There was excitement as journalists buzzed about the press center seeking leads to a “breakthrough” outside nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. One walked away when I cautioned that diplomatic breakthrough might inadvertently lead to nuclear breakout by Tehran. The regime might make so much progress under cover of successful talks that inspectors could not keep up with developments.
Some reporters celebrated an Iranian proposal as if it were out of character for Tehran to make one when Tehran often does so. The venerable New York Times and CBS News were blown away by Iran’s PowerPoint presentation, as if it were an indication of seriousness to make compromises.
Reporters sought sources to provide hints of progress in the talks. Negative sources were shunned. And those who tried to discuss terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were treated as if they were lepers in a nudist colony. While reporters questioned me about “tone,” they expressed scant interest in the NPT or policies that divided the major powers from Iran.
Confusion within the Obama administration between Secretary of State John Kerry and Chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman over right to enrich terminology, pushback from Capitol Hill on need to require complete dismantling of Iran’s centrifuge machines, as well as resistance from regional allies converged as a bridge too far for some reporters to cross with me.
In my interviews at the center, I said the terms of the NPT were critical to understand “right to enrich.” It has been a block in the talks since they began in early 2002 between the EU-3 (London, Berlin, and Paris) on one hand, and Tehran, on the other hand.
One of the issues we discussed at the center was reporters’ assumption that the Iranian regime had an absolute right to enrich uranium. Under the NPT, a signatory has a right to enrich uranium as fuel for civil nuclear power. But these states have to remain under strict inspection by the International Atomic Energy agency (IAEA). Iran is under inspection; however, it is not under the strictest rules because Tehran does not concur with them.
Reporters in the center failed to make a crucial distinction because they did not include the phrase, “on a state’s own soil” when discussing “right to enrich.” The NPT forbids signatory states that are not members of the “Club” from enriching uranium on their own soil unless they meet the toughest preconditions and have proven to the IAEA that enrichment is low-level and strictly for civilian purposes.
Resolutions of the IAEA indicate that Iran has not proven that its enrichment is only in pursuit of civilian goals. Tehran only fessed up to its efforts to enrich after the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed that Iran was doing so in the City of Natanz during 2002. In fact, the regime has hardly admitted any suspect activities that were not first revealed by the NCRI.
Not only does Iran assert right to enrich on its own soil, the Iranian deputy foreign minister said that Tehran would not accept any proposal calling for shipping out of the country its stockpile of enriched uranium. He is Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in talks between Tehran and the major powers on Iran’s nuclear program. He stated that, “We will negotiate about the volume, levels, and methods of enrichment but the shipping out of the [enriched] material is a red line for Iran.”
The major powers interpret “right to enrich on its soil” to mean a state is treated the same as a member of the nuclear club or at least a threshold state, i.e., that it could combine enriched fuel, trigger mechanism, and means of delivery to construct a usable nuclear weapon over a couple of months.
A third issue, but one that dampened buzz in the press center, was the revelation by the NCRI that Tehran was moving its nuclear weaponization research to avoid detection ahead of negotiations with world powers. One reporter gave a hostile response to this news, stating, “So what?” “Who cares?” I replied that perhaps secretly moving suspect equipment that could trigger an explosion of nuclear fuel was not a way to abide by the NPT stricture that a state had to prove it was engaged only in civilian nuclear research, which actually gained traction as evidenced by the number of reporters who asked for clarification. Facts are quite stubborn and often persuasive.
Professor Raymond Tanter is president of the Iran Policy Committee and was a member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.