Stalled Iran Nuclear Talks Highlight Divergent Interpretation of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Posted by Ashley Belyea – November 15, 2013 @ 21:26.

On November 10, 2013, talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear program stalled between Iran and the P5+1—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany.  Negotiators were unable to conclude an interim agreement governing Iran’s nuclear program.  The process is not dead, however; low-level negotiators are set to resume talks on November 20.   At issue is Iran’s insistence on its right to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel production.  The United States, on the other hand, “does not believe there is an inherent right to enrichment.” Diplomatic and political concerns loom large, but the disagreement has its roots in treaty interpretation.

Iran’s assertion of a right to enrich for energy production invokes and tracks the language of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (“NPT”), to which it is a party.  Article IV of the NPT reads:  “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 and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”  The right to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy,” Iran argues, includes the right to enrich uranium for fuel production.

For its part, the United States may be relying on three parts of Article IV to deny Iran’s right to enrich.

  • First, while nothing in the NPT can affect Iran’s right to pursue nuclear development for peaceful purposes, the United States could argue that extra-treaty forces may still affect that right.  For example, article 103 of the United Nations Charter (“UNC”) trumps any treaty inconsistent with the UNC, “including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”  Unanimity among the P5 in negotiating a proposed deal with Iran could be read as action by the UN requiring compliance under UNC Article 103 affecting Iran’s right to enrich.
  • Second, the U.S. has argued that Article IV makes no mention of a specific right to enrich uranium, and that a ban on enrichment does not bar Iran from pursuing its Article IV rights.
  • Third, U.S. negotiators could argue Iran has not complied with Article II of the NPT, which prohibits “non-nuclear” countries from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.  As a matter of treaty interpretation, non-conformity with Article II could be interpreted to nullify a state’s ability to claim a right under Article IV. Perceived non-conformity bridges the language of the treaty and the security concerns motivating the P5+1 to insist on more stringent nuclear control in Iran.