[Correction: I stated in the following article that “Uranium, of course, cannot be ‘transformed’ into plutonium.” In fact, radioactive isotopes can decay into other elements, which is what occurs when uranium isotopes become plutonium. I regret the error.]
Iran, an op-ed in the The New York Times reported yesterday, began operation of a group of uranium enrichment centrifuges, thus
violating a legally binding demand by the United Nations Security Council that Iran suspend such activities until the international community is confident that the country’s nuclear program “is for exclusively peaceful purposes.” Iran’s response was that a suspension would abrogate its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – even though under international law, it has temporarily surrendered these rights by violating the obligations that condition them.
Apparently, the “obligations” in question are compliance with the Security Council resolution calling on it to suspend uranium enrichment activities. Complying with the resolution is a “condition” of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT Treaty), according to the Times.
This is useful propaganda, but incorrect. (Incidentally, the Times seems to have had a hard time of things getting it right on Iran’s nuclear program. In just one notable example, last month the Times reported that Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak was “inherently dangerous for nuclear proliferation” because it could more easily produce “weapons-grade plutonium” than light-water reactors. In some cases, the Times reported, “uranium is transformed into plutonium.” Uranium, of course, cannot be “transformed” into plutonium. To the best of my knowledge, this glaring error was left uncorrected.)
The NPT Treaty obligates parties to “undertake to accept safeguards” under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty”, which are to prevent the use of nuclear technology to construct weapons.
These safeguards “shall be implemented in a manner designed to comply with Article IV of this Treaty, and to avoid hampering the economic or technological development of the Parties…”
Article IV states that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes….”
In short, under the NPT Treaty, Iran is obligated to allow the IAEA to inspect and verify that nuclear technology is being used for peaceful purposes only. But this obligation does not affect Iran’s “inalienable right” to further its development, including the process of uranium enrichment, for peaceful purposes.
The Times isn’t alone in getting it wrong on Iran. A report from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in August claimed that Iran was “enriching uranium to weapons grade”. The IAEA, in a letter to the Chairman of the Committee, pointed out that this was “incorrect”. Iran’s uranium is not enriched to weapons-grade and has a legitimate peaceful purpose.
As for the UN resolution demanding that Iran halt enrichment activities, resolution 1696 notes “with serious concern” that “Iran has not taken the steps required of it by the IAEA Board of Governors, reiterated by the Council in its statements of 29 March and which are essential to build confidence, and in particular Iran’s decision to resume enrichment-related activities….”
Iran’s suspension of enrichment-related activities had been voluntary, not an act of compliance with any obligation under the NPT Treaty. Nor does the NPT Treaty require Iran to take steps prejudicing its right to enrich uranium in order to “build confidence”. Iran must allow the IAEA to inspect its programs, but it is under no obligation to suspend legitimate activities. In fact, although the IAEA may make such a request of Iran, it would be a violation of the NPT Treaty on the part of the IAEA to make this a requirement, as it would be clearly be an act prejudicing Iran’s right to enrich uranium for non-military purposes.
The language of the resolution is thus carefully vetted. It “Calls upon Iran without further delay to take the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution GOV/2006/14” and “Demands, in this context, that Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities…” (“this context” emphasis added). The UN Security Council has no more authority than the IAEA to issue such “demands” absent clear evidence that such activities are intended for military purposes, as it prejudices Iran’s rights under the NPT Treaty.
The demand is in the “context” of the IAEA resolution, which clearly recognizes that “Article IV of the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons stipulates that nothing in the Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable rights of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination…”
The IAEA resolution “Expresses serious concern” that the Agency could not yet “clarify some important issues” and “Deeply regrets” that Iran had disinclined to acquiesce to requests to re-suspend enrichment activities after ending a voluntary suspension. It “Requests” that Iran “extend full and prompt cooperation to the Agency”. This, Iran, under the NPT Treaty, must do. But “cooperation” cannot be interpreted, under the Treaty, to include acquiescing to requests that prejudice its rights to enrich uranium.
This, then, is the “context” of the UN “demand”. Iran is under no obligation to acquiesce to “demands” that prejudice its rights under the NPT Treaty, and any demand which prejudice Iran’s rights is itself a violation of the Treaty. While “Iran’s response” is dismissed, Iran is correct that “a suspension would abrogate its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty”. Furthermore, Iran has “surrendered” none of its rights by claiming its rights under the Treaty and refusing to acquiesce to requests and demands that prejudice those same rights in violation of the very same Treaty.
 George Perkovich and Pierre Goldschmidt, “A Limited Time Offer to Iran”, Op-Ed, The New York Times, December 2, 2006
 William J. Broad, “As Iran Seeks Aid, Atom Agency Faces Quandry”, The New York Times, November 20, 2006
 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, April 22, 1970
 Letter from the IAEA to Peter Hoekstra, Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, September 9, 2006
 UN Security Council resolution 1696, July 31, 2006
 IAEA resolution GOV/2006/14, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, February 4, 2006