirms Iran Produces Uranium Metal, Despite Western Warnings

JCPOA forbade any metallurgy, but Iran's work isn't weapons-related

Recent focus on Iran’s civilian nuclear program has been centered on them producing uranium metal, which is being done in spite of warnings from other parties to the nuclear deal that the deal forbids them from doing so.

The clause in the deal specific to this is that “Iran will not engage in activities, including at the R&D level, that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device, including uranium or plutonium metallurgy activities.”

As is so often the case, this is where we get into arguments about technicalities. Iran’s metallurgy is of uranium far below weapons-grade, and could therefore be argued as not contributing to the development of a nuclear explosive device.

More specifically, Iran is turning 20% enriched uranium into uranium oxide fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran wasn’t, under JCPOA, supposed to have to do this themselves, with the deal specifically promising to let them buy the fuel at market prices in return for 3.6% enriched uranium.

Nothing is ever that easy for Iran, however, and since the US pulled out of the JCPOA, Iran has not had access to the market to buy or sell in ways the deal promised. As with the years leading up to JCPOA, Iran went back to making their own, because they didn’t have any alternative.

As with a lot of the “violations” Iran is accused of, it really boils down to the JCPOA having a mechanism to avoid it, and the mechanism flat out not working. This is similarly how Iran’s uranium and heavy water stockpiles grew beyond their caps, because no one would buy them as promised.

Instead of recognizing the system’s struggles, which almost all originate in the US not honoring its part of the deal, most nations just browbeat Iran, and demand they take non-specific action to get back in technical compliance with an impossible situation.

The uranium metal hits this very specific issue because Iran was never meant to have to make metal fuel plates, and the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) was meant to be replaced with an alternative, modern design using heavy water, which also never happened.

The TRR, built by the US in the 1960’s, is the sole source of medical isotopes for the entire country, and while it’s long past its expected lifespan, Iran hasn’t been able to get an alternative in place. Iran originally tried to build a reactor in Arak, with help from a Russian company. The company was scared off by US pressure, and Iran finished the design, planning for it to go into production in 2014.

The US didn’t like the design of the IR-40 reactor, however, and JCPOA demanded a redesign, with assistance from the other parties. In 2016 Iran removed the IR-40’s core, pending redesign. Iran is still waiting on that.

The Arak farce is another case of Iran not being able to satisfy anyone. Because everyone was making a fuss at the TRR using 20% enriched uranium, IR-40 was designed to use unenriched uranium. Then the objection was byproducts, leading to the then director of the IAEA suggesting a redesign that used enriched uranium instead. The most recent talk was that Iran would export all the waste, and China would redesign it to produce more acceptable waste. Until a redesign, however, Iran is stuck with the TRR, and objections about 20% uranium, and metal fuel plates.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for Antiwar.com. He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.