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. Iran has never had ANY intention of making a nuclear deal. Obama and Kerry’s capitulation to Iran will be met with a slap in the face by Iran. Obama said “we will not tolerate stall tactics”, and then did exactly that. I hope Israel bombs Iran nuclear facilities and soon. Warming up to Iran while cooling relations with Israel, Obama is going to go down as the WORST president in US history. Obama is the new meaning of inaction.

  2. Goodness, are you looking in your crystal ball with your prognostication[s]? Just to understand, who is it that control the financial world, you know, the bankers? Who is it that profits the most from all these wars? Who is it that finances all the warmongers, regardless of ethnic origin? Therein lies the tale of why there is this continual destruction between the peoples of the world. In reality, they don’t give a -you fill in the blank- who comes out ahead, as long as they are making a profit. I might also add, they are not racist in who wins or loses either. Something to think about.

  3. That’s a pretty self-evident question to ask. If you support Iran then of course you’re going to blame the US and neo-cons. If you support the US and Israel, you’re going to blame Iran’s unwillingness to give up its centrifuge capacity. There really isn’t that much drama here since we’ve been discussing the same issues for over a year now ad nauseum. The real issue here is who blinks first and unfortunately (from my point of view) I think it may be Obama. Iran and Khamenei have been pretty blunt and forceful when talking about what it wants to keep (centrifuges and missile technology) and what it is willing to give up (virtually nothing). The US has been a case of the incredibly shrinking position as it retrenches from no centrifuges, to 1,000 to 2,000 and now 4,000. I can only imagine what’s the next offer. Unfortunately we’ve also taken human rights improvements off the table while the UN and Amnesty International have issued scathing reports. We’ve taken foreign intervention off the table as a series of ham handed efforts to stem ISIS now leaves us looking at jumping in bed with Iran. This whole scenario could not have been better scripted for Iran unless the IRGC laid it all out in a bunker in Tehran…..hmmm, I wonder.

  4. I see change has resorted to running his/her/the name together again, also with the human rights issue again to boot. Oh yes, should have realized this would come out with the accusation about “O” right before the reelection on the 4th of November. Just in time to garner a few extra bucks after being mostly silent the past month. Rather telling which side of the political aisle he/her/they sit on. But then, we already knew, didn’t we? Of course we did, and peace wasn’t/hasn’t been in the mix then or now.

  5. Bore off Rick H.

    Did you even read the article?
    Iran isn’t even obliged to curtail its nuclear program under the NPT.

    As for Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities: it has neither the military capacity nor the cojones to do that.

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