by François Nicoullaud
The risk of failure in the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program has increased after the most recent meetings in Oman and Vienna. The resolution of the key remaining points of contention—about Iran’s enrichment capacity and, even more problematic, the timetable for lifting sanctions—calls for daring political decisions from both negotiating teams that run counter to the positions of their respective establishments. Moreover, the new majority in the US Congress can at any time adopt additional sanctions that would trigger the collapse of the discussions.
As the prospect for a comprehensive agreement has become more elusive, a lesser compromise has emerged, based on revolving extensions of the present provisional agreement. After all, the Joint Plan of Action adopted on November 24, 2013 offers the United States and its partners inside the P5+1 (the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) effective control over Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for a modest alleviation of sanctions. As long as its uranium enrichment activity remains capped at the low rate of 5% and the completion of the Arak reactor is indefinitely postponed, Iran’s two paths to the bomb—through the production of either highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium—are blocked for good.
Tor Tehran, however, such a deal would mean freezing the development of its nuclear capacities while reducing any hopes of regaining its freedom to make decisions within the framework of a clear and permanent set of rules. Iran will not likely wait passively until the United States makes a series of critical choices: between extending again, or not, the present provisional agreement; inking, or not, a comprehensive and long-term agreement; imposing, or not, new sanctions on Iran; and conducting a military strike, or not, on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Despite the dramatic drop in oil prices and the potential of new sanctions, Iran is not cornered, as its P5+1 interlocutors would prefer to imagine. Tehran can still turn the tables. For instance, Iran could announce its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
As a treaty signatory, Iran is well within its rights. Article X of the Treaty reads: “Each Party shall … have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” Iran could argue that the almost complete blockade imposed on its economy and its population in the name of a supposed “threat to peace” has jeopardized its supreme interests. And of course, new US sanctions would only make things worse. That signatory countries possessing nuclear arsenals are imposing discriminatory measures against a signatory country without nuclear weapons violates the spirit and letter of the NPT.
Iran admitted to and corrected most of the past infractions of its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Despite thousands of hours of research, numerous IAEA inspectors have also failed to find any “smoking gun” pointing to the manufacture of a nuclear explosive device and the preparation of a nuclear test. Iran could also argue that the P5+1’s focus on the famous “breakout time” makes it clear that the country is still behind the starting line of any race to the bomb. As a result, Iran could conclude that the Security Council had no right to impose the type of sanctions that Chapter VII of the UN Charter permits in response to a “threat to peace”—and that the unilateral sanctions imposed by some of the UN’s most prominent members are even less justifiable.
To present itself as a responsible player, Iran should clearly state that its withdrawal from the NPT would have no influence on the validity of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA and its overall commitment not to build or acquire a nuclear weapon. In accordance with the provisions of this agreement, any Iranian nuclear material placed today under IAEA safeguards would remain subject to exactly the same controls and inspections. All new facilities, such as the nuclear reactors that Russia has agreed to build in Bushehr, would also fall under the same IAEA safeguards.
To alleviate any suspicions, Iran should declare upon withdrawing from the NPT that it would continue to abide on a voluntary basis to the treaty’s provisions by keeping all its nuclear material and facilities, present and future, under IAEA safeguards. Such a move is not unprecedented. France, which joined the NPT only in 1992, issued a statement at the UN in 1968 explaining its reasons for not signing the treaty and its intention, for the sake of non-proliferation, to behave nevertheless like a signatory. At the same time, Iran would make clear that any plan to attack Iranian nuclear facilities placed under IAEA safeguards would jeopardize these commitments. Finally, were Iran to withdraw from the NPT, it should announce its intention to rejoin the treaty as soon as the UN and unilateral sanctions related to its nuclear activities were rescinded.
It is important to avoid any precedent that could undermine the coherence and effectiveness of the NPT. Thus, the risk of Iran’s withdrawal should force the P5+1 to face up to their responsibilities as the main guardians of the treaty. Such a threat could also have a sobering effect on the US Congress and hasten the conclusion of the comprehensive agreement under discussion with Iran.