Eight Ways You're Wrong About Iran's Nuclear Program

"Let's examine some of the current false Iran nuclear memes before we’re led down the yellow-cake road again."

This meme is often repeated in the media and by policy wonks but is not true. For instance, former Obama administration official Robert Einhorn has argued, “[W]hat is not debatable is that Iran has forfeited—at least temporarily—any right to enrichment (and reprocessing) until it can demonstrate convincingly that it is in compliance with its NPT obligations.”

But Iran has never been found to be in non-compliance with the NPT: in fact, there is no agency or international body tasked with checking compliance with the NPT. And there is no automatic nuclear fuel-cycle “forfeiture” provision in the NPT. So statements such as Einhorn's overreach.

In older treaties like the NPT and the Outer Space Treaty, there aren't any enforcement mechanisms. There is the IAEA, but it is not responsible for—nor does it have the ability to—verify compliance with the NPT. The IAEA's monitors a different set of bilateral treaties: the narrowly focused “Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements” (CSAs). And it's entirely possible for a state to be in noncompliance with its bilateral CSA and still be in compliance with the NPT. The CSA deals mostly with the precise accounting of nuclear material whereas the threshold of NPT violation for NNWSs—nuclear weaponization—is much higher and much more vague. The CSAs and the NPT are independent legal instruments, although they both deal with nuclear nonproliferation.

As Dr. Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, recently stated: “So far, Iran has not violated the NPT,” adding, “and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.” And Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. “All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran,” he concluded.

Meme 6: “There is no right to enrich uranium in the NPT”

This meme is deceptive, being more irrelevant than wrong. The right to enrich uranium exists independent of the NPT: this right, like many many others, does not need to be spelled out in the NPT. In fact, theoretically—according to the letter of the NPT—signatory nations can enrich uranium to arbitrarily high concentrations, including weapons grade, so long as the enrichment is done under safeguards. The important point is that uranium enrichment is not prohibited in the NPT: the inherent right to enrich uranium is not interfered with by the NPT.

The official US government view on the subject was expressed early on. On July 10, 1968, then-Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director William Foster testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the NPT. In response to a question regarding the type of nuclear activities prohibited by Article II of the NPT, Foster said:

“It may be useful to point out, for illustrative purposes, several activities which the United States would not consider per se to be violations of the prohibitions in Article II. Neither uranium enrichment nor the stockpiling of fissionable material in connection with a peaceful program would violate Article II so long as these activities were safeguarded under Article III. Also clearly permitted would be the development, under safeguards, of plutonium fueled power reactors, including research on the properties of metallic plutonium, nor would Article II interfere with the development or use of fast breeder reactors under safeguards.” [emphasis added]

So not only does the NPT not interfere with the inherent right of nations to pursue nuclear fuel-cycle activities, but the official US government view was that such activities are explicitly permitted under the NPT.

As Mark Hibbs recently explained: “...like Iran, countries negotiating 123 agreements, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, refused to have Washington dictate and limit their future nuclear technology choices. Some protagonists in debates on Iran and broader nuclear policy insist there is no “right” to enrich. Yet, if this were self-evidently true, it would not have been a big deal for the UAE to have agreed not to undertake enrichment.”

Meme 7: “If a country acquires a nuclear-weapons capability, that nation is intending to acquire nuclear weapons.”