Should Iran Withdraw from the NPT?

by Peter Jenkins

I had the pleasure of talking to Ambassador Hossein Mousavian around the time when the thoughts that underlie his controversial article, “Five Options for Iran’s New President”, were forming in his mind. His mood, it seemed to me, was more pessimistic than I had known it before. He was starting to despair of the Obama administration finding the political courage to square up to Congress and Israel, and clear a path to the resolution of the nuclear dispute by offering Iran toleration of a peaceful nuclear program and meaningful sanctions relief.

I am therefore inclined to see Mousavian’s highlighting of withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as an attempt to stiffen the administration’s resolve by reminding them of the potential cost of continuing to allow this dispute to fester.

I am also inclined to see it as a reminder to all of us that since 2001, the US, UK and France have been abusing the NPT, and that this is short-sighted and foolish. But before I elaborate on that, let me make a few points about Iran and NPT withdrawal.

Mousavian suggests that the NPT has failed to bring any benefits to Iran. Really? The NPT has delivered a world in which there are only four nuclear-armed states, in addition to the five Nuclear Weapon States. In 1970, when the NPT entered into force, people feared that by now there would be 20 nuclear-armed states. A largely nuclear-weapon-free world is a great benefit for all, including Iran (and the great free-rider, Israel).

Mousavian implies that withdrawal from the NPT would be a painless option for Iran. Of course, he knows better than that. “You ain’t seen nothing yet” is how the US, UK and France would react to withdrawal.

Even more painfully, I suspect, for the Islamic Republic’s leaders, all the hard work put into establishing Iran as a responsible international actor, albeit nobody’s poodle, would be undone. Only a handful of non-aligned states would sympathise. Iran would lose the friendship of Russia and China, two states that take their NPT responsibilities very seriously. Iran would revert to its outcast status of the early 80s.

Mousavian intimates that the world should accept the Supreme Leader’s fatwas as a better guarantee of Iran’s non-proliferation commitment than adherence to the NPT. That is fanciful, I am afraid. Rightly or wrongly, the world fears that what the Leader bans today, he can licence tomorrow.

Mousavian is on much firmer ground when he accuses the US and its Western allies of abusing the NPT as an instrument of pressure. Article IV of the NPT does not oblige the holders of dual-use technologies to make those technologies available to other NPT parties, as Iran has sometimes seemed to be claiming. Equally, however, it does not confer a right to coerce other NPT parties into surrendering technologies that they have developed for themselves, provided the technologies are in peaceful, safeguarded use.

In 2003, after the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had reported several Iranian failures to comply with its IAEA safeguards obligations, there existed, to my mind, a moral and political basis for requiring Iran to suspend the use of dual-use technologies. But that justification faded once those failures had been corrected and once the US intelligence community had concluded that Iran was no longer decided on getting nuclear weapons.

Sadly, this abuse of the NPT is of a piece with other short-sighted missteps that, over time, can undermine Non-Nuclear Weapons States’ (NNWS) support for the treaty:

– in 2001 the George W. Bush administration went back on a commitment made to NPT-parties by the Clinton administration to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and reduced funding to the CTBT Provisional Treaty Secretariat;

– in 2004 President Bush proposed a freeze on the peaceful use of dual-use technologies by NNWS, but then insisted that covert South Korean research into uranium enrichment did not amount to IAEA non-compliance;

– in 2005 the Bush administration set about asking for an exception, to benefit India, to an understanding that Nuclear Suppliers would only make nuclear material and equipment available to non-NPT nuclear-armed states under very restricted circumstances;

– at the 2005 NPT Review Conference the US and France all but said out loud that Article VI of the NPT is for the birds; and the US protected Israel from non-aligned pressure for a conference on creating a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East.

Obviously things have improved since Barack Obama moved into the White House. At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the US signed on to a final document that brought it back into concurrence with the compromises on which the NPT is founded; and the US and Russia signed an agreement that demonstrates a will to move towards nuclear disarmament. Just recently, President Obama made plain his desire to move further in that direction.

But when it comes to Iran, nothing has changed. The administration, like a weasel caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, seems paralysed by a Congress that Israel’s Prime Minister has bewitched. No attempt is made to challenge Congress with an analysis of the implications for Iran policy of the relevant provisions of the NPT. Instead, Congress is left to luxuriate in the conviction that international treaties can be a useful tool for policing the rest of the world but can be ignored by the good, old U.S. of A.

Mousavian’s mood may have improved since Iranians elected a president with whom Western leaders can afford to be photographed; and since it became blindingly obvious that the West needs Iranian cooperation to restore peace to Syria (and in Afghanistan from next year). But until Mousavian sees the administration stand up to Congress on Iranian policy, he is likely to continue fearing the worst.

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. Excellent article. Iran has every reason to feel the U.S. has abused the NPT. Unfortunately, the Israelis and their lobby would like nothing better than for Iran to withdraw from the treaty so that they could point to it as confirmation that Iran was moving forward with a nuclear weapons program.

    Up to now, Iran has taken the high road, kept its cool and addressed every fabrication with facts and avoided every provocation by taking it and moving forward. Whether or not the US mainstream media will still trash Iran and its leadership, don’t think that the rest of the world is unaware of the dissonance and disconnect of the MSM reports, or is not tiring of U.S. policy.

    The Administration has a great opportunity to make a grand bargain. Unfortunately, when one tallies what it has done and what it is doing throughout the region, one senses that Obama and Rice and Congress really don’t know how to get out of their ideological box, and focus on U.S. as opposed to Israeli national interests, or realize that all of the players in the region should and could be working together to build a more prosperous future.

  2. I don’t understand why Iran should remain in NPT if sanctions only get worse ? We are almost close the maximum possible sanctions now so what Iran lose if it withdraw from NPT? Many people think war is not possible at the moment and once Iran is out of NPT it can obtain nuclear device rather easily and therefore make war impossible. My argument is if in both case Iran remain under sanctions why should it remain under NPT?

  3. Art IV of the NPT: ” All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials …”

    The assertion that NWS are not obligated to share nuclear technology under the NPT is controversial and many Developing Nations disagree with the notion that no such obligation exists. The language of Article IV specifically included the obligation to “facilitate” inorder to emphasize that the NPT required an active commitment by the nuclear-armed countries to share nuclear technology.

    In any case, there is no question that Article IV does stipulate in a clear and direct manner that states have an inalienable right to research, develop, and produce nuclear energy, and the current sanctions and restrictions imposed on Iran violate that provision.

  4. Iran should withdraw fro NPT as it is already having sanctions on it, what if it withdraws from NPT. Writer has very conviently said that US, UK and France are violating and abusing NPT rules and commitments by offering deals to their allies…USA making Israel aheaven for securing its nuclear weapons in other way providing Israel with deterrence capability to counter the Iranian threat.

  5. Yes of course, Israel is threating Iran on hand and US showing gestures to attack Iran. In such a tense and threatening environment Iran will definitely go for nuclear weapons and obviously n p t has no more viability as Israel is non npt signatory with nuclear arms.

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