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."

Oft repeated but false assertions about Iran's nuclear program—and the recent deal to tamp it down—may end up being more dangerous than the program itself. These wrong statements reinforce each other, get amplified in the media, and are fueling a march to military action.

Such use of force would further inflame the Middle East and could push Iran to start a full-scale nuclear weapons project. US national security would further erode as a result—just like it has with the Iraq debacle. The 'aluminum tubes', 'mobile biological-weapons labs', and 'yellow cake from Niger' memes fueled the march to that war. Let's examine some of the current false Iran nuclear memes before we’re led down the yellow-cake road again:

Meme 1: “If the world powers fail to reach a deal with Tehran the alternative is bombing.”

An incarnation of this shopworn meme appears in Matthew Kroenig's recent piece in Foreign Affairs. He states “A truly comprehensive diplomatic settlement between Iran and the West is still the best possible outcome, but there is little reason to believe that one can be achieved. And that means the United States may still have to choose between bombing Iran and allowing it to acquire a nuclear bomb.” Er, no. That's a false choice. Iran is not acquiring a nuclear bomb—the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has a “high level of confidence” that no decision to weaponize has yet been taken in Tehran. This conclusion of the DNI is not based on an absence of evidence but on actual information that whatever weaponization research Iran may have been doing up to about 2003 has been wrapped up a decade ago.

The P5+1 nations—the five permanent members of the Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia and China, plus Germany—are not negotiating with Iran to stop it from making a nuclear bomb. They are negotiating with Iran on how to continue to keep its nuclear program peaceful. The discussion is about the methods used to verify that Iran continues its peaceful nuclear program. Even if the nuclear talks fall apart the IAEA inspectors would still continue to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities.

If we—or our allies—bomb Iran the IAEA inspectors would most certainly be expelled, Iran would likely leave the NPT, and Tehran would likely kick off a full-blown nuclear weapons development project. Iraq's nuclear weapons project also started in earnest after Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981.

To sum up: The negotiations with Iran are about the methods to use to continue to make sure Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. Not reaching a deal is not the end of the world. And if we do bomb Iran, it is likely to bring about the very thing the bombs were trying to prevent: a full-blown nuclear weapons program.

That said, a deal is still the best outcome: it would give even more reassurance about Iran's nuclear program, and it would end the sanctions which are punishing the weakest of the Iranian civilians while enriching the Revolutionary Guards who profit from busting sanctions.

Meme 2: “Sanctions forced Iran to the table and extracted concessions from Iran.”

This meme has been expressed, for example, by Senator Robert Menendez, among many others. He has stated that “Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table.” However cliché, the statement is untrue. Iran was at the negotiating table almost ten years ago and offered the same concessions back then. The sanctions are not what resulted in the recent breakthrough interim agreement between the world powers and Iran. The main thing that changed is the improved atmospherics, which “allowed” the P5+1 to sign a deal with Iran. The election of Iranian president Rouhani, a moderate and erudite leader, permitted the world powers to sign a deal with Iran—a “reward” the US was unwilling to bestow upon the loudmouthed and provocative Ahmedinejad, mostly for domestic reasons.

It is important to underline that Iran has offered nothing more in terms of concessions now than what it offered in 2005. The sanctions did not bring Iran to the negotiating table—Tehran was always there—and the sanctions definitely did not wring out extra concessions from Iran. Basically, were it not for western intransigence and the bad atmospherics, the interim deal signed in late 2013 could have been signed in 2005.

This brings us to next false meme:

Meme 3: “Iran has dragged out negotiations unnecessarily—the West sees the nuclear issue as an urgent matter and desperately wants to resolve it but is frustrated by Tehran's foot-dragging”

As mentioned above, the world powers could have gotten the same concessions out of Iran back in 2005 but have only now decided to seriously engage with Iran. As the New York Times has reported, “Mr. Obama’s aides seem content with stalemate.” The main thing this foot-dragging by the west indicates is that it does not see the Iranian nuclear issue as particularly important. This is unsurprising because the US Intelligence community is aware—with a “high level of confidence”that there is no nuclear weapons program in Iran right now.

