On 24 November 2013 Iran agreed on a deal with six world powers over its nuclear program: The Geneva interim agreement on Iranian nuclear program, officially titled Joint Plan of Action, consists of a short-term freeze of parts of Iranian’s nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions on Iran, as well as a continuing work towards a long-term agreement. The loosening of the sanctions is most probably a welcomed message for the Iranian people who have been troubled by economic sanctions for years.
The background of the long lasting dispute is an ambiguous paragraph in the Non-Proliferation Treaty which can be interpreted in different ways, as Fredrik Dahl of the Chicago Tribune wrote in his article on Nuclear Fuel:
The NPT’s opening paragraphs ban non-nuclear weapon states from developing such arms, but adds in Article Four: “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 without discrimination.”
The problem is the phrase ‘peaceful purpose’. As Uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants to provide sufficient electricity, as it is written in the NPT – and Iran’s stated purpose for its atomic energy program – there is also the possibility to gain fissile core of an atomic bomb if uranium is processed much further. So there is the tricky part: How does the international community control these very close parallel processes of peaceful to military purposes effectively?
As Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski wrote in their article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on the interim agreement and its use as an international precedent for nuclear rules:
Unfortunately, over the past 40 years, treaty members have failed to address squarely the conflict between the promises and restrictions of the treaty. A final Iran agreement will, in effect, take this issue on.
They go further adressing the former dupability of the NPT members and their view on plutonium. With the “Smiling Buddha”, India’s “peaceful” atomic test in 1974, the exporters of nuclear material realized the need for restrictions on available technology when they really want to set limits on nuclear effectively proliferation. The authors see a big connection between the results that the negotiations on the Iranian issue will bring, as the rules for the Iran’s nuclear program will have precedence effects on every non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.
The foundation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 1974 brought new possibilites to restrict the exports of nuclear equiment, materials or technology (although only on the official paths of world trade..) and with the benefit to bring in non-NPT and non-Zangger Commitee nations (another nuclear exporters collective founded in 1970).
Unfortunately, we have learned from history that multilateral treaties have not the same weight as the bilateral pacts between nations when it is about cash and trade:
In July 2006, the US Congress amended unilaterally US law to accommodate civilian nuclear trade with India, which was a slap in the face for other members of the NPT as well as members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And still more: in a meeting in September 2008, the NSG members agreed to grant India a “clean Waiver” from its existing rules, which forbid nuclear trade with the country which has not signed the the NPT. Foregoing intensive US diplomacy pathed the way for that “multilateral” decision.
(Picture source: The Times of India, looked up on 22.1.14)
Additionally, there are some other states that want to get access to more indepedence in reprocessing fissile materials, especially Japan is pushing forward (see Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center article by Baku Nishio) , but since India is officially accepted to be a nuclear state (even not being a non-proliferation member), its neighbour Pakistan will raise efforts to keep pace.
Without offensive intentions, but international politics move in mysterious ways.