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."

Not so. Much nuclear know-how and technology is dual use and can be used for peaceful or military purposes. Under the NPT, it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear-weapons capability: if a nation has a developed civilian nuclear infrastructure—which the NPT actually encourages—this implies it has a fairly solid nuclear-weapons capability. Just like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also have a nuclear-weapons capability—they, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in short order. Capabilities and intentions cannot be conflated.

This is like owning a car that can go faster than 35 miles per hour—having the capability to race through your neighborhood and exceed the speed limit does not mean you intend to do so.

To be sure, this is not an ideal state of affairs. It would certainly be preferable if the NPT had more teeth to prevent the research of nuclear weaponry in member states, or outlawed the collection of excess low-enriched uranium. But the treaty that exists today reflects the political compromises made to win broad international support. The current NPT is simply not a very stringent treaty. Even Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director of the IAEA Safeguards Department, admits that the organization "doesn't have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate."

I have proposed a stricter “NPT 2.0” which would strike a bold new ”more-for-more” bargain. The nuclear-weapon states —or at least Russia and the United States, with a hefty 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons between them—would offer swift and drastic reductions in their weapons stockpiles in exchange for the outright elimination of nuclear fuel processing activities (such as dual-use uranium enrichment and plutonium processing) in non-nuclear weapon states. A notable difference between the current incarnation of the NPT and the proposed NPT 2.0 would be that the updated version would not encourage the propagation of nuclear power. It no longer makes any sense is to have a treaty force-feeding a flawed and dangerous 1960's technology to developing nations, as the NPT now does.

Meme 8: “Iran has been deceptive in the past so we cannot trust them.”

Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was not covert by initial design. Iran’s nuclear program was kicked off in the 1950s with the full encouragement and support of the United States, under president Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. In 1983, after the Islamic revolution, Iran went—in an overt way—to the IAEA to get help in setting up a pilot uranium enrichment facility. And the IAEA was then quite receptive to the idea. According to an authoritative account by Mark Hibbs in Nuclear Fuel, “IAEA officials were keen to assist Iran in reactivating a research program to learn how to process U3O8 into UO2 pellets and then set up a pilot plant to produce UF6, according to IAEA documents obtained by Nuclear Fuel.” But, according to Hibbs, “when in 1983 the recommendations of an IAEA mission to Iran were passed on to the IAEA’s technical cooperation program, the U.S. government then ‘directly intervened’ to discourage the IAEA from assisting Iran in production of UO2 and UF6. ‘We stopped that in its tracks,’ said a former U.S. official.”

So when Iran’s open overture to the IAEA was stymied politically, they used more covert means to set up their enrichment facilities. Enrichment facilities by their nature can be dual-use, of course, but they are certainly not disallowed under the NPT. Iran’s allegedly “covert” or “sneaky” behavior may thus have been a response to the politicization at the IAEA documented in Hibbs' Nuclear Fuel article.

A good way to stop the propagation of dual-use nuclear technology is to implement a revamped “NPT 2.0” that explicitly discourages the propagation of nuclear fuel-cycle and nuclear power technology.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is director of the Emerging Technologies Program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting fact-based cultural awareness among individuals, institutions, and governments. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Flickr/James Vaughan. CC BY-SA 2.0.