Misleading White House Claims Target Iran

Nicole S Glass via Shutterstock

by Peter Jenkins

A White House press statement, dated July 1, claims that there is a “longstanding non-proliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran.” This claim is false.

For more than 40 years, the United States and its Western allies have “exercised a policy of restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, equipment, technology and material usable for nuclear weapons.” This is a longstanding non-proliferation norm. It covers uranium enrichment technology, since highly enriched uranium is “usable for nuclear weapons.” But it is a norm that only the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group observe. It is not a universal standard.

The obvious place to look for a universal standard is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the NPT prohibits the manufacture, possession etc. of nuclear weapons; it does not prohibit the acquisition, possession, or use of uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes.  On the contrary, it recognizes the inalienable right of all Parties to the Treaty [Iran has been a party since 1970]  “to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Behind that recognition lies an important principle: unless explicitly prohibited from doing so, states have a sovereign right to use technologies.

That said, the UN Security Council has the power to create legally binding standards. Perhaps the Security Council has created a “no enrichment in Iran” standard? On December 23, 2006 the Security Council decided under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (a legally binding combination) that Iran “shall…suspend … all enrichment-related…activities.” The Council affirmed and re-affirmed this decision on March 24, 2007, March 3, 2008, and June 9, 2010. But suspension is not the same thing as “cease possessing” or “never possess or use.” None of the Iran-related resolutions that the Council adopted between 2006 and 2015 created a “no-enrichment in Iran” standard. What’s more, when the Council adopted resolution 2231 on July 20, 2015, it terminated the suspension requirement.

Of course, White House officials must be aware of all of this. Perhaps that’s why the July 1 statement goes on to imply that Iran is developing nuclear weapons (“The United States and its allies will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons”) and later refers to Iranian “nuclear ambitions,” a charmingly ambiguous phrase.

This is not the first hint from the Trump administration that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. On June 21, for example, President Donald Trump tweeted that “President Obama’s deal” gave Iran “a free path to nuclear weapons, and SOON,” adding: “Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, not against the WORLD.” In a May 3 statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred twice to denying Iran any pathway to a nuclear weapon when justifying a “tightening of nuclear restrictions on Iran.”

This innuendo is scarcely credible. There was not the faintest indication of a current Iranian nuclear weapons program in the most recent (January 29, 2019) U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. On the contrary, the intelligence community wrote: “We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.” Israel alleged recently that 20 years ago Iran’s goal was to acquire six nuclear weapons, but Israel has not claimed any current nuclear weapons work. The inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have been reporting that they are getting all the access to Iranian sites to which they are entitled under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and that they have not detected any diversion of nuclear material or equipment to purposes unknown.

It seems more probable that the Trump administration is trying to compensate for the absence of international legal legitimacy for its Iran sanctions by creating political legitimacy. Its reasoning is easy to imagine: “There is no basis in international law for the hardship we are inflicting on the Iranian people. So, let’s look for a non-legal justification that will win political support around the world, including from those pesky Europeans who are trying to undermine our maximum pressure campaign (not very successfully or we would have made them regret their defiance). Heck, this is a no-brainer. Let’s put it about that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. The world will agree that it must be stopped.”

The U.S. Congress should look into the present administration’s reasons for laying economic siege to Iran. Is there proof that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons or, stretching a point, intends to do so after JCPOA restrictions lapse? Or is the administration’s only justification for applying maximum pressure a dislike of aspects of Iranian behavior—and President Trump’s dislike of President Obama’s 2015 deal? The U.S. public has a need to know.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. I suppose the Ayatollahs have never really even slightly hinted that they might possibly have any nuclear ambitions. I suppose the Ayatollahs must be a perfect example of honest honorable people that the whole world can trust.

    Look, if you don’t like the United States policies fine. But please don’t insult our intelligence by siding with the Ayatollahs, when you know perfectly well how horrible they are.

    You write as if they Ayatollahs will never press the button, if they actually had nuclear weapons. But of course they will. They have to serve their Mahdi. They have to cleanse the world.

  2. re: “longstanding non-proliferation standard of no enrichment for Iran”
    The NPT, and its agent IAEA, not only permit nuclear science, they promote nuclear science. A glance at the IAEA facebook and twitter pages reveals many examples of the benefits of nuclear science, which Iran like any country deserves to be a part of. The IAEA has a sufficient presence in Iran to ensure that no fissionable materials are transferred to any weapons program, should it exist which it doesn’t. And the recent US position has been that Iran has the right to enrich, affirmed by the JCPOA agreement and a UN Security Council Resolution. Iran’s explicit right to enrich (recently) has been US policy for at least nine years.

    BBC, Dec 3, 2010
    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on Iran to enter next week’s nuclear talks in good faith.
    . . .Mrs Clinton also told the BBC that Iran can enrich uranium for civilian purposes in the future, a rare statement for an American official. Washington has always been vague when asked whether Iran should one day be allowed to enrich its own uranium for civilian energy. But Mrs Clinton told the BBC that Iran can enrich uranium for civilian purposes at some future date once it has demonstrated it can do so in a responsible manner and in accordance with Iran’s international obligations. “We told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy,” she said.

  3. Repeating lies, again and again, in the face of fact, doesn’t make the facts! It’s pure desperate propaganda to get the US out of the self-made quagmire!

  4. Don Bacon

    US destroyed NPT back in 2006.

    UN, UNSC, ABM, INF, NPT, CWBT etc. are all defunct.

    The United States has pioneered the shape of things to come, Trump only has made that quite explicit.

    The only people that invoke UN are pathetic Arabs or sub-Saharan Africans.

    We have entered a new age of barbarism with Trumpian United States trying to starve Iranians.

    The time for diplomats has passed (or has not yet arrived).

    This is the time for warriors and blockade runners, for hard men who will build a new barbaric order on the wreckage of the post 1991 world.

  5. Trump and his gang of warmongers are “entitled to their own opinions BUT not to their own facts”.
    Trump has nothing to show for in the foreign policy arena before the election in 2020, although it could only be an academic exercise for him. Nevertheless, he has had several major setbacks in Iran, Syria, China, NK and recently in the ME with his plan to “buy peace with cash”. Therefore he’s unable to standup and pump his chest as a show off for his own poor followers. Since he’s had so many failures, he is trying so hard to accommodating and kissing up to Kim Jong-Un so he can claim a success before election. But the results are yet to be seen since him and his advisors are all over the place with their comments pointing to his very incoherent foreign policies and hyped up expectations. Domestically speaking his immigration policy is not doing any better and the confusing immigration policies potentially could pop up a few bad surprises for him from now until the election time.
    IMHO, Trump’s back up plan for the failure of his talks with NK is going to be his actions against Iran. But his actions against Iran are also limited without having an all out war against Iran which is going to be unlikely since he has to cross too many obstacles before het gets there.

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