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Home > News > Columnists > Virendra Gupta

It's the NPT, not Iran

May 17, 2007

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International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors appear to have confirmed that Iran has put together nearly 1,300 centrifuges for producing low enriched Uranium which can fuel nuclear reactors.

However, weapons grade enrichment is still a long way off, and there could well be many technological impediments in achieving that alleged goal. Last month President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced at the Natanz nuclear facility amidst a lot of fanfare that Iran had begun enriching uranium on an industrial scale.

That claim may be somewhat exaggerated, and there are a lot of question marks. But technical questions about the real extent of Iran's nuclear programme are quite pertinent, and the international community is entitled to seek full clarification on this matter. And Iran must cooperate to provide the needed answers.

Iran, however, continues to adopt a defiant posture which is bound to further exacerbate the ongoing nuclear standoff with the West. Teheran's actions and pronouncements fly in the face of the UN sanctions imposed against it.

Iran still enriching uranium: IAEA report

Iran appears unimpressed so far by these mild sanctions, and tougher measures are likely be initiated after the IAEA submits its report to the Security Council next week documenting the ongoing uranium conversion and other 'proliferation sensitive' nuclear activities in that country.

But confrontation with Iran on this issue, or worse still, any attempt at coercion, could degenerate into an uncontrollable disaster for everybody concerned.

Notwithstanding some noises being made in the hardline circles in the US and Israel advocating pre-emptive military action against Iran, the balance of opinion in the international community, including within IAEA itself, still favours a negotiated peaceful resolution of the problem.

Iran is a large country with great civilization and culture behind it and it would be foolhardy to try pushing it around as a non-entity. It must be remembered that the issues relating to a sense of one's own pride and the resulting aspirations are as important in international relations as in our day-to-day interpersonal relations.

Iran snubs UNSC, expands N-plan

Iran is a signatory to the NPT and being a party to this treaty it has voluntarily forsaken its nuclear weapon option. It has to fulfil its obligations under NPT both in letter and in spirit. It must therefore do everything needed to assure the international community that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons programme through the back door by exploiting certain weaknesses and loopholes inherent in the NPT and the attendant IAEA safeguards and inspection regime.

IAEA's insistence, therefore, on complete transparency concerning Iran's ongoing and past nuclear activities appears quite unexceptionable. The Iranian leadership has been asserting that Iran was only interested in the pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy. As such there should be no difficulty in Iran cooperating fully with IAEA on the transparency issue. If that is done, there can be no valid objection to Iran's pursuit of the Uranium conversion technology.

Notably, there are no specific provisions in NPT or IAEA's safeguards agreements disallowing uranium enrichment or reprocessing activities by non-nuclear countries. Thus, while Iran's argument that the international community's demand for the suspension of enrichment activity in Iran has no legal basis is quite impeccable, it lacks credibility in the absence of requisite transparency concerning Iran's nuclear programme. What is needed is both compliance and confidence in the spirit of maturity and sincerity.

High pitched rhetoric on this issue on both sides has somehow tended to obfuscate the real issues. While the allegations about Iran's undeclared nuclear activities in the last twenty years involving all aspects of nuclear fuel cycle have precipitated the current crisis, the issue at hand is hardly country specific.

As Michael Spies of the American Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy notes in one of his analytical reports, 'The problem of Iran is a problem inherent in the NPT framework' because of the deficiencies in the compliance assessment process under NPT.

Ironically, IAEA's fullscope safeguards, as currently applicable to a non-nuclear weapon state member of the NPT, do not imply unfettered IAEA access to all the nuclear facilities which that country may have. While the compliance process covers verification of any diversion of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear projects under IAEA safeguards, there is no provision for effective monitoring of other aspects of suspected weapon related programme thus restricting IAEA's 'access to non-declared facilities of a purely military nature'. In fact, there are no foolproof guarantees against a State going the nuclear weapon route despite its adherence in letter, to the IAEA safeguards.

'Most US intelligence on Iran inaccurate'

In 1997, IAEA brought the additional protocol to strengthen its inspection authority for better monitoring capabilities through the provision of expanded rights for inspections, but Iran has not as yet ratified this additional protocol.

Many other countries are in the same boat. Efforts are underway to strengthen the non-proliferation regime by instituting the additional protocol as an obligatory requirement. There are other insidious proposals on the table as well, such as the one for setting up a multilateral supra-national agency to exercise complete control over all nuclear fissile material.

The international community's obsession with non-proliferation appears quite skewed. The NPT was conceived as a grand bargain between non-nuclear weapon States which renounced their nuclear weapon option in return for a commitment by nuclear weapon States to work for nuclear disarmament involving complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

The former were also promised nuclear technology for peaceful purposes but this assurance has failed to materialize fully. Lack of trust in the intention and design of several threshold countries has led to the imposition of a plethora of denial regimes and selective standards have begun to be applied. There is suspicion against all countries which have plans to develop the nuclear fuel cycle.

We consider NPT a flawed treaty: India

Thus, for instance, while enrichment activity in Iran may be viewed with concern, the same is seen as posing no difficulty when carried out in several Western non-nuclear weapon countries.

Why should the non-nuclear weapon countries cooperate in strengthening of non-proliferation regimes when there is a total absence of any movement over corresponding obligations undertaken by nuclear weapon countries towards the goal of complete nuclear disarmament, a goal which was solemnly reaffirmed in the first UN session on disarmament?

In fact, the nuclear weapon countries are reluctant to even allow any meaningful discussion on this issue.

As long as these double standards persist, as long as certain countries remain adamant on keeping their nuclear weapons intact whether on the pretext of their specious security requirements or to serve as an un-stated currency of power and status in the international affairs, there would be powerful incentives and indeed temptations for other countries to pursue their nuclear weapon ambitions. It would certainly be morally defensible and may even be perceived as a practical necessity by those countries. As long as that scenario persists, we will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.

Yesterday it was North Korea; tomorrow it could be Iran; and then some other country � may be Japan -- and so on. Let us face it, the technology required for making the nuclear bomb is no longer in the cutting edge category which it was 50 years ago. Scientists in any middling country can put together a bomb within a modest timeframe with a little bit of support from the government.

This view expressed by the former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, Dr PK Iyengar, at a seminar at India Habitat Centre a few months ago merits serious consideration. The non-proliferation efforts solely aimed at keeping in check 'potential proliferators' are not likely to succeed as in the past. Credible progress in non-proliferation would be possible only if these efforts are once again rooted in the context of the goal of complete nuclear disarmament.

The challenge is to develop a long term strategy to deal with a very real threat posed by nuclear proliferation rather than relying on ad hoc, knee-jerk reactions. We should take the initiative to flag this point rather than getting sucked into a US led agenda on Iran which may have ramifications far beyond the nuclear issue on the table.

The author is Deputy Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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