Will the World Blame Iran if Nuclear Talks Fail?

by Peter Jenkins

The remarks of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at a symposium in Washington, DC on Oct. 23 contained at least one very questionable assertion: “We hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful…If that does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran.”

I suspect much of the world will see this assertion as presumptuous and self-righteous.  Most of the 189 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will want to judge for themselves where responsibility for failure lies, and it is not a foregone conclusion that they will decide to point the finger of blame at Iran.

On the contrary, many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) will applaud Iran if it seems to them to have been steadfast in defending what the NAM considers to be a sovereign right, enshrined in the NPT: the right to use uranium enrichment technology for peaceful purposes.

Most of these will applaud on principle, and also because, sad to say, since 1991 they have come to see the US as a bit of a bully—a bully, what’s worse, who appeases another state, a state which has never adhered to the NPT and is notorious for behaving badly.

A few will applaud because they want to keep open for themselves the option of enriching uranium for peaceful purposes. They will not have forgotten President George W. Bush’s proposal to divide the nuclear technology world into haves and have-nots, and they will suspect that the US has been trying to use Iran as the thin end of an unwelcome wedge.

Even in Europe, away from the NAM, there will be people who will be more inclined to blame the US for having made unreasonable demands than to blame Iran for having taken inadequate steps to “assure the world that its nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful.”

Some of these people have never doubted the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Some would like to be trading with, or investing in Iran and are sick of sanctions. Some will question the reasoning behind the blameless objective of obtaining an “exclusively peaceful” assurance.

According to the NPT, states must assure the exclusively peaceful nature of their nuclear programs by submitting all the nuclear material in their possession to international inspection (the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA). Leaks suggest that Iran is more than ready to do this—indeed is ready to submit to an inspection regime that is far more intrusive than the regime envisaged when the NPT first entered into force.

So if the negotiations fail, it will not be because Iran declined to provide the peaceful assurance envisaged by the US and other framers of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It will be because the US is trying to impose on Iran a later, more radical interpretation of “peaceful assurance.”

What the US wants is an Iranian nuclear program that cannot be anything other than peaceful—a program in which the availability of dual-use nuclear technologies, such as enrichment, is so curtailed and restricted that the non-peaceful option is excluded.

That would be fine if it were consistent with the NPT. But it is not.

So the US has no legal right to demand that Iran, to demonstrate the peaceful nature of its program, cut back to a few hundred or a few thousand centrifuges and maintain that restriction for decades–perhaps until the US has gotten over its dislike and distrust of the Islamic Republic, and no longer has to appease Israel?

Ambassador Sherman probably realizes this, because her remarks contain an attempt to justify US demands: “The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran…because the government violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, engaged in secret nuclear-weapons-related activities, and was less than transparent in reporting to international agencies. That past has created a thick cloud of doubt that cannot be dissipated by Tehran’s words and promises alone.”

This, however, is a political, not a legal justification for imposing a radical interpretation of “peaceful assurance.” Iran’s IAEA safeguards violations obliged Iran only to make the declarations that Iran had failed to make earlier. They did not oblige Iran to accept restrictions on the peaceful use of any technology.

The rest of Ambassador Sherman’s justification is baseless. The IAEA has no proof that Iran has engaged in nuclear-weapon-related activities or violated any NPT obligation apart from the safeguards obligation; and the UN Security Council, which failed to determine that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to peace and security, demanded suspension of enrichment pending a diplomatic solution, not curtailment.

In offering this critique of Ambassador Sherman’s remarks I am not trying to clear the way for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. I am trying to change a US mind-set that is likely to prove fatal to reaching an agreement with Iran, since I believe that an agreement can better discourage Iranian proliferation than any viable alternative.

My contention, to be clear, is that the US has no legal right to insist on Iran cutting back its uranium enrichment capacity to a few thousand centrifuges. Instead, the US must be content with making a political appeal to Iranian intelligence and self-interest. Iran’s negotiators can be asked to recognize that enrichment restrictions are a confidence-building measure that can serve the interests of both sides, and to make a good offer.

If the US then concludes that its BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) is better than what Iran is ready to offer, it can terminate the negotiation. But at that point it should not assume that the rest of the world will judge the US to have been the more reasonable or the more righteous of the two parties.

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. The door was opened when “O” and Rouhani spoke starting this process. All things considered, Israeli opposition all along, perhaps has more to do with its own nuclear activities, which under the standards the U.S. continues accusing Iran of, puts them in the target zone too. All good things come to those who wait, so to may this come about for Israel. As for Ms Sherman’s speak, like the dying gasps of the dinosaur, she trotted out her words, to placate the AIPAC overlords, who shower the U.S. politicians with those bags of cash, especially down to the wire before reelection time on November 4th, as a thank you gesture.

