Iran Has No ‘Right’ To Enrich Uranium

As efforts continue to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons, a central Iranian negotiating demand is acknowledgment of its “right” to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Although spurious, this assertion has gone without a forceful public challenge. By categorically refuting the claim, the United States and its international partners could fortify and clarify their stance against Iran’s nuclear program.

The crux of world concern is Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. Enrichment can produce fuel for electricity-generating nuclear reactors and fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Iran currently produces 3.5% and 20% enriched uranium, claiming that it requires the former for electricity generation and the latter for medical isotopes. While 20% is not yet weapons-grade (which is above 90%), the larger and more highly enriched Iran’s uranium stockpile grows, the faster it can be turned into a nuclear weapon. Each month Iran produces enough 20%-enriched uranium to meet its medical needs for a year (nearly 20 pounds), yet it continues to expand its infrastructure for enriching uranium to this level.

Iran says it is not breaking any rules and has a right to enrich uranium. Earlier this year, its chief negotiator demanded that “any right which is indicated in the Nonproliferation Treaty should be respected.” During the Moscow talks in June with representatives of six world powers, AP quoted an Iranian delegate as saying that, “Our minimum demand . . . is for them to recognize our right to uranium enrichment. If this is not accepted by the other side, then the talks will definitely collapse.”

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) grants no such right. Its Article IV merely states: “[N]othing 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 without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.”

This raises two problems for Iran’s assertion. First, enrichment isn’t specifically enumerated. As the late nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter warned, “the NPT is, after all, a treaty against proliferation, not for nuclear development.” Nothing in the NPT implies a right to possess all, especially potentially military, elements of nuclear technology.

Second, the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy is based on compliance with Article II of the treaty, which requires that any country without nuclear weapons “undertakes . . . not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.” Further, the country must, under Article III, accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “verification of the fulfillment of its obligations.”

Iran has consistently violated these obligations. It has denied the IAEA unrestricted access to its nuclear facilities and failed to explain mounting evidence, such as suspected explosives testing, of a nuclear-weapons program. In 2005, the IAEA declared that “Iran’s many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement . . . constitute noncompliance,” and referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council. This and subsequent findings formed the legal basis for six Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to “suspend all enrichment-related” activities, and levying sanctions until it does.

Iran considers the Security Council’s actions illegitimate. If the NPT grants a right to enrich, Iran reasons, then “the reference of its nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council from the IAEA has been illegal,” according to one Iranian negotiator. And if U.N. attempts to impinge on Iran’s right to enrich are illegal, then so too must be the sanctions imposed for that purpose.

By making this argument, Iran seeks to maintain the rhetorical high ground no matter what happens. If the world accedes to Iran’s terms and allows continued enrichment—even as an interim “confidence-building measure” that some experts support—international powers would cede any legal basis for demanding further concessions or continuing to impose sanctions. Alternatively, if talks fail definitively, as appears likely, Iran can keep claiming to be the illegally and unjustifiably aggrieved party.

Iran’s legal transgressions may not be its gravest crimes against peace. But they should be exposed for what they are: further evidence of Tehran’s unwillingness to stop a nuclear program that violates international law. The Obama administration has rightfully sought to curtail Iran’s dangerous enrichment work. Now the administration should work with international partners to prevent Iranian grandstanding from weakening their stance or skewing public opinion. It’s time to unequivocally refute Iran’s fallacious claim of a right to enrich uranium.

Mr. Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Foreign Policy Project, of which Mr. Misztal is associate director.

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on July 8, 2012.