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Heavy Water Controversy

The Iran nuclear deal was officially implemented in January, but the controversy hasn’t ended. The White House and Congress are again at odds over a by-product of the deal—the fate of Iran’s heavy water, which can be used as a moderator and coolant in a nuclear reactor. Tehran had shipped 32 metric tons of heavy water to Oman, where it was stuck without a final destination.
 
In a bid to protect the deal and prevent Iran's use of heavy water in a covert operation, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would purchase the heavy water, worth $8.6 million. The deal was signed by U.S. and Iranian officials in Vienna, Austria on April 22. “The idea is: OK, we tested it, it's perfectly good heavy water. It meets spec. We'll buy a little of this,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told The Wall Street Journal. “That will be a statement to the world: ‘You want to buy heavy water from Iran, you can buy heavy water from Iran. It's been done. Even the United States did it.'”
 
But Congressional Republicans opposed the move and quickly moved to block future purchases. “For Tehran, the nuclear agreement is the gift that keeps on giving. This purchase—part of what appears to be the administration's full-court press to sweeten the deal—will directly subsidize Iran's nuclear program,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said on April 22. “It's yet another unprecedented concession to the world's leading state-sponsor of terrorism.”
 
As part of the nuclear deal, Iran is allowed to use heavy water in its Arak reactor, which is still undergoing modifications, but it is required to sell, dilute or dispose of any excess heavy water. Heavy water, which is not radioactive, is key to the production of nuclear energy in some reactors. It also has research and medical applications. But heavy water reactors are also capable of producing plutonium, which can fuel nuclear weapons.
 
The United States does not currently produce its own heavy water and must buy it from other countries. To save money, it closed a heavy water plant at Savannah River National Laboratory in Georgia in 1981. The heavy water from Iran is to be stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where it will be used for research. Some of the water could also be sold to private companies for commercial use.
 
The Department of Energy stipulated that future purchases would not be automatic. “The United States will not be Iran’s customer forever,” it said in a statement. “It is exclusively Iran’s responsibility to find a way to meet its commitments, whether that is by selling, diluting or disposing of future stocks of heavy water to remain within the [nuclear deal’s] limit.”
 
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) said the United States should not provide Iran with any more funds that could be used to develop its nuclear program or export terror. “U.S. purchase of this sensitive material goes well beyond what is required by the nuclear agreement.  Far from curbing its nuclear program, this encourages Iran to produce more heavy water to sell – with a stamp of U.S. approval – on the international market,” he said. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) called the purchase a “dangerous precedent” that could “pave the way for either additional transactions with Iran or allow Iran to enter the U.S. financial system.”
 
On April 25, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) filed an amendment to the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriation Act that would prohibit the future purchase of heavy water from Iran. On April 26, Senator Cotton released the following statement related to the heavy water purchase:
 
“The Obama Administration stated that this purchase is a one-time deal and the United States will not become a repeat customer of Iran's over-production of heavy water. Regrettably, it's become difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to President Obama sidling up to Iran. It seems the president will go to any lengths to protect his nuclear deal. This amendment would simply hold his Administration to its promise by ensuring that taxpayer dollars cannot be used again for the same purpose. We've given the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime enough concessions at the risk of our security; we should not further subsidize its enrichment activity by making repeated purchases of this material.”
 
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest warned on April 27 that “ideologically motivated policy riders are not appropriate for appropriations bills.” He said that Senator Cotton “is certainly no expert” on heavy water. “I'm confident that he couldn’t differentiate heavy-water from sparkling water. His focus is on undermining the effective implementation of this agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” 
 
On April 27, Senate Democrats blocked the $37.5 billion funding bill to prevent a vote on Cotton’s amendment. The vote to shut off debate on the bill was 50 to 46, and 60 votes would have been needed to advance the bill. Cotton said he offered to subject his amendment to a 60-vote threshold. “The Cotton amendment as written is a poison pill,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said after a meeting with his colleagues. “The Cotton amendment on this bill would make it veto-bait.”
 
