Nuclear Weapons

President’s Message: Rights and Responsibilities

11.14.13 | 3 min read | Text by Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

The election of Hassan Rouhani as the president of Iran has breathed new life into the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In recent months, a flurry of meetings has raised hopes that this program can remain peaceful and that war with Iran can be averted. But barriers still block progress. Among the major sticking points is Iranian leaders’ insistence that Iran’s “right” to enrichment be explicitly and formally acknowledged by the United States and the other nations in the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany). While it is a fact that Iran has enrichment facilities, it is not a foregone conclusion that Iran has earned a right or should be given a right to enrichment without meeting its obligations. Enrichment is a dual-use technology: capable of being used to make low enriched uranium for nuclear fuel for reactors or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Iran has consistently pointed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself as using the word “right.” Indeed, the beginning of Article IV of the NPT 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.” [Emphasis added.] But rights come with responsibilities. In particular, the remaining part of the first sentence of Article IV concludes: “without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” Article I puts responsibility on the nuclear weapon states not to transfer nuclear explosives or assist a non-nuclear weapon state in manufacturing such explosives. Article II places responsibility on the non-nuclear weapon states to not receive nuclear explosives or to manufacture such explosives. Article IV is also linked with Article III, in which non-nuclear weapon states have the obligation to apply comprehensive safeguards to their nuclear programs to ensure that those programs are peaceful. Nuclear weapon states can accept voluntary safeguards on the parts of their nuclear programs designated for peaceful purposes.

Iranian leaders have also often said that they want to be treated like Japan, which has enrichment and reprocessing facilities. But Japan has made the extra effort to apply advanced safeguards to these facilities. Specifically, it enacted the Additional Protocol to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which gives the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to a country’s entire nuclear program and requires the IAEA to assess whether there are any undeclared nuclear materials or facilities in that country. In effect, the IAEA must act like Sherlock Holmes investigating whether there is anything amiss throughout a nuclear program rather than acting like a green-eye shade wearing accountant who just checks the books. Iran had been voluntarily applying the Additional Protocol before early 2006 when its nuclear file was taken to the UN Security Council. Then Iran suspended application of these enhanced safeguards.

While the deal announced on November 11 between the IAEA and Iran to allow the IAEA additional access and information on selected facilities and activities, it does not go far enough. Iran has left out the Arak heavy water research reactor and the Parchin site, in particular. The Arak reactor, which could start operations next year, has the type of design well suited to being able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. If Iran had a covert hot cell to reprocess irradiated fuel from this reactor, it could extract at least one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year depending on the level of operations. The Parchin site has been suspected of previously being used for testing of high explosives that might be relevant for nuclear weapons design work. Iran has stated that this is a military site not related to nuclear work and thus off limits to IAEA inspectors. Arak and Parchin are just two outstanding examples of sites that raise concern about Iran’s intentions and potential capabilities.

Without a doubt, Iran has the right to pursue and use peaceful nuclear energy. But before it is given a formal right to continue with enrichment, it has to take adequate efforts to ensure that its nuclear program is fully transparent and well safeguarded. The United States and its allies would concomitantly have the obligation to help Iran meet its energy needs and remove sanctions that have been in place against Iran’s nuclear program.