U.S. official propagates myths about Iran and nuclear energy

Memorial for assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Memorial for assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

At Going to Tehran, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett wrote about an appearance last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who is also the senior U.S. representative in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. What Ms. Sherman said not only calls into question her ability to perform that job, it begs the question of whether she’s even listening to herself. Ironically, it was in the cause of attempting to delay the implementation of further sanctions until the talks that she said of Iranians:

“We know that deception is part of the DNA.”

The Leveretts’ reaction:

This statement goes beyond orientalist stereotyping; it is, in the most literal sense, racist. And it evidently was not a mere “slip of the tongue”: a former Obama administration senior official told us that Sherman has used such language before about Iranians.

Remember: Ms. Sherman is a negotiator. With Iran. As if that’s not bad enough, the Leveretts report on another misconception (okay, they call it an “egregious manifestation of prejudice-cum-lie”) that she buys into.

It came in a response to a question from Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) about whether states have a right to enrich under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Here is the relevant passage in Sherman’s reply:

… “It has always been the U.S. position that Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not speak about the right of enrichment at all” (emphasis added).

But, the Leveretts write:

Article IV makes a blanket statement that “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.” …  There have been many first-rate analyses demonstrating that the right to safeguarded enrichment under the NPT is crystal clear—from the Treaty itself, from its negotiating history, and from subsequent practice. [View their post for links to those analyses. ― RW]


Sherman claims that “It has always been the U.S. position that Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not speak about the right of enrichment at all [and] doesn’t speak to enrichment, period.”  But, in fact, the United States originally held that the right to peaceful use recognized in the NPT’s Article IV includes the indigenous development of safeguarded fuel-cycle capabilities.

Here, the Leveretts move on from calling Ms. Sherman’s testimony a “manifestation of prejudice-cum-lie” to:

[It is] a bald-faced lie to say that the United States has “always” held that the NPT does not recognize a right to safeguarded enrichment. As a matter of policy, the United States held that that the NPT recognized such a right even before it was opened for signature; this continued to be the U.S. position for more than a quarter century thereafter.

This is a key point. The press, the public, even Washington, simply act on the assumption that states are no longer allowed to enrich uranium. Or, more to the point, that some kind of list exists that prohibits certain states from doing so for their nuclear-energy program instead of, say, acquiring enriched uranium from elsewhere. But, as the Leveretts write:

It was only after the Cold War ended that the United States—along with Britain, France, and Israel—decided that the NPT should be, in effect, unilaterally rewritten (by them) to constrain the diffusion of fuel-cycle capabilities to non-Western states. And their main motive for trying to do so has been to maximize America’s freedom of unilateral military initiative and, in the Middle East, that of Israel.

Its seems as if it’s an unspoken assumption that if you wish to be acknowledged as a credible voice on policy issues that you must be “realistic” enough to advocate tough choices such as unilaterally denying a state deemed an enemy its sovereign right, no matter how illegal. It’s similar, on the domestic front, to those “grown up” enough to echo the calls for cuts to Social Security and Medicare without knowing the facts.

Here’s another domestic analogy to our policy toward Iran: If the Obama administration fails to take advantage of the opening to a settlement on the nuclear issue that Iran President Rouhani has provided, it will go down as the biggest failure of his administration since the roll-out of the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act. (Actually, his failures have been legion ― I just used that one because it’s been in the headlines recently.)

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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