Defend the NPT

Alastair Crooke

Prospect, June, 2006

The struggle with Iran over nuclear issues is usually portrayed in the west as a reasonable effort to force Iran to comply with its international agreements. But the agreement at stake here, the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), is not as straightforward as it seems. What we are also witnessing is the playing out of a US controversy dating back to 1967, when the father of US nuclear doctrine, Albert Wohlstetter, made a speech in which he argued darkly that: “An essential trouble with nuclear ploughshares… is that they can be beaten into nuclear swords.”

When the NPT came into force in 1970, the central bargain was between the five nuclear-weapon powers on one hand, and the non-nuclear states on the other. The have-nots agreed to renounce their right to weapons, but only in return for the right to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy. At the core of the NPT is Article IV, which gives all signatories the “inalienable right… to develop, research, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and to acquire technology to this effect from fellow signatories. Equally important, in return for the have-nots’ renunciation of weapons, the “haves” agreed not to use their stocks of weapons to blackmail the have-nots, and ultimately to get rid of their weapons (Article VI). These are the two pillars of the non-proliferation system.

While much of the world applauded the NPT bargain, Wohlstetter—a Rand Corporation strategist and University of Chicago professor who taught future neocons such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz—was concerned that that the NPT’s provision for peaceful nuclear energy constituted a “loophole” through which weaponisation might occur.
Wohlstetter’s argument has since found formal expression in the 2006 US national security strategy, which states: “the first objective requires closing a loophole in the NPT that permits regimes to produce fissile material that can be used to make nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear power programme.” The national security strategy also reaffirms the doctrine of pre-emption.

But if the two pillars of the NPT—the right to develop nuclear energy and the “no threat” assurance to have-nots by the five weapon-holders—have been unilaterally removed by the US, what remains of the original contract? And with what legitimacy will the NPT be viewed by the have-nots in the future?

Not surprisingly, Iran is sticking to its right to develop nuclear fuel under the NPT. It has a growing population of nearly 70m, an economy growing at around 5 per cent, an energy-hungry domestic market, and it needs to preserve its oil stocks in order to sell on the international market. Angered by the failure of the so-called additional protocol, which Iran voluntarily assumed in December 2003 and which provided for IAEA international inspections to find the evidence of a weapons programme that the US is convinced must be there, the US has simply upped its accusations against the Iranian government. The argument is that the US and allies’ suspicions trumps Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as enshrined in the NPT. This is unilaterally to rewrite the NPT, by eliminating Article IV completely.

Against this background, European mediation seemed always doomed to failure: it was not going to be able to square the US’s belligerent opposition to any Iranian fuel cycle independence with Iran’s insistence on its legal rights. The initial constructive ambiguity that the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) sought in the Paris agreement—by endorsing Iran’s NPT rights while at the same time seeking a voluntary suspension of enrichment—soon had the legs cut from beneath it. President Bush announced unhelpfully that “Europe is representing us.” He did endorse the EU-3 policy of economic incentives, but said that this was in exchange for Iran ending enrichment permanently, adding that if Iran refused to do so, he had the support of Europe to take Iran to the security council. Shortly afterwards, the European leaders duly fell into line: Tony Blair further upped the stakes by warning that “all the options were on the table” if Iran failed to comply with the new EU-3 position. Iran unsurprisingly viewed this as bad faith.

With the latest US offer of direct—albeit multilateral—negotiations on the condition that Iran cease its enrichment activities, we now face a trial of strength between the US and Iran. The US may be able to impose its will, but it is likely to face obstacles: the effective cancellation of Article IV for Iran, coupled with the US’s recent enthusiasm for using its military muscle to impose its values, is perceived by most of the rest of the world as a threat to the NPT. This is compounded by the recent legitimisation of India’s programme. India, which has had a clandestine weapons programme and which has refused to sign the NPT, is to be rewarded not with sanctions or military action, but with closer ties. The US refusal to examine or criticise Israel’s nuclear weapons programme only rubs salt into the wound, and increases the widespread feeling of the unjustness of US and European policy.

To this feeling of frustration among the have-nots, and among Muslims in particular, is added the fear that the west is heading at least to sanctions. Sanctions, which may well cause more economic loss to Europe than to Iran, are likely to fail, and so whether or not the US and the EU-3 are successful in obtaining a mandatory resolution at the security council, we may well see an escalation to military action. There is already a sense of déjà vu after the Iraq saga, and little confidence that this crisis will be managed more effectively.

We should lift our eyes from this arcane long-term US debate on deterrence—fashioned largely by cold war specialists. We should consider our European interests more directly. We are in the middle of crises with Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and with Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. There are growing problems in other states. The recent attacks on European missions in the middle east are not unconnected with a widely held perception amongst Muslims of a European lurch away from its traditional empathy with Muslims. We seem to be broadcasting a message of hostility. The US is 5,000 miles away. The difference for Europe is that the middle east is our neighbour and we have 20m Muslims living among us. US interests are not always the same as European interests.

Iran has not shut the door to a solution. Its chief negotiator Ali Larijani in February outlined what he described as his best guarantee for his country’s peaceful implementation of nuclear energy. He has proposed three separate “layers”— allowing the west to ensure for itself the peaceful purpose of its programme. Layer one is a full and intrusive IAEA inspection and monitoring system. Layer two is the proposal to use modern centrifuges, as suggested by US and British scientists, which are engineered to permit only limited enrichment; and the third layer of safeguards is that the international community should form a consortium together with Iran to conduct the enrichment. The international community therefore would be participating fully in the enrichment process. This seems a fair basis for a solution.

This article first appeared in Prospect Magazine.

Leave a Reply