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.

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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.

SHOW 12 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. Thanks once again to Ambassador Jenkins for pointing out the White House Press Secretary’s Statement on July 1 about Iranian uranium enrichment. That includes: “It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.” That presents the Israeli view. The sentence was most probably written by John Bolton.

    The use of the word ‘allow’ in that sentence tells a lot. No Iranian enrichment was the US position before the negotiation of JCPOA. But the compromise behind the NPT ‘allowed’ the five nuclear-weapon States to make their weapons any way they liked, while all other NPT States (which includes Iran) agreed not to make nuclear weapons and agreed (are ‘allowed’ under NPT) to use uranium enrichment (and plutonium reprocessing) only for peaceful purposes.

    Negotiating the JCPOA, the Iranians insisted that NPT provision be upheld, and the other parties agreed, including the US. If Pompeo/Bolton had been negotiating for the US, they would not have agreed, and there would not be a JCPOA. But the US was represented by John Kerry, and he agreed to Iranian enrichment with the President’s support, and we got the JCPOA. Now, Pompeo/Bolton have succeeded in withdrawing the US from the JCPOA, violating US commitments agreed to under international law in UN Security Council Resolution 2231(2015).

    What that series of events, and similar other ones under this Administration, tells any thinking person is, if you make a deal with a US Administration, don’t be surprised if a future US Administration backs out of that deal. And that goes all the way up from intergovernmental agreements to the level of treaties.

  2. Just to settle this debate once and for all, I’ve cited the transcript of Congressional hearings about the NPT (copies free) in which the US representative is quoted proving that the NPT recognizes a right to emrichment:

    ” In the course of the negotiation of the Treaty, United States representatives were asked their views on what would constitute the “manufacture” of a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device under Art II of the draft treaty. Our reply was the following: “It may be useful to point out, for illustrative purposes, several activities which the United States would not consider per se to be violations of the prohibitions in Article II. Neither uranium enrichment nor the stockpiling of fissionable material in connection with a peaceful program would violate Article II so long as these activities were safeguarded under Article III. Also clearly permitted would be the development, under safeguards, of plutonium fueled power reactors, including research on the properties of metallic plutonium, nor would Article II interfere with the development or use of fast breeder reactors under safeguards.”

    Extension of remarks by Mr Foster in response to question regarding nuclear explosive device,
    Nonproliferation Treaty: Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, Weds July 10 1966, page 39.

  3. Cyrus & JAMES LARRIMORE

    All these references to NPT or JCPOA are moot points now.

    CWBT did not protect Iran or Iraq’s Kurd either.

    The Charter of UN did not protect the governments of Arbenz, Allende, or Mossadegh.

    It did not protect Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Sikhim, Tibet, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Cambodia, and lastly Ukraine.

    These pieces of paper have demonstrated their worthlessness.

    Fussing about them, in my opinion, is unproductive. It would be more productive to discuss the merits of thermobaric weapons vs. Nuclear weapons; taking US allies hostage vs. threatening US herself – in this age of barbarism that is upon us.

  4. To: Cyrus
    You will see that our comments go along similar lines.
    I am truly impressed that you knew where to look in the NPT negotiating record and have it available! In my area, I use Myron Kratzer’s negotiating record of IAEA INFCIRC/153.
    My guess is that the President wouldn’t pay any attention to the negotiating record; Pompeo may or may not know there is a negotiating record; and John Bolton should know, but would try to avoid having it come up.
    I am sure you and I agree that FYI is wrong in saying those “pieces of paper have demonstrated their worthlessness.” To the contrary, the NPT is probably of more importance now than it has been for a long time.

  5. JAMES LARRIMORE

    You are misreading Trump, Iranian leaders are not.

    Like Hitler, who could not be appeased by the concessions of England in 1939, Trump cannot be appeased but by destruction of Iranian power.

    The records to which you refer are irrelevant to this historic juncture. NPT is dead, Americans killed it and the 2020 conference will not go anywhere.

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