Politics & Policy

Nuclear Rights and Wrongs

Iran should not be allowed to dictate the terms of the nonproliferation treaty.

Ever since word first leaked out that Iran was trying to make nuclear-weapons-usable fuels, U.S. officials have been trying to get the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

Washington’s first argument–now over two years old–was that Iran cheated for nearly two decades on its nonproliferation-treaty (NPT) obligation to declare its sensitive nuclear activities to the IAEA. This was confirmed by the agency but put aside in favor of encouraging Iran to open up and to temporarily suspend some of its most worrisome nuclear-fuel-related production activities.

Our diplomats’ second argument–mounting evidence that Iran intends to make nuclear weapons–is now making the rounds. This goes to the heart of the NPT’s key prohibition. Yet with the intelligence gaffes over Iraq, many states remain skeptical even after being briefed and will likely remain so until the U.S. includes the equivalent of pictures of an Iranian bomb (preferably painted with the coordinates of key Western capitals). This, by definition, is unlikely, and will come–if at all–much too late.

Of course, the U.S. and its allies will and should continue to make these arguments.

But there is one additional question that deserves even greater attention–the one Iran has repeatedly spotlighted and answered in its own defense. Do nations have a right under the NPT to acquire ostensibly civilian nuclear technology, if it brings them within days of having a bomb?

Iran–backed by Brazil, South Africa, Germany, the IAEA’s own director general, and, most recently, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards–has always said yes. Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities, which can generate weapons-usable fuels, they argue, are clearly backed by the NPT’s authorization of all members to develop peaceful nuclear energy as they see fit.

Whether you call this a legal loophole or, as Iranian officials insist, an inalienable right, the only way either Iran or the supporters of this view can imagine getting Iranians to desist in their nuclear brinkmanship is to sit down with them, treat them as equals, and cut a deal that addresses their concerns. Iran wants a larger voice to set oil prices (Iran’s oil minister last week insisted that Iran deserved to chair OPEC). Iran also has numerous security and cultural concerns about how Iraq will be ruled, and even clearer economic requirements that its neighbors increase their investment in Iran. All of these concerns, and presumably more, would have to be worked out.

What restraints on its nuclear program would Iran offer in return? If its outbursts of the last few weeks are any indication, not much. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator noted over the weekend, “Iran will not accept any obligation regarding the suspension of uranium enrichment” (a process that can produce a large number of bombs). Moreover, if the U.N. mistakenly tried to impose such an obligation with sanctions, Iran, he insisted, would withdraw from the NPT. “No international body,” he explained, “can force Iran” legally to drop its “peaceful” nuclear activities. Instead, Iran might choose voluntarily to suspend such efforts. But it would only do so if it retained its right and ability to resume these activities. Any suspension could come only after direct talks with those nations most worried about its nuclear activities. Under any deal Tehran might agree to, Iran would retain its option to make bombs.

What, then, should we do?

First, recognize that Iran is already too close to making bombs for us ever to rest easy. It would be nice if we could precision-bomb or appease Iran out of its nuclear capabilities, but, short of overthrowing the current regime, neither is likely to produce lasting results. Iran has too much invested and hidden, and too many scientists salted away, for mere bombing or bribing to cap their nuclear-weapons capabilities.

Second, and both despite and because of this, we and our allies must challenge Iran’s arguments about the NPT. If we don’t, even worse awaits us in the wings. The Saudis are interested in importing nuclear arms from China or Pakistan. Syria has begun serious nuclear research. Iraq retains most of its nuclear scientists. Egypt is planning to build reactors to desalinate and Algeria has just upgraded a very large research reactor in a remote location and surrounded it with air defenses.

If we don’t want these states to follow in Iran’s footsteps, we will have to tackle what we’ve avoided for decades: clarifying which nuclear activities are protected under the NPT and which ones are too close to bomb-making to be regarded as benign.

Luckily, the NPT recommends an answer. Its first two articles prohibit states that are signatories from helping other, non-nuclear states acquire the bomb directly or indirectly, and ban states that lack these weapons from trying to acquire them. Meanwhile, nuclear safeguards, which non-weapons states must submit to under the treaty, are supposed to prevent “the diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.” This and the NPT’s other prohibitions are important since the “inalienable right” of all treaty members to develop nuclear energy for “peaceful” purposes must be exercised “in conformity” with them. This more than suggests that nuclear activities that can be quickly diverted to make bombs–such as Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing capabilities–are activities that the treaty meant to be kept at bay.

Nor should they be seen as being peaceful on some economic ground. After all, if Iran solicited private bids to provide the country with power-generating capacity, all of the non-nuclear bids would come in at a fraction of the cost of the nuclear infrastructure Iran is now building. Nearly all of these bids, moreover, could secure legitimate, private financing–something Iran’s nuclear efforts clearly cannot.

This suggests a set of market tests for “peacefulness.” These tests might not be foolproof but would be better than what we have now, which is effectively nothing. Yes, they’d flag our own nuclear subsidies (Export-Import Bank loans for reactor sales to states like China, government-subsidized nuclear insurance, reactor-construction loan-guarantee proposals, federal nuclear-commercialization projects, federally mandated rate-payer assumption of nuclear-waste disposal and reactor-decommissioning costs, etc.). They also would spotlight uneconomical subsidized projects in friendly countries including South Africa, Brazil, Japan, India, and Pakistan. Still, adopting such tests would enjoy broad support (from Reagan conservatives to anti-corporatist liberals to Greens to private capitalists), be neutral, and make Iran’s nuclear program an extreme example case. As the NPT is to be formally reviewed in May of next year, the best time to start raising these points is now.

Finally, the U.S. and its allies should build upon recent European proposals to enforce the NPT. These should specify that countries that reject inspections or withdraw from the NPT (something Iran has just threatened to do) without first addressing previous infractions must surrender or dismantle their nuclear capabilities to come back into compliance.

They also should stipulate that nations the IAEA cannot find to be in full compliance should no longer receive nuclear assistance from others until the IAEA Board of Governors unanimously gives them a clean bill of health. This would include Russia’s help to complete the power reactor at Busheir, which has been Iran’s “peaceful” justification for its other nuclear activities. France is already backing these rules. Presumably the rest of Europe can too, along with the U.S. and its allies. If these nations are unified, Russia would have difficulty resisting and China, in turn, would be compelled to follow. A U.N. resolution, in short, may be possible.

All this will be difficult to pull off. If we are serious about isolating Iran, though, we may no longer have a choice. The alternative, after all, is listening to Iran dictate to us what the rules mean.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington D.C. and is editor, with Patrick Clawson, of Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions.


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