Iranian officials and commentators have masterfully and incorrectly defined the crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities.  Instead of being about Iran’s non-compliance with its safeguards obligations and subsequent refusal to answer key questions needed for the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, the story has become the United States’ bloody minded crusade to deny Iran its nuclear rights.  This story needs to be corrected.

Iran, like all countries, has a right to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…in conformity with Articles I and II of the Treaty”  Under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Iran can expect international cooperation in exercising such rights.

However, there is no explicit right to possess uranium enrichment or plutonium separation technology, just as there is not a specific prohibition on possessing such technology.  The rules to guide the international management of nuclear technology have evolved through negotiation and custom.  In all cases,  rights under the NPT are conditioned on the obligation “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons…; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.” (Article II)

Beginning in early 2003, International Atomic Energy Agency investigators – not the United States – found evidence that Iran was non-compliant with its safeguards obligations.  The IAEA uncovered numerous violations dating back to the mid-1980s.  In order to verify that Iran’s nuclear activities and program conform to its core commitment to use nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes, the IAEA needs answers that lift the suspicion that Iran’s hidden activities were not exclusively peaceful.  Iranian protagonists emphasize that the Agency has reported “there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities….were related to a nuclear weapons programme.” (IAEA Report, November 2003)  But it is equally important (and forgotten!) that the Agency “remains unable to verify…the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme,” in the words of the August 31, 2006 Report of the Director General.

Because Iran has been found non-compliant with its obligations and has not enabled the IAEA to verify its compliance with the core Article II obligation that conditions all rights to nuclear energy, Iran has lost, at least temporarily, full enjoyment of its original nuclear rights.  Iran’s case is an enforcement problem, at this point, not a rights problem.  All other states currently members of the NPT are not in the midst of enforcement problems and therefore are not being asked to limit their nuclear activities. 

The nonproliferation treaty does not specify how it should be enforced.  The general understanding was and is that the UN Security Council is responsible for enforcement, and this was reaffirmed in 1992 when the president of the Council declared that proliferation was a threat to international peace and security.  The IAEA statute is more specific.  Article XII.7.C states that IAEA “inspectors shall report any non-compliance to the Director General who shall thereupon transmit the report to the Board of Governors.”   

Here’s where Iranian protagonists in the current debate exhibit selective amnesia.  In 2003, when the IAEA’s findings warranted reporting Iran’s case to the Security Council, Iran pleaded for an alternative.  The leadership of the IAEA and of several European countries responded sympathetically for a variety of reasons.  Among other things, they feared U.S. leadership on this issue, which seemed inclined to repeat the disastrous Iraq experience.  So, the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were welcomed to negotiate terms by which Iran could redress its non-compliance and avoid being reported to the Security Council.  In these negotiations, Iran agreed voluntarily and unilaterally to suspend uranium enrichment and other related activities, while Iran and the European states would negotiate on longer term measures to address Iran’s interests in nuclear energy and the international community’s need for objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear activities would be exclusively for peaceful purposes. 

Shortly thereafter, Iran interpreted the terms of its initial suspension differently than the Europeans did, and resumed fuel-cycle activities that alarmed the rest of the world.  A crisis ensued, negotiations resumed, and in November 2004, Iran agreed to a more exactly defined suspension.  Again, the premise was that Iran’s actions and ongoing failure to resolve the IAEA’s questions about them, made it impossible to verify that Iran was upholding the conditions under which rights to nuclear energy are to be enjoyed.  To avoid possible immediate penalties for that, Iran agreed to build confidence by suspending activities that could help give it  the capacity to produce weapons grade nuclear material while negotiations proceeded on longer-term relations between Iran and the rest of the world. 

Then, in August 2005, as the new government led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing to take office, Iran once again broke the terms of a suspension by operating the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.  Tehran did so before considering the offer of incentives that the European Union governments had just delivered.    Iran still had not given the IAEA the cooperation it needed to verify that there is no undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.  The international community responded meekly.  Uranium conversion was considered (unwisely) to be  less threatening than uranium enrichment; the red line was moved back. 

Iran had reversed the initiative in this contest.  Rather than being on the defensive to avoid the consequences of its still unresolved non-compliance, Tehran presented itself as the victim – the developing country whose rights to nuclear energy were being violated by the blood-thirsty Bush Administration. 

Finally, in February 2006, Tehran began to enrich uranium in centrifuges at the Natanz plant, crossing a red line that was too big to ignore. 

At this point, the states responsible for upholding the integrity of the nonproliferation regime had to take enforcement action.  Iran’s previous suspensions of proliferation-sensitive activities had been voluntary, but they had been undertaken to suspend the process of reporting Iran’s case to proper enforcement body, the UN Security Council.  After several months of diplomacy, the UN Security Council produced resolution 1696.  It is predicated on the facts that Iran has violated its obligations to the IAEA and has not provided cooperation and answers necessary for the IAEA to verify that Iran is upholding its fundamental obligation to apply nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes.  Iran is not meeting the conditions on which general rights to nuclear technology and cooperation are predicated, and as a result the Security Council demands that Iran suspend particular sensitive fuel cycle activities.  What Iran had volunteered to do before, the UN Security Council is mandating now.

The Security Council demand does not discriminate against Iran, nor is it arbitrary.  Rather it is a specific action to redress violations by Iran of the obligations that condition any state’s rights to use nuclear technology.  The action follows from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s patient exercise of its statutory requirement to report non-compliance to the UN Security Council, and from the Security Council’s responsibility to enforce the NPT.

UNSC Resolution 1696 does not require Iran to permanently suspend fuel-cycle activity.  It does not prejudge the outcome of the negotiations which it calls upon Iran to undertake.  Iran’s interlocutors (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom) do not seek to deny Iran’s rights to benefit from atomic energy.  Indeed, the offer to Iran includes cooperation in building new nuclear power plants in Iran.  If and when Iran restores confidence in its intentions by suspending  fuel-cycle activities, negotiations will focus, among other things, on conditions under which Iran could enrich uranium without raising reasonable doubts about its ongoing commitment to limit nuclear activities exclusively to peaceful applications.