U.S. determined to re-freeze thaw in relations with Iran

Iran's Arak nuclear enrichment facility

Iran’s Arak nuclear enrichment facility

It was only supposed to be Iran’s uranium enrichment progress that was frozen after talks with Iran last month. But now, acting in bad faith by violating the spirit of the Geneva deal between the G5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran, the United States seems to be doing its level best to re-freeze the recent thaw in relations between the G5+1 and Iran. If you’ll bear with me for a final sub-Arctic-temperature metaphor, the United States has frozen the assets of (reports the Jerusalem Post) “companies and individuals engaged in transactions on behalf of other companies that the United States previously designated under the sanctions.”

Now is as good a time as any to ask what Americans ― from “low-information voters” to those who follow the news ― think the problem is between Iran and the West. Speaking in the broadest terms, many are under the impression that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Moving up one level of awareness, others believe that, at present, Iran is not building nuclear weapons, but that it must be stopped from enriching uranium lest it one day divert it to nuclear weapons.

But what do Americans believe is the reason that the West has decided Iran can’t have nuclear weapons? Many remember the hostage crisis, others are concerned about the security of Israel; still others are susceptible to the rhetoric that Iran is governed by an “apocalyptic” regime willing to martyr a whole state just for the thrill of mounting a nuclear strike against Israel. (Whatever success that anti-Iran forces have experienced exploiting this cynical and outrageous claim is testimony to exactly how “low” the “information” is to which many Americans are exposed.)

While few Americans have heard of, or know what the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is, some are aware that Iran is barred from developing nuclear weapons because it signed what’s more commonly known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT (if you’re wondering why only one capital “N,” technically the “N” in Nuclear should be lower case). Of those few, some might wonder why states lacking nuclear weapons would sign a treaty with states in possession of them. They may or may not know that the former are guaranteed the right to nuclear energy while the latter have committed (theoretically) to the long process of disarmament. Presumably, then, if Iran’s right to enrich uranium is being questioned, it must have violated the treaty.

In fact, as most Americans know, the United States and the other states of the G5+1 suspect Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the evidence is as dubious as it is scant (think Curveball and yellowcake), much of it apparently supplied by a state brimming with bias towards Iran ― Israel. Nor does any seem to exist since 2003.

With the waters thus poisoned, the 20 percent to which Iran has been enriching its uranium (until it reached a deal in Geneva with the G5+1 to restrict enrichment to 5%) and which is required by certain medical procedures has much of the West convinced it’s too close to nuclear-weapon grade. (Though nuclear weapons require at least 90% enrichment, it’s true that it’s less difficult to increase from 20 to 90 than it is 0 to 20.)

At his blog Arms Control Law, Dan Joyner revisited a Foreign Policy article that, he writes, “came out around Christmas time last year and seems to have slipped under the radar.” When, not long after it was published, I read Radioactive Decay by nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt, it struck me as one of those “if you only read one” articles, in this case, on the subject of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Here’s Butt on the nuclear powers’ failure to uphold their end of the bargain and disarm.

Over the years, for reasons good and bad, this bargain has become increasingly skewed. … To the extent that the nuclear haves are interested in disarmament, this is completely divorced from any pressure they perceive from the NPT. Such nuclear arms reductions are typically negotiated bilaterally between the United States and Russia and proceed at their own sweet pace. … This is despite the fact that the International Court of Justice interprets the NPT’s nuclear disarmament clause as a legally binding obligation.

Equally troublesome, the NPT doesn’t have “the teeth to hold nuclear-weapons states to their disarmament obligations. The one thing that those (politically powerful) states — who also just happen to be the U.N. Security Council nations — can seem to agree on, and one of the main reasons the treaty continues to be championed by these influential nations, is that it does still provide some legal barriers to help prevent other states from building nuclear weapons. But only some.”

Butt then takes on the enrichment problem.

Basically the NPT encapsulates some dangerous and outdated prescriptions to proliferate dual-use nuclear technology. … The articles of the treaty are sufficiently vague that the actual implementation of the NPT’s “non-proliferation” and “peaceful uses” articles is done via very precise Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements negotiated bilaterally between the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and individual states.


In order to preserve national sovereignty, such agreements are typically very narrowly focused and don’t give the IAEA much legal scope to carry out wide-ranging investigations into nuclear-weapons related activities. For instance, the IAEA-Iran safeguards agreement’s “exclusive purpose” is to verify that nuclear material “is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Nothing else is covered. … This may be why Iran feels fully justified in denying the IAEA access to its Parchin military base.

Many point out that if Iran has nothing to hide, why restrict access? Butt reminds us that the IAEA’s “limited legal authority … to carry out inspections … is similar to the limits placed upon the police. The police have a mandate to stop crime, but they do not have the legal authority to inspect your bedroom at 3am.” He quotes Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director of safeguards at the IAEA: “The [IAEA] Department of Safeguards doesn’t have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate and to provide the assurances the international community is expecting.

While neither the NPT nor even safeguards are powerful enough to completely thwart proliferation, the IAEA has recourse to one more tactic. Butt again.

In order to partly redress this shortcoming, the “Additional Protocol” was introduced: this voluntary measure allows the IAEA to conduct more intrusive inspections than are normally permitted.

Since, as we can see, the NPT is not up to the task of maintaining the firewall between nuclear energy and weapons, nor either disarmament or proliferation, Butt then asks “what would an NPT 2.0 look like?”

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 … in non-nuclear weapon states. [Then] multinational fuel banks could be set-up to centralize and control nuclear material transfers.

Butt further cites nuclear energy as an old technology propped up by government-funded research and insurance bail-outs which limit liability for accidents. Thus

A notable difference between the NPT and NPT 2.0 would have to be that the updated version would not encourage the propagation of nuclear power.

In other words

… the current NPT provision that technologically advanced nations and the nuclear-weapon states provide nuclear know-how to lesser developed states could be augmented — or even replaced — in a NPT 2.0 by a clause encouraging the transfer of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology as well.

Disarmament advocates worry about strengthening the link between nonproliferation and disarmament in the NPT. Meanwhile, with some deft sleight of hand, Butt manages to link nonproliferation with renewable energy.

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