The Obama administration, backed by most Senate Democrats, argued that it would be better for the United States to buy the heavy water than allow it go on the open market, given the potential proliferation risk. “We know it’s politically charged, we also know it’s not in the best national security interests of the United States for us to let this heavy water go into the global market,” Durbin said.
 
On April 28, Cotton criticized Press Secretary Earnest for questioning his knowledge of the nuclear deal with Iran. “This guy at the White House may think it's a laughing matter to subsidize Iran's nuclear program, but I don't. I think it's a very serious matter,” Cotton said on MSNBC's “Morning Joe.” He argued that the United States is not obligated to take Iran’s heavy water or “provide U.S. taxpayer dollars to Iran's nuclear program for that heavy water.”
 
Russia may become the second buyer of Iran’s nuclear material. On April 25, Moscow announced that it was planning to buy 40 metric tons of heavy water.
 
The following are excerpted remarks by State Department Press Office Director Elizabeth Trudeau on the purchase from an April 22 briefing.
 
MS TRUDEAU: This heavy water will fulfill a substantial portion of the U.S. domestic demand this year for industry and domestic research applications. This material is not radioactive and does not present safety concerns. This transaction provides U.S. industry with a critical product while also enabling Iran to sell some of its excess heavy water, as contemplated in the JCPOA. Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA meant this material had already been removed from Iran, ensuring it would not be used to support the development of a nuclear weapon.
 
Our purchase of the heavy water means it will instead be used for critically important research in non-nuclear industrial requirements here in the United States. We expect the heavy water to be delivered to the U.S. in the coming week, initially stored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then resold to – at commercially reasonable prices to domestic commercial and research buyers.
 
So on technical details about what heavy water is and details on its implementation, I’m going to refer you to the Department of Energy, but I will say heavy water is used in the development, production, and sale of compounds used in chemistry, biomedical and diagnostic research, environmental analysts, and physics.
 
So I know you had a question too on U.S. domestic reaction, and our response would be no. This was actually an allowable event that happened. So the U.S. was under no obligation to purchase heavy water from Iran, nor is it obligated to do so in the future, but the JCPOA required Iran to reduce its heavy water inventory below the 130 metric ton limit. One way to do that was to sell the excess to countries or companies. And I’d just note in the future it’s possible other countries may wish to purchase that. This was a purchase that was arranged through the Department of Energy for that.
 
QUESTION: House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce was – is among those who have been critical, saying the deal actually encourages Iran to produce more heavy water to sell. House Speaker Paul Ryan also had some criticism, saying it seemed to be part of an effort to sweeten the nuclear deal with Iran and would directly subsidize Iran’s nuclear program. Is there a State concern about this criticism in that the U.S. may be seen as enabling Iran with this purchase?
 
MS TRUDEAU: No. This limit ensures Iran cannot stockpile heavy water for use in a covert reaction. The IAEA’s monitoring and verification measures will ensure that we know if Iran attempts to exceed the limit or divert any of the heavy water for illicit production of plutonium. So, no.
QUESTION: But aren’t you concerned that some of this “under 10 million” will fund terrorist activities in the future?
 

MS TRUDEAU: So we’ve talked about this quite extensively from this podium, as well as elsewhere, Lucas. No one’s blind to Iran’s unhelpful activities in the region. On this, what we can say is this was a commercial transaction, it was allowable, it fills a need here in the United States. 

 

 

Zarif Calls on UN to Intervene with US

Iran has called on the United Nations to intervene with the U.S. government over two court rulings that held Iran financially responsible for terrorist attacks. On April 28, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling on him to convince the United States to release frozen Iranian assets and stop interfering with Iranian financial transactions outside the United States. “I wish to call on Your Excellency to lend your good offices in order to induce the US Government to adhere to its international obligations,” wrote Zarif. He warned that the court decisions would have “catastrophic implications” and “will cause systematic erosion” of the principal of state immunity. He cited two recent cases:
 
· In Re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, 03-cv-09848, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan): On March 9, Judge George Daniels ordered Iran to pay more than $10.5 billion to families of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to a group of insurers. Daniels found that Iran failed to defend claims that it assisted the hijackers and was therefore liable for damages.
 