  2. It is good to see that someone with such a level of expertise and international reputation as Ambassador Jenkins makes the case that might dispel the delusions of some pro-Israeli US officials about the world’s reaction to the possible failure of nuclear talks with Iran. After 35 years of futile sanctions and isolation imposed on Iran by various US administrations, the Obama Administration decided to get out of that dead-end path and to start serious negotiations with Iran. As a result of one year of intense talks that have produced better results than anyone could have dared hope, the two sides have concluded a good deal, which while reassuring the “international community” of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, will also enable Iran to enjoy her right under the NPT to enrich uranium.

    The Joint Plan of Action that was concluded last November between Iran and the P5+1 has rolled back most of Iran’s nuclear activities, including stopping enrichment at 20%, changing the design of the Arak heavy water reactor to make sure that it will not be able to produce weapon-grade material, turning the Fordo enrichment plant into a research only facility, as well as cutting back the stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5%. Furthermore, Iran has agreed to more stringent inspections of its sites, on a daily basis, and the IAEA has regularly reported that Iran has carried out its side of the bargain. These measures have already gone well beyond the requirements of the NPT and even of the Additional Protocol.

    The issue of negotiations with Iran is not only important for relations between Iran and the United States, but it is also extremely important for the peace of the Middle East and the world. The talks are reaching a very crucial and critical stage next month. This is why those who wish to sabotage those talks have also intensified their efforts in spreading lies and are already blaming Iran for their possible failure. If this agreement is torpedoed by Israel and her supporters in the United States, the world will know which side is to blame. The sanctions will collapse, as more and more European and Asian countries are already ignoring them anyway, and Iran will move closer to Russia, China, India and the Shanghai Union. There is also a danger that the whole nonproliferation regime will collapse as more and more countries will realize that nuclear powers wish to impose nuclear apartheid and prevent others from having access to peaceful nuclear technology. It is essential to make sure that the talks produce a comprehensive agreement next month, rather than trying to apportion blame for their possible failure.

  3. I think Iran should be able to enrich enough nuclear fuel to power its own nuclear power plants.
    Fine piece.

  4. “…since 1991 they have come to see the US as a bit of a bully—a bully, what’s worse, who appeases another state, a state which has never adhered to the NPT and is notorious for behaving badly.”

    Yes, the world is not stupid. World knows who are the players in this game. I am not anti-American, but I yearn for true USA – the beacon of hope for oppressed people. Not the judge and executioner in one. Not the hypocrite, playing all sides and loosing its own face in the process. Not an overlord of all, but loved equal among equals. This coming negotiations with Iran will be definitely close monitored by the nations of the world to see if there is hope for a change.

  5. Thank you peter Jenkins. Well educated, a brilliant career and a balanced mind.
    I endorse peter’s argument and Farhang Jahanpour’s comment entirely.
    Iranians have learned to live under sanctions for a long time. They learned to endure years under siege . They also proved they are able to besiege a stream of volunteers to fill the war fronts almost for ever !. So threatning Iran with “all options on the table” would not frighten Iranian Government or even the people of Iran.
    It is known that people of Iran are hospitable, kind, life loving, gentle,hard working and civilised . But the same people are proud, value their national pride highly and fight fiercely when their national pride is hurt.
    The US’s national interest is best served in a friendly relation with iran and iranian rather than any country, including Israel, in the area. Iranians are better contained as a friend than as an enemy. Iran never had and doesn’t have the intention of producing A-bombs. Iranians are more intelligent than giving such an excuse to the US and israel. God forbid,In the event of an Atomic war what chance would Iran have to defit the US ? This is the red line that Iran would never cross.
    Unconditional support of the US for Israel is hurting nearly 1.5 billion Muslims all over the world- Muslims who are prepared to stand up for their faith and die for it if necessary. God forbid the day that all Muslim Jihadists decide to stop fighting among themselves and create a unified front aginst Israel. Then not even Irael’s powerful allies can effectively protect Israel and Israelis. Not even Arab lealers who would do anything to please the US and preserve their precarious positions.
    If Israelis were thinking intelligently and long term,instead of playing the role of helpless innocently prosecuted jews, would grab the opportunity of an honorable long lasting peace deal with the Palestinians before it is too late.
    The talks with Iran is reaching a point of make or break. If you ask for unreasonable assurances( as in Merchant of Venice), you can be sure that the talk will end with no positive outcome. Then what? Would that be a better situation ?

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