Heavy Water Purchase Adds Fuel to Criticism of White House’s Iran Policy

Specifically, the article reacted to the White House’s announcement that it had directed the Department of Energy to purchase 32 tons of heavy water produced by the Islamic Republic, at a total cost of 8.6 million dollars in taxpayer money. In the view of Western Journalism contributor Yochanan Visser, this move effectively causes the American people to subsidize Iran’s violation of the nuclear deal.

That is, the provisions of the agreement restrict Iran’s stockpiles of nuclear material including low-enriched uranium and heavy water, but the American purchase has been described as helping the Islamic Republic to get its current heavy water stockpiles back down below this limit. The Obama administration is evidently content with Iran exceeding that limit as long as it believes that a good faith effort is being made to offload the surplus. But meanwhile, some critics of the Obama administration, including much of the Republican-dominated Congress, believe that Iran shouldn’t be producing any heavy water at all.

Furthermore, Visser emphasizes that the heavy water issue is substantially connected to a slightly earlier criticisms of the White House’s Iran policy, namely the prospect that Iran might be granted access to the US financial system. The article notes that administration officials have failed to specify how the US will make payment to Iran for the heavy water. If the money comes directly from US banks or is provided in dollars, it will effectively legitimize congressional concerns that the administration is planning to change existing Treasury Department rules that prevent direct interchange between the American and Iranian financial systems.

This could in turn add additional fuel to broader criticisms of the policies of the American executive. An editorial that appeared at Huffington Post on Tuesday gave voice to some such criticisms, saying that recent Obama administration policies signify a “clear tilt toward Tehran.” The article claims that “in the last few months, every [illicit] action from Iran [was] either ignored by the Obama administration with no comments from the White House, or justified by the White House [with the argument] that Iranian leaders were taking actions to address those issues.”

The Western Journalism article clearly counts heavy water production among these illicit Iranian activities, with the White House justifying overproduction on the basis of the Iranians looking for a buyer and ultimately finding one in the US itself. And while this gives the Islamic Republic room to maneuver on the nuclear deal, the Huffington Post article claims that by urging US allies to limit their confrontations with Iran, the Obama administration is giving it room the maneuver on regional issues such as its involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

That “room to maneuver” may explain IranWire’s observation on Tuesday that Iranian military and government officials had recently been publicly boastful of their role in the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Although there have been varied claims about the extent of Iran’s participation in the fighting, it has long been understood that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was playing a lead role in directing pro-Assad fighting forces, which are comprised of the remnants of the Syrian army, plus Shiite militias that were largely recruited and trained by Iran, albeit from a variety of national backgrounds.

But in early April, Iranian state media began to acknowledge that some fighters had been dispatched to Syria from Iran’s regular army. It was the first time that the army, which operates separately from the Revolutionary Guards, had been deployed for foreign combat operations since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

However, IranWire also notes that later in April, Iranian media began to walk back these reports, no longer boasting about the growing involvement of multiple Iranian forces, but instead remaining vague about the nature and extent of Iran’s involvement. While it may be easy to imagine that this change in tone would come in response to foreign scrutiny or US-led punitive measures, this does not appear to be the present case.

Indeed, the US has given Iran an ever-greater role in the political talks over the future of Syria, regardless of the extent of Iran’s military involvement, and even regardless of the apparent Iranian violations of a partial ceasefire that had been negotiated in Geneva.

IranWire suggests that Iran’s shift in tone was a response to the potential domestic fallout of a rising Iranian death toll in the Syrian conflict. This potential is perhaps made worse by the fact that the ceasefire may have reduced the activity of supportive Russian forces, which had used their air power to improve Iranian outcomes against moderate rebel forces on the ground.

The divergence of Iranian and Russian levels of involvement may continue over the long term, according to an article that was published by Reuters on Tuesday and claimed that the Russian-Iranian alliance, which has apparently deepened considerably in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, is merely tactical and could never be strategic. That is, there are strong ideological differences between the two countries, and different interests in the region, especially where Israel is concerned.

If this is the case, then the danger of losing Russian support may have convinced Iran to change its media narratives in Syria. In this sense, one might say that the leading constraints on Iran’s regional behavior are coming not from its traditional adversary the United States but from its Russian allies.

The uncertainty of that Iranian-Russian alliance has also been showcased in the context of military development. Russia recently began the long-delayed delivery of an advances S-300 missile defense system to Iran, but it has not been quick to respond to Iranian interest in purchasing additional weapons, including tanks and fighter jets.

In the meantime, Iranian officials have sought to content themselves with boasting of their domestic development, claiming for instance that a recently released line of tanks is comparable to Russia’s T-90. But in reality, Iran’s military capabilities are suffering from a lack of access to advanced foreign equipment, as indicated by a Business Insider article on Tuesday that described Iran’s new main battle tank as a “mashup of Chinese and US tanks from the 1960s” with “no radar or active defense modules, the trend now in ground combat vehicles.”