While reading about US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explaining why Iranian nuclear enrichment should be referred to the UN Security Council, I immediately began wondering why such enrichment is a breach of international law. The United States has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), creating certain legal obligations, as has Iran. India, Pakistan, and Israel are non-signatory nuclear powers. For Iran to actually develop nuclear weapons would be a violation of the NPT, but the process of enrichment – even at an industrial scale that could produce enough uranium-235 for bomb making – does not seem to be, in and of itself. Indeed, the NPT explicitly affirms the right of members to develop civilian nuclear technologies, including uranium enrichment.
The much publicized announcement of Iranian enrichment of uranium was about material enriched to the level of about 3.5% uranium-235: the variety necessary for fission bombs. Such bombs require a much higher concentration of uranium-235, in the vicinity of 90%. Without guessing about the ultimate purpose of the program, the present enrichment activity seems to be in keeping with the requirements of nuclear power, rather than nuclear weapons.
When it comes to the United States and their obligations under the NPT, the present scorecard definitely doesn’t look so hot. The nuclear deal with India that President Bush approved and is now seeking Congressional approval for is one such violation, since it includes the provision of nuclear fuel to a state without appropriate controls in place. Likewise, the push to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons is a definite violation of the spirit – if not the precise letter – of the treaty, which stresses the obligation of states to seek disarmament and the reduction of nuclear arsenals.
Maybe it is in the strategic interests of America to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but they shouldn’t try to cloak that as being an enforcement of international law when it is not. More broadly, the United States should realize that using the United Nations at the times where it seems plausible that it might serve their interests, while ignoring it otherwise, seriously diminishes the credibility of their supposed commitment to multilateralism and international law.
All that said, it is certainly possible that Iran is conducting nuclear research with an aim to developing nuclear weapons. If so, evidence of that breach needs to be presented in an open and verifiable way.