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Did Iran Ever Actually Violate The Nonproliferation Treaty? Does It Matter?

Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, addresses the December 2015 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, which approved the final report on Iran's "possible military dimensions." (Photo:

IAEA director general Yukiya Amano addresses the December 2015 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. (Photo:

Parallel to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or simply the Iran Deal) negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) last summer regarding limitations on, and monitoring of, Iran’s civilian nuclear program, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed a separate “road map” toward closing the IAEA file regarding allegations that Iran had attempted to develop a nuclear weapon in the past. (A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, in 2007, assessed that the program had been shut down in 2003.)

The IAEA’s final report on that investigation was issued on December 2, and on December 15 the IAEA Board of Governors voted to close the file, opening the way for implementation of the JCPOA.

The final report left many observers dissatisfied. Reactions to it tended to reflect people’s preexisting attitudes toward the issue. By and large, it confirmed the National Intelligence Estimate, but news reports tended to stress Iran’s past activities (which Iran continued to deny had been for military purposes) and a new revelation that some “incomplete and fragmented” computer modeling had continued until 2009.

Opponents of the JCPOA considered that to be evidence of Iran’s duplicitousness and demanded that the JCPOA be revoked as punishment, or at least that the IAEA continue its investigation of past activities—even though the report concluded that Iran had voluntarily shut down these activities years before the JCPOA was concluded. Supporters of the deal considered the past activities to be irrelevant to the effective functioning of JCPOA in preventing future weapons development.

The situation is even less straightforward than it appears. While it may not have acted fully in the spirit of nonproliferation, Iran maintains that it never actually violated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). First, it is necessary to note that the actual restrictions of the NPT are few. The basic requirements are: (1) that non-nuclear-weapons states (NNWS) agree not to acquire nuclear weapons, (2) that they do not divert nuclear material from civilian nuclear programs (if they have them) for unauthorized, military purposes, and (3) that they allow the IAEA to verify that no such diversion is taking place.

Nothing says that countries cannot engage in research and development or experiment with the design of nuclear weapons. Such activities raise justifiable suspicions, but they are not prohibited and so do not constitute a violation of the NPT. Thus, when arms-control specialist David Albright and others make the argument that the IAEA had every right to investigate the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program alleged to have been carried out at the Parchin military facility, it is not because the activities per se were illegal.

“The point is not whether the activities being carried out at Parchin, for example, are permitted or prohibited under the NPT; the IAEA is acting pursuant to an obligation to verify compliance by a state with its safeguards agreement. The point is that, if Iran is carrying out or has carried out what the IAEA believes to be nuclear weaponization-related activities, this gives rise to doubts about the completeness of Iran’s declarations about nuclear material and nuclear activities, an issue clearly within the IAEA’s mandate.”

Thus, the uncovering of “nuclear weaponization-related activities” of the sort Iran is alleged to have engaged in would count only to the extent that it gave rise to “doubts about the completeness of Iran’s declarations about nuclear material and nuclear activities.” That is to say, a serious weapons program would presumably involve the diversion of nuclear material at some point. What does the IAEA’s final report conclude in this regard?

“87. The Agency assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009. [Elsewhere, the report describes the activities that took place after 2003 as ‘incomplete and fragmented’.]

88. The Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Iran continues to insist that activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” either did not occur or were actually directed toward other purposes. (According to Iran, Japan, among other countries, has done everything that Iran has been accused of but has never been charged with seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.) Yet we know that Iran at least explored the possibility of developing nuclear weapons. In fact, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has recently admitted as much.

“When we first began, we were at war [with Iraq] and we sought to have that possibility for the day that the enemy might use a nuclear weapon. That was the thinking. But it never became real, . . . Our basic doctrine was always a peaceful nuclear application, but it never left our mind that if one day we should be threatened and it was imperative, we should be able to go down the other path.”

Iran did not end its experiments at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). The first real accusation against it came when it was caught in 2002 building an undeclared facility at Natanz to enrich uranium, as well as a reactor at Arak that would produce plutonium as a byproduct. (According to U.S. intelligence, Iran has not built a facility capable of extracting the plutonium from Arak’s spent fuel.)

Enriched uranium and plutonium could both be used in nuclear weapons, among other purposes. The Bush administration took the position that the clandestine nature of the facility proved that it was intended for banned military purposes and argued that Iran had forfeited the right to enrich uranium, again because of the program’s clandestine nature. Iran allowed that its failure to inform the IAEA of the facilities under construction had been just that, a “failure,” and revealed a number of other failures dating back to 1991, but insisted that these did not amount to a violation.

Publicly, they attributed the delay to internal bureaucratic dynamics. In private, some Iranians told their foreign counterparts that they did not believe the United States would have permitted them to complete the project if it had become known. As it was, the facility was not yet complete when it was revealed. Another secret enrichment facility, being built underground at Fordow, was discovered in 2009. In both cases, Iran also argued that under its 1970s-era agreement with the IAEA, it was not required to declare the facility until 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material into the facility, and at that point the centrifuges had not even been installed.

In 2003 Iran provisionally adhered to the newer, more restrictive version of the rule (known as “modified Code 3.1”), under which it would have to inform the IAEA before construction started, but it ended its adherence in 2007 because of UN sanctions. The IAEA had accepted that argument with regard to Natanz, the earlier instance, but rejected the notion that Iran could end it adherence to modified Code 3.1. Iran, since it had accepted the rule only provisionally and never ratified it, rejected the charge that this constituted a violation.