· Bank Markazi, aka the Central Bank of Iran, v. Deborah Peterson, et al., U.S. Supreme Court: On April 20, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a judgement that held Iran financially responsible for terrorist attacks dating back to the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut. The court ruled 6-2 in favor of more than 1,300 relatives of the 241 service members who were killed in Lebanon as well as other victims of attacks that courts have linked to Iran, such as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.
 
Zarif also warned that Iran reserves the right to take counter-measures. He argued that the United States “must pay long overdue reparations to the Iranian people” for overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, supporting the shah, helping Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, and the shooting down of an Iranian civil airliner in 1988.
 
On April 29, U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner acknowledged that the United States was aware of the letter. “To the extent that this letter was prompted by the recent Supreme Court decision in the Bank Markazi v. Peterson case, we believe the U.S. laws and the application of those laws by the courts ... comport with international law,” he said.
 
The following is the full text of Zarif’s letter to the secretary general.
 
Excellency,
 
In the past few years, the United States has persistently engaged in a dangerous practice of defying international law and order by allowing, in fact instigating, private litigants to bring civil action before U.S domestic courts against sovereign states, including the Islamic Republic of Iran. Trials have been organized in absentia; self-serving judgments have been obtained in default; and claims have been laid on the assets of the Iranian people. Knowing full well that no self-respecting nation, certainly not Iran, would ever subject itself to the jurisdiction of another state's domestic courts, they have amassed billions of dollars in unlawful and factually flawed default judgements against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its organs.
 
The U.S Executive branch illegally freezes Iranian national assets; the U.S Legislative branch legislates to pave the ground for their illicit seizures; and the U.S Judicial branch issues rulings to confiscate Iranian assets without any base in law or fact.  The veracity and credibility of the US justice system -- when it comes to its treatment of Iran -- can be measured by the recent ruling of a New York District Court that ordered Iran to pay more than $10.5 billion in damages to the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, claiming against all evidence and common sense that Iran "provided active support to the attackers." Such absurd allegation – not by a politician but regrettably by a so-called court of law—contradicts even public statements as well as findings – open or sealed -- of investigations by the US Government and US Congress. Ironically the same court absolved the real culprits of any responsibility and ruled against Iran, which was the victim of the same terrorist group and has consistently been in the forefront of international efforts against them and their Takfiri extremist siblings.
 
In sum, in blatant contravention of the most fundamental principles of international law – not to mention facts, the United States has devised a pseudo-legal scheme that subjects Iranian assets held in US and foreign banks, and even Iranian cultural property held on loan by American museums, to spurious rulings and unlawful collection proceedings.
 
Excellency,
 
The principle of state immunity is one of the cornerstones of the international legal order and a rule of customary international law, most recently codified in the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property. Its primacy has also been recognized by the community of nations, all legal systems and the International Court of Justice. With the sole possible permissible exception of "commercial activity", claims against a sovereign state must be pursued either in accordance with mechanisms provided for in bilateral or multilateral agreements or through international courts or tribunals, as appropriate. 
 
It is a matter of grave concern that the United States Congress, along with other branches of the U.S Government, seem to believe that they can easily defy and breach the fundamental principle of state immunity, by unilaterally waiving the immunity of states and even Central Banks in total contravention of the international obligations of the United States and under a groundless legal doctrine that the international community does not recognize.
In view of the detrimental effect of such practices on the integrity of the international public order, I wish to alert you and through you the UN general membership about the catastrophic implications of the US blatant disrespect for state immunity, which will cause systematic erosion of this fundamental principle.
 
