123 Agreement, Avner Cohen, E3+3, Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee, ENDC, Indo-US nuclear deal, Interim Nuclear Agreement, Iran, Israel, Micah Zenko, NAM, New York Times, Non-Aligned Movement, Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, nuclear, Pakistan, United States, Washington Post
The euphoria over the recent Interim Nuclear Agreement with Iran, despite a few discordant voices, has been global. The agreement eased the buildup of political pressure in the region over the last six years and it has set an optimistic stage for negotiations to begin. The difficult issues well known, the path ahead remains long and arduous, and one wonders if either side knows what an acceptable comprehensive solution to Iran’s nuclear question would look like. We should all wish for a timely and mutually satisfactory resolution to the matter, but the focus on the technical aspects of a resolution may have taken for granted, unwarrantedly, an underlying philosophy of nuclear proliferation.
One difference between the two sides is in their different interpretation of Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Tehran argues that the clause gives each member of the NPT the inalienable right to pursue peaceful nuclear activity, including enrichment, while the United States believes that the NPT confers no such right. On this, Washington’s case appears to be weak; the inalienable right is, however, contingent upon conformity with Article II which states that non-nuclear weapons states will not seek, directly or indirectly, to weaponise their nuclear technology. What this implies is that Iran may enrich uranium to whatever level it chooses – if it plans to develop nuclear submarines, even 90% enrichment may be required – as long as there is adequate verification that Iran is not diverting the fissile material to a secret weapons programme.
The objection to the US interpretation is that it uses the NPT to achieve non-proliferation creep – overstate its mandate. In fact, Article IV (2) even says that members are allowed “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” a clause the US refuses to honour via its infamously stringent Gold Standard 123 Agreements for civil nuclear cooperation. This should concern all countries that engage in nuclear power for it casts doubt on their “inalienable right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and have implications on its nuclear commerce with the United States.
Oh, what a difference signing a treaty makes! While Iran’s nuclear programme has received so much (negative) attention in the Western media, Israel has escaped with little mention. Patrick Pexton wrote in 2012 that going back a decade in the Washington Post‘s archives, he found little reporting of Israeli nuclear capabilities. Similarly, Micah Zenko noted that “Iran” and “nuclear” has appeared 603 times in the New York Times headlines since January 01, 2000. In the same period, Russia was mentioned 86 times, China 52 times, and Pakistan 48 times. Tehran’s claim, therefore, that it is being singled out for attention and punishment is hard to refute.
Israel is another bugbear for Iran, not only militarily and strategically, but also in terms of the “nuclear nepotism” it enjoys from the United States. Despite maintaining complete nuclear ambiguity – amimut – it is no secret any longer that Jerusalem has a robust nuclear arsenal. The revelations by Mordechai Vanunu, some excellent scholarship by Avner Cohen, and the cloaked statements by Israel’s own officials leave little doubt that Israel indeed has a clandestine nuclear programme; though the US media does not want to talk about it, the Middle East most certainly does. Saudi Arabia has been quiet as tensions with Iran have risen as Riyadh sees Tehran to be a more immediate threat than Jerusalem, but it was not too long back that Iran and the Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, were insisting that talk of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone would not hold any meaning without Israel’s participation. Tellingly, in 1985, Iran had called out to Libya and Syria for them all to develop nuclear weapons as a counter to the Israeli nuclear threat. Iran is sure to point out Western double standards with Jerusalem but as a non-signatory to the NPT, Israel technically enjoys a little more leeway than Tehran.
This nuclear hypocrisy is not new; even before the ink was dry on the NPT, the United States deliberately kept its interpretation of the NPT with respect to nuclear sharing between NATO countries secret from other signatories, particularly the Non-Aligned Movement. Later, in the 1980s, the United States looked the other way as Pakistan clandestinely developed its nuclear weapons; when the illicit nuclear proliferation network of AQ Khan was exposed in 2004, Pakistan got a mere slap on the wrist. Pakistan’s nuclear ties with China have also gone without invoking reprimand from Washington or the European Union. The 2008 nuclear deal that Washington aggressively lobbied for with India, whatever its justification, is not in the spirit of the nuclear non-proliferation regime either, and at home, Washington has embarked on a multi-billion dollar nuclear modernisation programme. It is difficult not to concede the point to Tehran that non-proliferation is a matter of convenience for the United States.
While Iran may be called to task for forgetting that its Article IV rights under the NPT must stand in conformity with Article II (or for that matter, forgetting the safeguard stipulations of Article III), one wonders if the five recognised nuclear powers (N5) may be called to task for failing to remember the provisions of Article VI (nuclear disarmament). What yardstick is there to verify that the N5 have been responsible and true to their word? Keeping aside the insanity of accumulating over 120,000 (!!) warheads between the United States and Russia since 1945, it is of little comfort to note that the same two countries still hold approximately 95% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The greatest violators of the NPT are, in that sense, the United States and Russia.
These issues undermine any genuine nuclear non-proliferation because the whole agenda is seen to be laced with US national interests. The overwhelming presence and reach of US media and its reference mostly to research from US think tanks has dramatically skewed international perception in favour of an American hegemonic discourse of nuclear non-proliferation. Admittedly, US research institutes are among the best in the word in terms of funding, scholars, and research, but a quick glance through the position papers produced by other countries, particularly those in the glare of the nuclear witch hunt, shows strong reservations expressed over vertical proliferation, nuclear apartheid, and other concerns. A blunt declaration of national interest would be understandable and less insulting than the hypocrisy of moralpolitik.
As long as such resentment exists, there cannot be a comprehensive solution. Iran may buckle under economic sanctions for now, but this may only be a sign that it has learned its lesson from this episode well; if it decides to pursue a nuclear weapons programme in the future, it will tread far more gently and when it is in a better position to withstand US and EU pressure. If the negotiations for a comprehensive solution between the E3+3 (France, Germany, Britain + Russia, United States, China) and Iran focus merely on the technical issues of verification and curtailing enrichment & reprocessing, the potential reasons for Tehran’s suspected quest for nuclear weapons will not have been addressed and could remain a sore spot for future conflagrations.
In the game of accusations and counter-accusations between Iran and the West over the NPT – what Hindi speakers refer to in a manner that is more onomatopoeically pleasing as तू-तू मैं-मैं (tu-tu main-main) – an interesting anecdote comes to mind. It recently came to light that Russia has been violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty it signed with the United States in 1987. Under this treaty, both superpowers are forbidden to develop nuclear missiles with a range between 500 kms and 5,500 kms, but Russia has indicated several times of late that it plans to withdraw from the treaty. When asked to comment, Sergei Ivanov, Chief of Staff Presidential Administration of Russia. replied, “Why is it that everyone and anyone can have this class of weapons and we and the United States cannot? The question arises. On the one hand, we signed the Soviet-American agreement. We perform, but it cannot go on for infinity.” One could ask the same thing of the United States and the four other nuclear powers about the NPT.