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

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."

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.