In 2004, as Iran was negotiating with the IAEA on its return to full compliance with the NPT, unnamed IAEA “member states,”—presumed to be the United States and Israel—provided the IAEA with documents said to be obtained from a laptop computer smuggled out of Iran. These were the basis of the allegations that Iran’s nuclear program had “possible military dimensions.” Iran, which was not allowed to view the evidence, insisted that the documents were forgeries. Other experts have suggested that at least some of them were suspect, that some of the charges never made sense. Indeed, two former IAEA officials have recently charged that the agency, which specializes in the nuclear-fuel cycle, does not really have the expertise to assess the credibility of such documents (or, for that matter, the nonnuclear aspects of nuclear-weapons design).

In 2003 Iran sent the United States—directly and through the Swiss ambassador (who represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of a U.S. embassy)—an offer to negotiate a broad settlement of the disputes between them. Even though Iran had actively supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the Bush administration responded to this initiative by reprimanding the Swiss ambassador for forwarding the message.

In 2003–2005, Iran tried to negotiate on the nuclear issue with Britain, France, and Germany. As a confidence-building measure in these negotiations, Iran voluntarily suspended its enrichment activities and adhered provisionally to the stricter rules of an IAEA Additional Protocol and modified Code 3.1. The Bush administration refused to participate in the negotiations and pressed the Europeans to set limits on the discussion topics that effectively undermined them. The talks collapsed in 2005, shortly before the inauguration of the hardliner Mahmud Ahmadinejad. In 2006 the IAEA declared Iran in noncompliance and referred the case to the UN Security Council. In response, Iran ceased its adherence to the Additional Protocol and resumed its uranium enrichment program.

The UN Security Council passed resolutions calling on Iran to cease its enrichment activities and imposed an escalating series of economic sanctions for its failure to do so. Iran claimed that the NPT gave it the right to enrich uranium. (The NPT does not specifically mention enrichment, but it does refer to the right “to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” and Iran is not the only country to interpret that to include enrichment.) Iran maintained that it had not violated the NPT and, therefore, the IAEA had no right to refer the case to the UN Security Council.

For that reason, Iran rejected the subsequent UN Security Council resolutions as invalid and has refused to be bound by them. The sanctions have been painful, however. In November 2013 the new government of Pres. Hassan Rouhani agreed with the P5+1 to terms for negotiating a solution to the nuclear issue. Iran again voluntarily agreed to suspend enrichment for the duration of the negotiations, which ended in July 2015. When the JCPOA, goes into effect in 2016, Iran will resume enrichment under restrictions to which it agreed under the accord.

To an extent, the suspicion around Iran’s nuclear activities is as much a product of the general suspicion and hostility surrounding Iran as it is of any specific action (although the previous director general of the IAEA was less impressed with the evidence against Iran, often referring to the contents of the stolen laptop as “the alleged studies”). Iran has exacerbated the problem by being secretive and uncooperative at times. Given the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility, Americans and many others impute hostile intent to those instances, without taking into account that the Iranians are also suspicious of them.

Thus countries complain when Iran does not permit IAEA inspectors to interview its nuclear scientists, without taking into consideration that a half-dozen Iranians identified as nuclear scientists have been assassinated (at the hands, it is generally believed, of Israeli agents). When Iran fails to provide information about a particular allegation concerning its program’s “possible military dimensions,” countries have tended to dismiss even the possibility that the information may not exist because the allegation was never true. Some people have assumed that Iran would rush to build a bomb as soon as it had the technical capability. When the CIA concluded, in 2007, that Iran had shut down its bomb-design project in 2003, people said the Iranians would start it again as soon as they had the capacity to enrich enough uranium to build a bomb (or simply asserted that the CIA was wrong).

When Iran had the capacity to enrich that much uranium, which it has had for about a half-dozen years now, people ignored it and continued to assert that Iran would rush to build the bomb as soon as it could. When Iran agreed, under the JCPOA, to accept severe restrictions on its physical capacity to enrich uranium for years, people saw it as a clever plan to rush to build a bomb in 10 or 15 years and simply ignored the fact that Iran had also agreed to perpetual monitoring of its enrichment process. None of this is to say that we have to trust Iran. The JCPOA is not about trusting Iran, it’s about verifying what they’re doing so that we don’t have to just trust Iran anymore, as we have had to do until now.

In this regard, the resolution of the “possible military dimensions” does not really matter. The Iranians say that anything that they did do was intended for nonmilitary purposes. Of course, if something was truly relevant to the development of a bomb, it would not really matter whether it was done for military purposes at the time. On the other hand, if they have given up their military program and agreed to extensive monitoring (as well as the time-limited confidence-building measures that everyone focuses on for some reason), then it does not really matter what they did in the past.

Did Iran actually violate the NPT? They certainly violated aspects of it by acquiring materials and conducting experiments outside the established safeguards regime prior to 2003. On the other hand, Iran never committed the major violation of diverting nuclear material for military purposes, never made a bomb, and shut down their bomb-experimenting program over a decade ago. Punishing them now for something they considered doing in the past, but never did, does not make a lot of sense. Punishing them by revoking the JCPOA, the agreement that prevents them from renewing their bomb-making program, defies all logic.

In any event, the NPT is not about punishment, it’s about safeguards. Iran has now been brought back into the safeguards regime—indeed, a stricter version of it than any other country faces. With that, the NPT has been satisfied the UN sanctions have fulfilled their purpose.



Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.