The Islamic Republic of Iran rejects the unlawful decisions by US courts in this respect, including the ruling that authorized the confiscation of nearly 1.8 billion US Dollars of assets belonging to the Central Bank of Iran to the benefit of private litigants. The entire court proceedings which led to the recent ruling has been fake and phony and a travesty of justice in every sense of law, jurisdiction, merit, fact and process. This clearly constitutes an international wrongful act and entails international responsibility for the Government of the United States, for which it will be held accountable. The Islamic Republic of Iran holds the United States Government responsible for this outrageous robbery, disguised under a court order, and is determined to take every lawful measure to restore the stolen property and the interest accrued to it from the date it was blocked by the United States.
 
It is in fact the United States that must pay long overdue reparations to the Iranian people for its persistent hostile policies. Such wrongful US policies and actions against Iranian people, entailing international responsibility, are self-admitted and based on solid historical evidence and not absurd fabrications. They include overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, actively supporting and sponsoring the ensuing brutal dictatorship and aiding and abetting in its crimes – including tortures by US-created and US-trained SAVAK -- against the Iranian people from 1953 to 1979, actively providing intelligence, support and comfort to Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Iran from 1980 to 1988, including provision of AWACS reconnaissance to aid Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians – which amounts to a war crime , deliberate shooting of an Iranian civil airliner in 1988, killing all 290 passengers, and the plundering of Iranian assets held abroad. The Islamic Republic of Iran reserves the right to take appropriate lawful action, including necessary and proportionate countermeasures, to restore and protect the rights of the Iranian people against such persistent unlawful conduct by the United States.
 
Mr. Secretary-General,
 
There has seldom been so much at stake for the rule of law, the proper functioning and integrity of the international legal and financial systems, and the prevalence of dialogue and accommodation over coercion and confrontation.  In view of the detrimental effects of continued unlawful conduct by the United States, I wish to call on Your Excellency to lend your good offices in order to induce the US Government to adhere to its international obligations, put an end to the violation of the fundamental principle of state immunity, release all frozen Iranian assets in US banks and cease and desist forthwith from any interference with Iranian commercial and financial transactions outside the United States, in compliance with its general international obligations and its obligations under the JCPOA.
 
I will be grateful if this letter were circulated as a document of the General Assembly under agenda item entitled “Rule of law at the national and international levels” and of the Security Council.
 
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
 
M. Javad Zarif

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran 

 

Photo credit: Robin Wright

 

Iran’s Runoff Election for Parliament

Iran holds the second round of its 2016 parliamentary elections on April 29. In 55 constituencies across the country, 136 candidates are competing for 68 remaining seats. These candidates did not meet the threshold of 25 percent of the vote in the first round in February. According to the Interior Ministry, 15,350 polling stations will be open and 19 million new ballots have been printed for the runoff.
 
The campaign period began on April 21 and extends until April 28. There are reportedly 25 incumbents running in this round. There were no official results published from the first round, but an unofficial tally by Agence France-Press estimated that conservatives won 103 seats, reformists and centrists won 99 seats, and independents and religious minorities won 19 seats. The outcome of the second round could tip the balance in favor of one of the camps and impact the speakership selection.  
 
One reformist winner, Minoo Khaleghi, was disqualified by the Guardian Council one month after the election. The Council did not give an official reason for her disqualification, although some have speculated that a photo of her shaking hands with a man and not wearing a hijab might have triggered the decision. She was one of 14 women elected in the first round. It has not yet been announced how her seat will be filled.
 
 
The open seats in this election are mostly from smaller towns, although some larger cities like Tabriz and Shiraz will also have contests. Isfahan’s runoff election has been postponed to a later date. There is no runoff vote in Tehran, where all 30 seats were filled by centrist and reformist candidates on the List of Hope in February. The list was headed by Mohammad Reza Aref, a former presidential candidate and vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami.
 

In Iran, voter turnout for runoff elections are typically lower than for the initial round. In February’s first round of elections, voter turnout was 62% according to the Interior Minister. Reformists predict that conservatives will have difficulty increasing their turnout, as the 38 percent of eligible voters who stayed home during the first round are likely apolitical or boycotting the election. The reformist bloc is fielding 58 candidates in the runoff and says it needs to win 40 seats to gain an advantage in the next parliament, which convenes on May 27. 