Even now, after the interim agreement with Iran has been signed, elite US analysts and commentators are yawning at the prospect of an Iranian bomb and actually urging a lackadaisical approach to negotiations with Iran. For example, Mitchell Reiss and Ray Takeyh argue that "to succeed in nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Western powers should be mindful...[that] Iran needs an agreement more than the United States does...There is no reason for Washington to seem more eager than Tehran to reach an agreement..." Yes, if one chooses to dismiss the issue of an alleged nuclear weapons capability in Iran, then indeed the advice of such commentators may be worth heeding. But one needs to decide: is the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons capability a serious issue or not? If not, then why place such draconian sanctions on Iranian civilians to begin with? The sanctions are causing tremendous harm to the weakest civilians in Iranian society while enriching the Revolutionary Guards who profit from sanctions-busting. If, as these commentators suggest, the West does not need a deal urgently they cannot simultaneously pretend that the issue is important enough to launch military action.

If stopping an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons capability is worth going to war, it's certainly worth taking the issue seriously and undertaking serious sanctions relief.

Meme 4: “ The P5+1 is extra-tough on Iran because Iran signed the NPT, whereas other nations like Pakistan, India, and Israel did not, and so it's okay to tolerate nuclear weapons in the latter states and even help them with nuclear know-how and technology.”

If the P5+1 nations want to invoke the NPT to try to limit nuclear know-how in signatory states like Iran they need to at least first show a firmer hand with the nuclear-armed NPT non-signatories. For instance, because Iran is being sanctioned for its past violations of its nuclear safeguards agreements—which were somewhat gratuitously interpreted as a “threat to the peace” by the UN Security Council (UNSC)—then certainly Pakistan, India and Israel should be similarly sanctioned.

After all, the sanctions are applied to Iran only because the “trigger” of the IAEA nuclear safeguards violations raised the issue to the level of the UNSC. The only reason such triggers have not gone off for India, Pakistan and Israel is that, since they are outside the framework of the NPT, their safeguards agreements are watered-down and similar triggers simply don't exist. But since these nations already have nuclear weapons and are outside the NPT they are objectively a bigger “threat to the peace” than Iran, which is an NPT signatory and has been determined by the US DNI has having no current nuclear weapons program with a “high level of confidence”. [The UNSC sanctions are applied under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Article 39, in which the Security Council can determine a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and may recommend, or decide what measures to take...to maintain or restore international peace and security.”]

Under no circumstances should nations who have signed the NPT—whether or not they are currently seen to be in good standing—be sanctioned and treated more severely than those that haven't signed on to the NPT and have nuclear weapons. Such heavy-handedness with signatory nations will undercut the desire of many nations to sign on to new arms control initiatives, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In fact, the actions of some of the P5+1 nations, namely China and US, go against the spirit and intentions of the NPT. US and China are helping the nuclear-armed NPT non-signatory states India and Pakistan, respectively, with their civilian nuclear programs. (And before it signed the NPT in 1992, France helped Israel with its nuclear program.) But the 'firewall' between civilian and military nuclear sectors in Pakistan, India and Israel is somewhere between porous to non-existent. And, at the least, civilian nuclear assistance frees up nuclear resources—scientists and materiel much of which are dual-use—which can be applied to the military nuclear programs in these non-NPT nations. Thus the nuclear assistance given by China and the US to Pakistan and India can legitimately be seen as a violation of the NPT.

As Daniel Joyner puts it in his book, “Interpreting the NPT”: “Many NPT Non Nuclear Weapon States see this granting of nuclear technology concessions to India by an NPT Nuclear Weapon State as a positive reward for India’s decision to remain outside the NPT framework, and develop and maintain a nuclear weapons arsenal, which is the precise opposite to the incentive structure which the NPT sought to codify into international law.”

Meme 5: “Iran is in violation of its NPT obligations.”

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.”

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.