Does NPT Guarantee Right to Enrichment?


The latest rounds of negotiations in Geneva between Iran and six world powers on former’s nuclear program have revolved around the dispute whether the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) confers its members the right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses of nuclear power. The 1970 treaty promotes non proliferation by preventing any non-nuclear member from going nuclear.

One of the most persuasive articles of this treaty, which is the most universally accepted legal framework to govern non proliferation of nuclear weapons, has been that it recognizes all state parties’, which were non-nuclear by 1967, inalienable right to make peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The reason to motivate such countries to renounce the acquisition of nuclear weapons to become state parties was to assure them that they would not forfeit their privilege to utilize nuclear energy if their goal is for medical research, or generation of electricity etc. Moreover, the countries possessing no nuclear power reactors, let alone nuclear weapons were encouraged to join non proliferation regime by signing and ratifying the NPT in the 1970s by incorporating a provision that contains a promise on the part of scientifically-advanced state parties of the treaty to assist non-nuclear states in developing peaceful nuclear program.

In this vein comes the issue of supplying nuclear fuel for running nuclear power reactors and related technology to the developing countries which lack nuclear capabilities from those who possess the same. Viewed from this angle the NPT is a bargain between those which had acquired nuclear weapons by 1967 but favored non proliferation by denying non-nuclear states nuclear arms as well as required technology to produce them and those which pledged not to manufacture nukes in exchange for cooperation to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

The dual use of enriched uranium makes the issue complicated as some countries having Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) have been found pursuing the manufacturing of the nuclear weapons secretly. Uranium is one of the two ingredients, the other being plutonium, which can simultaneously be used for operating nuclear power plants and for producing nuclear weapons. Nuclear scientists have admitted with 20% or higher level of enriched uranium any country can produce nuclear weapons in a relatively shorter period of time if they have suitable technological expertise and knowledge in the related field.

Against such background the nuclear program conducted by Iran has been under suspicion as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog verifying whether a country’s nuclear activities are for peaceful ends, has sometimes raised concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions. In some of its reports it has criticized that Iran has not been revealing the details of its all nuclear power plants located in different parts of the country. Natanz and Fordo nuclear power plants were discovered lately.

Based on such critical reports of the IAEA, the UN Security Council, which is authorized to maintain international peace and security, has passed resolutions imposing sanctions against Iran for violation of the NPT provisions. The NPT provisions require the non-nuclear states parties to refrain from producing or acquiring nuclear fuel, technology for military purposes. The UN Security Council has decided at times that Iran’s clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons is in contravention of the NPT.

Iranian nuclear standoff has remained as an irritant issue in U.S.-Iran relations. Even the European countries have criticized Iran’s nuclear activities and have imposed economic sanctions against the country. One of such sanctions is related to restriction on oil imports from Iran, which has crippled the Iranian economy. Similarly, Iran has been subjected to strong economic sanctions by the U.S. government and some Congressmen are so obsessed with such punishment of Iran that president Obama has been facing fierce opposition from them while his administration prepares to ease some sanctions in return for Iran’s willingness to curb its nuclear program under the new deal.

Negotiations between Iran and P5+Germany (China, France, Russia, UK, and the U.S. are referred to as P5 being the permanent members of the UN Security Council) conducted in Geneva have produced an interim plan to be replaced by a comprehensive agreement after six months. President Obama has put in enough efforts to strike an interim agreement, which will provide limited sanction relief to Iran to induce it to constrain its nuclear weapons program. One of the ways to attain this goal is to dilute Iran’s uranium stockpile.

As reported in the New York Times by Michael R. Gordon the U.S. is to provide $ 6 billion to $ 7 billion in sanctions relief in addition to $ 4.2 billion in oil revenues despite Congress’ strong criticism of any agreement that does not fully dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.

Being fully aware of this objection by U.S. law makers president Obama has seized the momentum of having a deal that makes progress in capping the enrichment capability of Iran. Under the new plan Iran would stop enriching uranium beyond 5 % which is alleged to have stockpiled uranium enriched to 20%.

Some of the Congressmen are also threatening to pass new laws for imposing new sanctions for lack of desired progress on curtailing nuclear program of Iran but president Obama will use his administrative authority to provide the limited sanctions relief to Iran.

Gary Samore, in his Foreign Affairs feature “Nuclear Rights and Wrongs” has argued that the NPT does not specifically bestow the right to enrich uranium to the treaty members but one should bear in mind that he is the president of “United Against Nuclear Iran” an advocacy group that pleads tough sanctions against Iran unless it does more to control its nuclear program.

A look at the Article IV of the NPT would be in order, which states “nothing in this treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty”. The interim agreement also substantiates the fact that a non-nuclear NPT member can exercise its right to enrich uranium provided the level of purity is low enough to constrain the country to produce nuclear weapons.

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