The main theme raised by Iranian negotiators during the talks with the P5+1 in Moscow last month was their claim that they have a legal right to enrich uranium under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. David Ignatius, The Washington Post’s commentator for Middle Eastern affairs, obtained a copy of the Power Point that the Iranians used in the negotiations and he noticed that this argument appeared in the first third of the 48 page Iranian document. Ignatius understood through his contacts that for the Iranians any diplomatic compromise must include the West conceding to this Iranian demand.
Do the Iranians have any basis for making this argument? According to The New York Times, the P5+1 have responded to the Iranian legal claim by saying that the NPT makes no explicit reference to a “right to enrich” uranium. A senior U.S. official said that the West was not willing to recognize such a right either. True, Article IV of the NPT acknowledges the “right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…” But the U.S. has been reluctant to interpret this clause to justify the spread of enrichment facilities around the world.
Iran argued in the past that it needs to enrich uranium for energy because it cannot rely on its oil and gas fields which might run out. The State Department issued a report years back showing that Iran lacked sufficient uranium deposits to be self-sufficient if it built reactors in the future for electricity production. For example, the report showed that Iran did not have enough uranium ore in its mines to fuel seven new reactors for even ten years, at which point their uranium would run out. From a purely business standpoint, had Iran taken the billions of dollars it invested in uranium enrichment industry and put them into revitalizing its oil and gas fields, which badly needed maintenance, Tehran would have derived far greater quantities of energy for a much longer period of time. These calculations indicated that the huge investment that Iran made in uranium enrichment only made sense if its real purpose was to manufacture atomic bombs.
The West began to understand the game the Iranians were playing with enrichment and slowly dismissed the electricity production story that the Iranians tried to sell. In July 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1696 which demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related activities. No time limit was put on the suspension. Subsequently six more resolutions have been adopted by the Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran for not adhering to the UN demand that it suspend uranium enrichment. Iran clearly wants the legal basis for these sanctions removed: the Iranians are hoping that if the West determined that the NPT allows enrichment, then the UN resolution against them would lose their legal basis.
U.S. policy has changed over the years about whether the NPT permitted uranium enrichment. In 2006, even before the UN adopted its first resolution on suspending enrichment, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton stated that “..no enrichment in Iran is permissible.” However, in December 2010, during the period in which the Obama administration was pursuing a policy of diplomatic “engagement” with Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the BBC that Iran could enrich uranium for civilian purposes in the future. She reiterated this point on March 1, 2011 before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives.
The Obama administration argues in its defense that all Clinton did was make explicit what was implicit in the Bush team’s readiness to undertake a “review” of the enrichment moratorium it proposed in the context of the P5+1 contacts in 2006. Yet agreeing to Iranian enrichment in principle is not the only change that has been under consideration. In the present round of negotiations, there have been proposals under consideration in Washington to allow Iran to enrich uranium up to the 3.5% level if it gives up its stockpile and production of 20% enriched uranium. These ideas essentially open a door for the Iranians that the UN Security Council closed back in 2006 and move closer to recognizing an Iranian right to enrich uranium in the future.
The fact remains that Iran must not be treated like any other state that has signed the NPT. It hid its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow and only admitted to their existence after it was caught red handed. It imported uranium without reporting it to the International Atomic Energy Agency as is required. Every IAEA report on Iran since 2008 has made reference to the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program. Yet the IAEA’s repeated requests for clarifications have been unanswered.
Iran told the world that it was enriching uranium to 3.5% for energy, then it said it needed to enrich to 20% for medical isotopes, and now it is considering the production of nuclear submarines whose reactors need 90% enrichment — which is weapons grade. Given this history, Iran does not come with clean hands when it demands that its right to enrich uranium be recognized.
In 1991, the Bush (39) administration decided that after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and launched ballistic missiles against its neighbors, it needed to be put under a special regime of sanctions and intrusive inspections. Regardless of whether there is a legal right to enrichment under the NPT, a rogue state like Iran that threatens its neighbors and develops a clandestine nuclear weapons program in violation of the agreements it signed simply cannot be trusted with civilian enrichment which can easily be diverted to a full-blown nuclear weapons program, as the Iranians have consistently demonstrated for more than a decade already
This post first appeared in Israel Hayom.