Nuclear Rights and Wrongs

Why One Legal Term Stalled Negotiations With Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists during a visit to New York in September 2013 Courtesy Reuters

Judging from press accounts, the most recent round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program wrestled with the question of whether the Islamic Republic has a right to enrich uranium under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is party. It might seem surprising that this esoteric question would be a stumbling block to such high-stakes diplomacy. After all, any bargain that the United States and Iran struck would either permit the country to continue enriching uranium or not. Whether it has a right to do so seems semantic.

In truth, Iran’s right to enrich has been at the heart of the nuclear negotiations for the past decade, and it deserves its central place in talks today. Matters of legal theory aside, the right to enrichment has become a shorthand for the real central issue in the negotiations -- whether Iran will be allowed to maintain a nuclear weapons option as part of a nuclear program under international safeguards.

Whether the NPT guarantees signatories a right to enrichment is a long-standing dispute among the parties to the treaty. The NPT never uses that phrase, but Article IV of the text states that “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.”

Iran and many other parties to the NPT (including China, Germany, and Russia) have interpreted the NPT as guaranteeing a member’s right to develop enrichment for “peaceful purposes” under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom argue that the treaty does not guarantee a right to enrichment, only a right to “peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” without specifying what that right might include. (For its part, Washington has long argued that enrichment must be treated as a “sensitive” nuclear technology, meaning that it involves the direct

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