States wrangle over right to nuclear technology
By Carol Giacomo
The United States and others have accused Iran of a clandestine 18-year effort to use its NPT membership as a guise for acquiring technology needed to produce nuclear weapons
At the heart of this month’s United Nations nuclear non-proliferation conference is a fundamental question: Do countries have an unambiguous right to peaceful nuclear energy? It used to be assumed the answer was yes, as Iran insists.
But the United States and others recently have shown more willingness to re-think the issue, emphasising crucial conditions and setting new parameters for a debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi affirmed Tehran’s position on Tuesday during the second day of debate at the conference taking stock of the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, under which Iran and 182 other states renounced nuclear arms. As part of the pact’s inherent bargain, the five states officially allowed to retain nuclear arms - the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain - promised to help non-nuclear states acquire peaceful nuclear energy and in time, to scrap their own atomic arsenals.
Kharrazi insisted this means states have an “inalienable right” to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes that “emanates from the universally accepted proposition that scientific and technological achievements are the common heritage of mankind.” “It is unacceptable that some tend to limit the access to peaceful nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states under the pretext of non-proliferation,” he said. His remarks contrasted with the US view that the NPT’s guarantees of access to peaceful nuclear energy hinges fundamentally on nations also adhering to other treaty obligations forsaking nuclear weapons.
Clandestine pursuit: The United States and others have accused Iran of a clandestine 18-year effort to use its NPT membership as a guise for acquiring technology needed to produce nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its goal is peaceful energy development. But its uranium enrichment and plutonium separation programmes can also produce weapons-grade fuel. Estimates vary but some experts say Iran could have a bomb by as early as 2007. The European Union is negotiating with Iran trying to persuade it to abandon its nuclear ambitions but expectations are low, raising fears the Islamic republic will, like North Korea, withdraw from the NPT and become a nuclear power.
Concerns go well beyond Iran, however. Almost 60 states operate or are constructing nuclear power or research reactors and at least 40 possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure enabling them, if they chose, to build nuclear weapons at relatively short notice. Washington this week told the conference that states that violate the treaty or withdraw from it should be deprived of nuclear technology that their membership of the treaty has allowed them to build up.
But US officials acknowledge this would be hard to implement.
Some nuclear experts go even further, arguing Iran has no absolute “inalienable right” to engage in fuel cycle activities like uranium enrichment or plutonium separation. A legal analysis of the NPT by the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, a non-profit group, asserts that the right to peaceful nuclear energy “must be exercised in conformity with” the treaty’s other provisions. It concluded that the NPT must be read as ensuring that before a non-nuclear weapons state receives nuclear energy technology, factors like proliferation risk, economic viability and the ability to safeguard the project must be considered.
“The issue before this review conference is whether the basic assumption as to the way the treaty has been interpreted over decades now needs to be revised because of what we’ve seen in North Korea and ... Iran,” said Paul Levanthal, the institute president. reuters