In the debate over the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—the “Iran Nuclear Deal”) those wishing to torpedo the Deal have frequently stated that at the expiration of the Deal, Iran would be free to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The reason is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty prohibits Iran and all other non-nuclear weapons states from ever developing nuclear weapons. Iran and the United States along with nearly all other nations in the world (except Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and South Sudan) are signatories. Critics claim that the JCPOA is not a “real” treaty because Congress did not ratify it. By contrast, the NPT is indeed a real treaty, ratified by the United States Congress in 1969, having gone into effect in 1970.
Iran would have to withdraw from the Treaty to develop a nuclear weapons program, as North Korea did in 2003. However, it is highly unlikely that Iran would ever withdraw. The reason is that the NPT also guarantees the right of all non-nuclear-weapons states at the time of the treaty to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
The JCPOA was an agreement that placed additional limits on Iran’s nuclear technology development as a measure of confidence to ensure Iran’s complicity with the NPT. Those who are trying to torpedo the JCPOA, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, want Iran to be forced to agree to a permanent cessation of uranium enrichment and a dismantling of all enrichment facilities.
Iran will never do this. The Iranian government asserts that it has the inalienable right to nuclear technology, including the right to enrich uranium as guaranteed in the NPT. Nineteen other non-nuclear-weapons signatories to the NPT currently enrich uranium for use in power-plants and medical treatment. To assure that nations do not turn their peaceful development of nuclear technology to military use, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sends inspectors to every nation with a nuclear technology program to inspect nuclear facilities. They have been active in Iran for decades.
The JCPOA is built on the NPT arising from a dispute between the United States and Iran about uranium enrichment, which is a “dual use” technology. Low-enriched uranium (less than 20%) can be used for peaceful purposes. However, uranium enriched to a level of 95% can be used for weapons. Iran never enriched any uranium beyond 20%, as verified repeatedly by IAEA inspectors, nor did it ever have enough low-enriched uranium to manufacture more than a single weapon. Nevertheless, Iran’s detractors in the United States and Israel still claimed that this uranium was designed to create nuclear bombs.
Iran is on solid ground in claiming its right to nuclear development. The NPT treaty language is quite clear. In Article IV of the treaty it states: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”
The United States claimed that under the treaty Iran does not have the right to uranium enrichment because this activity is not specifically cited in the treaty: Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman under the Obama administration told the Senate Foreign Relations committee in answer to a question by Senator Marco Rubio in a Senate Committee Hearing on Oct. 3, 2013
“… it has always been the U.S. position that that article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not speak about the right of enrichment at all [and] doesn’t speak to enrichment, period. It simply says that you have the right to research and development. And many countries such as Japan and Germany have taken that [uranium enrichment] to be a right. But the United States does not take that position. We take the position that we look at each one of these [cases]. And more to the point, the UN Security Council has suspended Iran’s enrichment until they meet their international obligations. They didn’t say they have suspended their right to enrichment, they have suspended their enrichment, so we do not believe there is an inherent right by anyone to enrichment.”
Secretary Sherman’s comments reveal several important errors, as well as a prejudicial view of Iran’s nuclear program.
Foremost, the United States government has no authority to interpret the NPT, an international treaty, on its own with no input or ratification from the other nearly 200 signatories. Aside from that, however, if Washington takes the position that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium under the NPT, it is acting unilaterally and is uncoordinated with its allies and with the very organizations it cites on this policy, such as the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). It is worth noting that Israel has no say in this matter, because it is not a signatory to the NPT.
Contrary to Secretary Sherman’s statement, The U.S. position had not “always” been that the NPT does not grant the right to nations to enrich uranium. In fact, the U.S. position only concretized during the George W. Bush administration post-2006, with specific opinions regarding uranium enrichment much developed more recently than that.
Once accused by the Bush administration of aiming for nuclear weapons development, Iran responded quickly. Under the George W. Bush administration, from December 18, 2003 to January 10, 2006, Iran voluntarily suspended its uranium enrichment program as a “confidence building gesture” in adherence to an additional protocol to the NPT recommended by the IAEA. However, ratification of the additional protocol by the Iranian Parliament was pending. Iran hoped that its efforts would result in negotiations with Washington. However no diplomatic response whatever came forth from the Bush administration, who then imposed increased economic sanctions for Iran. At this point the Iranian Parliament angerly refused to ratify the additional protocol and Iran resumed uranium enrichment.
The JCPOA agreement, concluded nine years later, amounts to an implementation of this additional inspection protocol and more. It establishes the most rigorous nuclear inspections regime in the world under the IAEA. Iran did not get a huge benefit, as claimed by the Trump administration. It received its own funds, which had been sequestered in the United States since before the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, and it had the Bush-era sanctions lifted in return for agreeing. In essence, Iran returned to the status quo before 2006 by agreeing to the JCPOA.
The JCPOA has a sunset clause. After 15 years, inspections will revert to the pre-2006 NPT protocols. Some in the U.S. Congress have mistakenly stated that Iran will then be free to do whatever it wishes with nuclear technology, including developing nuclear weapons. The NPT inspections regime will still be implemented and Iran will still be prohibited from nuclear weapons development.
Long, hard negotiation preceded the JCPOA. It was conducted in an atmosphere of mutual distrust between Iran and the United States, but with the cooperation of the P5+1 nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. This was not sufficient for President Trump and some members of Congress. They have singled out Iran for prejudicial treatment among NPT signatories in its negotiation of the JCPOA. The other parties to the negotiation as well as the European Union and the United Nations are not willing to undermine the agreement.
The only way that the United States can claim that Iran does not have the right to nuclear development, including enriching uranium is by ignoring the provisions of the NPT. The NPT provisions have been understood and supported by the international community for nearly 50 years. By singling out Iran for prejudicial treatment, and by ignoring its own intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program the Trump administration and Iran detractors in Congress are not only violating the JCPOA, they are also in potential violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in the Middle East for over 40 years.