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Does Iran have a ‘right’ to enrich? Answer is key to nuclear deal, and beyond

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not explicitly cite a ‘right’ to enrich uranium, and how the US and other powers resolve this dispute has implications beyond Iran.

Iran’s assertion that it has a guaranteed international “right” to uranium enrichment – and its demand that this right be formally recognized in writing – have emerged as key factors in the failure of negotiators to reach a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.

Yet what sounds like an easily answered question – Does Iran or any other country have such a right or not? – turns out to be far from clear, with fervent believers on both sides and some in between.

The US now says Iran has no such right – but that was not always the case. Less than a decade ago, during the Bush administration, some officials held that it did.

The source of the confusion is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, which says that its 190 signatories (of which Iran is one) have an “inalienable right … to develop, research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

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No mention is made of uranium enrichment, an activity that can serve as a crucial part of peaceful nuclear energy production – or lead to production of fuel for a nuclear weapon. Yet supporters of Iran’s position say a right to enrichment is implicit in the treaty’s stated right to production of nuclear energy.

How this question is resolved may well determine whether or not a deal on Iran’s advancing nuclear program can be reached when negotiators from six world powers meet with Iran again next week in Geneva.

And as important as the question of a “right” to enrichment has become to the Iran talks, how it is resolved will also have far-reaching repercussions around the globe, some nuclear experts say, because of its potential for setting off a chain reaction of destabilizing enrichment activity. Countries from Saudi Arabia to Vietnam and South Korea, either contemplating or in varying stages of nuclear development, could seize on any “right to enrichment” that was set in stone.

“The problem is that the US and others want this [Iran accord] to be a one-off, and the truth is it won’t be,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Washington. “They know very well that whatever they agree to in the Iran case is going to have collateral impact well beyond the Iranian issue.”

One solution in Iran’s case would be to simply leave out of any accord any reference to a “right to enrichment,” but this option reportedly does not suit the Iranians, who want to see the right enshrined in any agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has spoken for months of Iran’s right to enrichment, vowed again Sunday that Iran will never give up its “nuclear rights,” including enrichment. “The rights of the Iranian nation and our national interests are a red line,” Mr. Rouhani said. “So are nuclear rights and the framework of international regulations, which include enrichment on Iranian soil.”

Obama administration officials from the president on down have spoken of Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, but they almost always twin that “right” with an obligation to offer verifiable guarantees that any nuclear activities are not being diverted to military purposes.

“There is no right that is specific within the NPT about enrichment,” Secretary of State John Kerrysaid flatly in an interview Monday with the BBC. Repeating later that “right” is the “wrong word,” Mr. Kerry went on to speak of “standards” that, if met, could allow the Iranians some level of nuclear activity.

“What they have to see is that … there is a standard by which they might be able to do something, provided they meet certain standards in order to do it,” Kerry said.

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Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Wendy Sherman, the administration’s chief negotiator with the Iranians, was even more adamant, saying “it has always been the US position that [the NPT] does not speak about the right of  enrichment at all, doesn’t speak to enrichment, period.” The US position, she added, is to look at each country individually and on its merits.

President Obama offered a further nuanced interpretation of Iran’s rights when he said in September that the US respects “the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.”   

By “obligations,” Mr. Obama was no doubt referring to the safeguards that the NPT also calls on countries to accept to ensure that nuclear fuels are not being diverted to non-peaceful purposes.

Beyond the Iran nuclear stalemate, how the “right to enrichment” question is resolved will influence global perceptions of the big powers and their handling of other issues.

NPEC’s Mr. Sokolski says he realized this several years ago when a high-ranking Iranian official told him that establishing the “right to enrichment” was important to Iran for more than just the nuclear issue.

“What he told me was, ‘If we are doing what it is our right to do, then you look like you are beating up on us and being the bully,’ ” Sokolski recalls.

For senior officials like Kerry to be pointing out that a right to enrichment “is not in the NPT is a good start,” Sokolski says, as it suggests the US may not be afraid of looking a bit like the bully if it means getting the looming problem of nuclear fuels proliferation right.

It may be too late in Iran’s case, Sokolski says, given the advanced state of its program, but he says it will still matter a lot for the other countries that are lining up to develop nuclear programs.