March 16, 2005



SUBJECT: Iran's "Right" to a Nuclear Program

According to a front-page story in the New York Times yesterday ("Reshaping Nuclear Rules," by David Sanger), the Bush administration is seeking to close loopholes in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The administration's concern is that the treaty allows states to become virtual or actual nuclear weapons states under the guise of acquiring technology, infrastructure, and know-how for "peaceful" nuclear energy programs.

The core problem with the NPT is that it appears to give non-nuclear weapon states a "right" to nuclear technology and assistance in exchange for foreswearing weapons themselves. This is the "right" that Iran is currently insisting allows it to not only build a nuclear energy plant, but also the infrastructure necessary to enrich uranium to fuel that plant. As Sanger notes, this is a right "Mr. Bush's aides" appear to "have acknowledged" and, in the case of Iran, have convinced our European allies "that the only acceptable outcome of their negotiations with Iran is that it must give up that right."

But by accepting the idea that under the NPT Iran has such a prerogative, the administration only makes its own efforts to stop Iran's program more difficult. It leads in practice to the idea that major concessions must be made to Iran in exchange for giving up its "right" and, bizarrely, allows Iran to position itself internationally as a defender of the treaty itself.

This need not be the case. As Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, has previously argued, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty can be read differently. The specific intent of the treaty was to prevent proliferation, and it would be a strange thing indeed if the actual provisions of the treaty mandated precisely the danger it was trying to forestall. As the late strategic strategist Albert Wohlstetter noted: "The NPT is, after all, a treaty against proliferation, not for nuclear development."

Moreover, the so-called right to nuclear technology and know-how found in Article IV of the treaty is itself conditioned on a state behaving "in conformity with articles I and II" of the treaty - articles which prohibit activities that lead to nuclear weapons proliferation. Add to this fact that, during the negotiations over the NPT, specific proposals were rejected that would have made it a "duty" for weapon states to aid non-weapon states with nuclear technology transfers and know-how. The strong inference is that Article IV should not be interpreted as giving non-weapon states a presumptive title to such transfers.

In the case of Iran, then, the administration should be arguing that Tehran has no inalienable right to its nuclear program. By dint of its multiple and prolonged deceptions with respect to that program, and the fact that the program has no feasible economic rationale, Iran has forfeited the ground on which it can plausibly argue that its program is "in conformity with articles I and II" of the treaty. The administration is right to worry about how the NPT is being abused. But it would be in a stronger position to address those concerns if it didn't give up the high ground so readily with respect to what the treaty itself requires.