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.