Those who are trying to torpedo the ongoing talks, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, want Iran to be forced to agree to the whole monty—a complete cessation of uranium enrichment and a dismantling of all enrichment facilities. Iran claims that it has the inalienable right to enrich uranium as guaranteed in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a signatory.
The NPT treaty language is quite clear. In Article IV of the treaty it states:
The United States position as articulated by Undersecretary of State, Wendy Sherman is claiming that under the treaty Iran does not have the right to uranium enrichment because this activity is not specifically cited in the treaty. Secretary Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations committee in answer to a question by Senator Marco Rubio in a Committee Hearing on Oct. 3 that
Secretary Sherman’s comments reveal several important errors, as well as a prejudicial view of Iran’s nuclear program.
The relationship between Articles I, II and IV of the treaty has been extensively analyzed by Xinjun Zhang, Associate Professor of Public International Law, Tsinghua University , Beijing, in an authoritative article published in 2006. Zhang points out that there is a discrepancy between the U.S. interpretation of the relationship between the three clauses and that of other nations, notably European allies. The principle difference lies in the word “manufacture” in Article II. Zhang writes:
Do nations have a right under the NPT to acquire ostensibly civilian nuclear technology, if it brings them within days of having a bomb?
Iran–backed by Brazil, South Africa, Germany, the IAEA’s own director general, and, most recently, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards–has always said yes. Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities, which can generate weapons-usable fuels, they argue, are clearly backed by the NPT’s authorization of all members to develop peaceful nuclear energy as they see fit.
Additionally, contrary to Secretary Sherman’s statement, it has not “always” been the U.S. position that the NPT does not grant the right to nations to enrich uranium. In fact, the U.S. position has only concretized during the George W. Bush administration, with specific opinions regarding uranium enrichment much more recent than that. The initial interest in the NPT and its wording seems to date from 2003 when the Bush administration, alerted by information from the anti-Iranian group, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK or MKO) then classified as a terrorist organization, provided information that Iran was engaged in nuclear development. This was, of course, not news at all, since Iran had an active nuclear energy program dating from pre-Revolutionary times in the Pahlavi era, fostered and aided by the United States. It was at this time in the wake of the tragic air attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington that that U.S. verbal and political attacks on Iran began to focus on its nuclear energy program.
[The IAEA Board of Governors] Underlines that outstanding questions can best be resolved and confidence built in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's programme by Iran responding positively to the calls for confidence building measures which the Board has made on Iran, and in this context deems it necessary for Iran to:
In light of this information it seems clear that the United States has singled out Iran for prejudicial treatment among NPT signatories. If the United States is viewing uranium enrichment on a case by case basis, then Iran is the only nation that is being treated in this manner.
Secretary Sherman in her testimony pointed out that the word “access” was carefully chosen in the President’s remarks in contrast with “right,” opening the way for a diplomatic solution to U.S.-Iranian differences that would save face.
Iranian President Rouhani responded on October 3, 2013 by saying that, although Iran was not willing to concede its right to enrich uranium, Iran is open to discussing “details” of nuclear activities including the enrichment of uranium.
It is clear that the only way that the United States can claim that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium is by ignoring the provisions of the NPT as they have been understood by the international community, by singling out Iran for prejudicial treatment, and by ignoring its own intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Bottom line: At present Iran has the legal right under treaty to enrich uranium. It may be persuaded to give up that right in negotiations, but there is at present no justification for holding it to this unreasonable demand.