international analysis and commentary

Nuclear rights: the biggest unanswered question in the Iran deal


Ultimately, the Iran deal succeeded because it acknowledged Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology. But the careful language of the agreement is unlikely to settle the biggest debate throughout the negotiations: does Iran have the right to enrich uranium? According to numerous US politicians (as well as other Western policymakers and analysts), it does not, which may prove to be a sticking point in the coming months. According to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the right to enrich is an inalienable right. The outcome of this debate could determine the ultimate success or failure of the agreement and the stability of the global nuclear order.  

To be sure, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) is a very big deal and a major success for diplomacy and non-proliferation. Iran agreed to an unprecedented level of inspections of its nuclear facilities to guarantee that it is in compliance with its commitment to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98%, reduce its nuclear production capacity at Natanz by two-thirds, and redesign the Arak reactor so that it cannot produce plutonium. The goal of these measures is to allow Iran access to peaceful nuclear technology for civilian and energy purposes, and to reduce the likelihood of it acquiring a military nuclear capability. In exchange for these concessions, the United States and others will lift nuclear-related sanctions against the Islamic Republic and free up approximately $100 billion in frozen assets.

Turning to the details of the official language, the final agreement states: “Successful implementation of this JCPOA will enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the nuclear Non­Proliferation Treaty (NPT)….” This aligns with NPT Article IV which 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 without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”

What the language means is that Iran does have the right to enrich uranium, but under certain conditions. One comparison to this would be that citizens have the right to drive, but only so long as they are of the legal age with a license, vehicle registration, and insurance. Iran can enrich, as long as it complies with its commitments not to pursue nuclear technology for military purposes and to abide by the terms of the agreement, including verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and fully implementing the Additional Protocol (AP).

Right to enrichment was a red line for the Iran negotiators. In a 2013 article outlining policy recommendations for the incoming President Rouhani, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested, “if Washington recognized Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal could be reached immediately. Without this recognition, no substantial agreement will be possible.” For Iran, the right to enrich is both practical in terms of its energy needs and its interpretation of its rights under the NPT, but it is also symbolic. Nuclear technology has become an emblem of Iran’s development and a source of national pride. President Rouhani called the deal a “political victory” and “proud moment” for Iranians. Any deal that eliminated all enrichment would not have received public political support.

While Iranian domestic audiences celebrate the agreement, an ugly debate lies ahead in Washington. President Obama will present the agreement to the US Senate upon receipt of the final document, which will then have 60 days to evaluate the deal. Obama has stated that if the Senate rejects the agreement, he will veto the decision and it is unlikely the Senate can come up with the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override such a veto.

From the beginning, the right to enrich has been the major talking point among US politicians weighing in on the negotiations. In a March 2015 interview, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stated that she agreed with US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that Iran does not have the right to enrich. In his reaction to the announcement of a deal, Republican Senator Tom Cotton voiced the concern of many other Republicans, including presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham, when he concluded that the agreement was a failure because it did not achieve the initial objective, which was “to stop Iran from enriching uranium.” This comes at a time of bitter partisanship and as many Senators are positioning themselves for 2016 campaigns – congressional and presidential.

At the international level, the Iran agreement is a major boost for the NPT. Following the tepid outcome of the NPT Review Conference in May, the “cornerstone” of the global nuclear order was in need of a victory. Participants at the Review Conference failed to agree to a consensus document, largely because of dispute over participation in talks for a “WMD Free Zone” in the Middle East. Iran’s concessions now suggest progress is still possible in the region for disarmament and non-proliferation. But the NPT remains in a delicate balance.

The Iran agreement is unlikely to resolve the “right to enrich” debate and underlying questions of fairness within the NPT. States and civil society groups increasingly argue the NPT is imbalanced by permitting five states to possess nuclear weapons while the rest are excluded in what Indian Prime Minister Jaswant Singh in 1998 referred to as a “nuclear apartheid.” In 2014, Rouhani used the same language in setting Iran’s red lines for the negotiations. The “right to enrich” was meant to compensate for this imbalance in the NPT, therefore any limitations or differing interpretations of that right exacerbate non-nuclear weapon states’ sense of disenfranchisement. Once the celebrations are over, the P5 can turn their attention to addressing these underlying feelings of frustration in the global nuclear order. The Iran deal is a huge step forward in non-proliferation, but in the process it has also scratched at some deep wounds.