Trust: U.S. doesn’t know where enriched uranium shipped from Iran is; ‘Russian custody’ issue

Trust: U.S. doesn’t know where enriched uranium shipped from Iran is; ‘Russian custody’ issue
Controlled entrance to the "secret city" of Seversk, where even Russians can't come and go freely. Seversk is one of four sites hosting Russian nuclear fuel-cycle facilities, and -- in contrast to similar U.S. sites -- remains entirely unsafeguarded by IAEA. (Image: Dmitry Afonin via Wikimedia Commons)

доверяй, но проверяй.

Doveryay, no proveryay.  Trust, but verify.  These words of a Russian proverb were Reagan’s slogan in negotiating arms-reduction agreements with the former Soviet Union.

Obama has deployed the “trust but verify” reference more than once in his public statements on foreign policy – including his pitch on the Iran “nuclear deal” in July 2015.

But as with most other things related to that “deal,” the aspect of actually tracking what happens to Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) – a stockpile big enough for half a dozen nuclear weapons – has gone by the wayside.

Iran shipped nearly 9 tons of LEU to Russia in December 2015, and now the U.S. doesn’t know where it is.

A State Department official told lawmakers Thursday he was unsure of the precise location of tons of low-enriched uranium shipped out of Iran on a Russian vessel as part of the landmark nuclear agreement.

Ambassador Stephen Mull, the lead U.S. official overseeing the deal’s implementation, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the stockpile is a Russian custody issue. He said the U.S. is confident the material will be controlled properly.

Before proceeding, let us take a moment to recall that Iran didn’t just ship the LEU out for nothing.  Russia provided Iran 140 tons of uranium in exchange for the shipment.  Since virtually all of Iran is closed off to inspection by IAEA, we will have no true accountability on what happens to that uranium.

But let’s get back to trusting the Russians on the control of nuclear material.  In theory, Russia, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including the “Additional Protocol,” owes IAEA an accounting of what is done with the LEU from Iran.  That accounting includes on-site inspections.

But Russia has no agreement with IAEA for “safeguards implementation” (including inspections) at her uranium enrichment and storage facilities, and since 1994, hasn’t authorized a single such inspection.  (The U.S. has authorized more than 500 in that period.)

The one exception is a new international “uranium fuel bank” site at Angarsk, Russia, where Russia proposes to store LEU for use by NPT member states.  Russia has an enrichment plant and storage facility of her own at Angarsk, but there is no agreement with IAEA to inspect those.  Since the inauguration of the “fuel bank” in 2010, IAEA has performed a first safeguards inspection in 2012, and another one in 2015.

In neither case were the Russian national facilities inspected.  Although there was early discussion of Russia agreeing to safeguards (potentially including inspections), the agreement has never materialized.  In May 2015, UN documentation showed that the safeguards agreement for Angarsk applied only to the fuel bank storage facility.

Now, the fuel bank at Angarsk may well be where the Iranian LEU goes.  But the “trust but verify” approach would recognize that with Russian industrial facilities co-located with an international uranium fuel bank, it’s kind of a no-brainer to make safeguards at the Russian national sites, including IAEA inspections, a condition of approving the fuel bank.

That didn’t happen in the approval stage for the fuel bank.  It’s the sort of thing only the United States could have made happen.  But in the Age of Obama, it’s all trust, no verify.

This is aside from the point that Russia is setting herself up to become an imposing repository of uranium, whose door supplicant states will someday have to flock to – which, hey, you can’t blame a gal for doing.  But let’s not digress too far.

Another big dent in Russia’s verification profile is her decision not to attend Obama’s 2016 nuclear security summit, which starts at the end of March.  What’s problematic for the Russians is the security element in nuclear security.  In their view, it seems to portend “interference” with IAEA’s good work.  According to a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman:

While preparing for the 2016 summit, its organizers have changed the core conception of the event by suggesting to develop some sort of ‘punishment’ for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, as well as for the UN, Interpol, and the Global Partnership.

In other words, the summit organizers want to give the nuclear watchdog agencies teeth, at some level.  If you know anything about the UN, you know that such “teeth” never amount to much, because nobody can agree on much.  But Russia doesn’t even want to talk about it.

Should it be talked about?  That’s an interesting question.  But what matters is how far apart the U.S. and Russia are on the principle of the thing.  The U.S., even under Obama, practices what we preach about NPT compliance and nuclear fuel transparency.  Russia doesn’t – and Russia even objects to discussing an increase in enforcement options for security’s sake.

This, again, is aside from other salient issues, such as Russia’s long history of cheating on arms control agreements with the United States.  Especially relevant, in these days of geopolitical volatility, is what Russia did during her invasion of Ukraine in 2014: threaten to suspend site inspections under the New START strategic arms agreement.  As with the Russian posture on nuclear security, it shows a fundamentally different view, on the Russian side, of what’s important about these core agreements.

(In case that’s not clear enough: it shows that Russia sees them mainly as a way to immobilize the United States.  Protection for Russia is not the first principle.  If it were, the Russians wouldn’t be so cavalier about tossing it aside.)

Yet Obama is satisfied to “trust” Russia with Iran’s LEU, and be completely uninterested in verifying what happens to it.  Ironically, we had a better handle on where the Iranian LEU was a couple of months ago, when it was in Iran.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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