Republican dig at Iran deal jeopardizes effort to keep government open

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Article Summary
Congressional efforts to ban future purchases of heavy water from Iran could complicate efforts to avoid a government shutdown.

A Republican maneuver affecting the nuclear deal with Iran could complicate efforts to avert a US government shutdown Friday.

The House of Representatives is taking up spending legislation this week that would keep the government open until early next year. The bill incorporates measures agreed to in the House earlier this summer, including a provision that stipulates that no US funds “may be used to purchase heavy water from Iran.”

The measure is but the latest example of US policymakers undermining some of the financial benefits Tehran hoped to derive from the 2015 agreement. The provision also gives Democrats additional incentive to kill the spending bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), in the Senate, where many lawmakers already have objections because it only funds nondefense programs through January.

"I don’t think we should be doing much in the way of legislating in the CR unless it’s something that’s had some serious consideration,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, told Al-Monitor.

The Barack Obama administration generated considerable congressional backlash when the Department of Energy purchased 32 metric tons of Iranian heavy water for $8.6 million last year. Republicans argue that buying Iran’s stockpile incentivizes the country's nuclear program.

“The United States should not use taxpayer money to subsidize Iran’s dangerous nuclear activities through the purchase of heavy water,” Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said in a July statement after the House passed his measure. “We must ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the Obama administration by enabling this Islamist regime."

While a heavy water purchasing ban would not violate the Iran nuclear accord, Democrats have previously opposed similar Republican efforts in previous spending bills.

Obama’s heavy water purchase prompted Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to try to attach a similar amendment to a Senate spending bill last year. Cotton did not garner enough Democratic support to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, and his amendment failed 57-42.

Defenders of the deal say Republican concerns are overblown.

“That was a one-time deal and it was told to the Iranians that it was a one-time deal,” said Corey Hinderstein, who served on the Iran Task Force at the Department of Energy until this month.

Iran continues to produce heavy water for industrial and medicinal applications, such as the production of medical isotopes. The nuclear accord required Iran to fill the core of its Arak heavy water reactor with concrete to cease its plutonium production.

The deal allows Tehran to stockpile up to 130 metric tons of heavy water. Iran exceeded that limit by less than one metric ton in both February and November of last year.

To remain in compliance with the deal’s limits, Iran has transported excessive heavy water to Oman, hoping to sell it to other countries for research and development. The United States and other countries use heavy water for research, as well as in industrial activities such as pharmaceuticals and electronics.

"There's a large market, but the United States is actually approximately 70% of the market for heavy water for non-nuclear use,” said Hinderstein, who currently serves as vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “The Iranians see this as a potential economically viable pursuit. I would argue it probably hasn’t proven to be so far.”

Regardless of congressional attempts to outlaw such sales, the right-wing Washington Free Beacon reported last month that President Donald Trump has already decided not to pursue any additional heavy water purchases from Iran.

Despite US demand for heavy water, Iran is also trying to sell its surplus reserves to other countries. Shortly after the US sale, Tehran entered into talks with Russia to sell 40 metric tons of heavy water to Moscow. Neither Tehran nor Moscow have publicly confirmed that any transaction resulted from the talks. 

“Iran is actively marketing their heavy water,” Hinderstein told Al-Monitor. “They have had events in Vienna around the International Atomic Energy Agency where they have talked about the heavy water they have for sale.”

Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s criticism of the nuclear deal has complicated Iran’s efforts to use its heavy water to generate additional income.

“There are a lot of concerns about the future of the Iran deal and there are probably concerns on the part of countries and companies whether they want to engage in long-term business arrangements with Iran,” said Hinderstein. “I think some stability with regard to [the Iran deal] would help with Iranian markets but we just haven’t seen that right now.”

Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the pro-deal Arms Control Association, agreed that the Trump administration’s repeated threats to leave or alter the deal have had a chilling effect on potential buyers.

“The nuclear deal with Iran does not require states to purchase heavy water to keep Iran in compliance with the deal, but the United States did commit not to engage in any policies that would obstruct states from engaging in legitimate business transactions,” Davenport told Al-Monitor. “So the risks and the uncertainty surrounding the future of the deal, if that is an impediment to countries purchasing heavy water, that’s problematic.”

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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