 
Tweets from Election Day
 

UN Experts: Iran Denying Medical Treatment to Political Prisoners

On April 27, a group of U.N. human rights experts released a statement criticizing Iran’s denial of adequate medical treatment to political prisoners. They cited the case of physicist Omid Kokabee, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for alleged “connections with a hostile government.” Diagnosed with kidney cancer, his right kidney was recently surgically removed. The U.N. experts said that the procedure could have been avoided if he had received proper treatment at an earlier stage.  

 
The following is the full text of the statement.
 
GENEVA (27 April 2016) – A group of United Nations human rights experts* today warned that over a dozen political prisoners in Iran, including some prominent human rights defenders, lawyers and political activists, are at risk of death in detention due to their worsening health conditions and the continued refusal by the Iranian authorities to provide them with medical treatment.
 
“The condition of several prisoners of conscience with serious health problems has been exacerbated by their continued detention and by repeated refusals to allow their access to the medical facilities and treatment they so urgently require,” the experts said.
 
“The denial of medical care, physical abuse, either in overcrowded prisons or in solitary confinement and other forms of torture and ill-treatment exposes prisoners to risk of serious injuries and death,” they said noting that “unfortunately, Iranian prisons are no strangers to such tragedies, many of which could have been avoided if authorities exercised proper care.”
 
The UN experts highlighted the cases of political prisoners Mohammad Hossein Rafiee Fanood and Kamal Foroughi, human rights defender Nargis Mohammadi, lawyer Abdulfattah Soltani, blogger Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, religious figure Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi and experimental laser physicist Omid Kokabee.
 
Mr. Kokabee was arrested in January 2011 upon his return from studies in the United States and is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence for his alleged ‘connections with a hostile government’. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer and recently underwent surgery to remove his right kidney, a procedure that could have been avoided, had he been provided with adequate and timely access to proper treatment at an earlier stage. When the care is ultimately provided, as Mr Kokabee’s case, patients are often transferred to and from prisons chained to their beds.
 
“The situation of these prisoners and the continued disregard for their health and well-being by the Iranian authorities is completely unacceptable,” the experts stressed. “This is especially the case given that allegedly all of them have been arrested, detained and convicted purely for their peaceful exercise of their fundamental freedoms and rights.”
 
“We urge the authorities to consider the release of Mr Kokabee and other political prisoners on medical or humanitarian grounds and to ensure their well-being by facilitating regular access to medical care,” they said.
 
The human rights experts reminded the Iranian Government of its obligations under international standards to respect the prisoners’ right to health and to ensure their humane treatment. “Failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners is in breach of Iran’s international human rights obligations and domestic standards,” they underscored.
 
“We have repeatedly drawn the attention of the Iranian authorities to allegations related to the denial of access to medical care and to substandard conditions of detention and urged them to embark on a more comprehensive prison reform. We regret that the Government has so far failed to properly investigate these allegations and take the necessary measures,” the human rights experts concluded.
 
(*) The experts: Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Mr. Dainius Pūras, UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. Juan E. Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, Chair-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

 

 

Khamenei Comments on US, Gulf States, Shakespeare

The tweets from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei covered a full range of subjects in April 2016, from a celebration on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death to angry accusations about the United States undermining the Iran nuclear deal. He also used his Twitter account to comment on tensions with Saudi Arabia and defend Hezbollah. The following is a collection of his monthly tweets.
 
The United States and Western Powers
 

 

 
Response to Organization of Islamic Cooperation Statement
 
Tensions between Iran and other Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia, erupted at the 13th summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) of 57 countries. The final communique, issued April 15, “deplored Iran’s interference” in the affairs of other countries and its “continued support for terrorism,” including the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Iran held Saudi Arabia responsible for the statement.
 
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States
 
 
Development and Islamic Civilization
 

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