Middle East / Iran

Nuclear Fueled Diplomacy

For several months now we have been stuffed with the details surrounding the “Iran Nuclear Deal.” The media has been fixated on the specifics of the deal and veered away from discussing implications beyond the perceived date Iran will be able to build a nuclear weapon. To alleviate some of that mystery, here are the particulars of the agreement between President Barack Obama and the Iranian Government that are of primary significance: Two fuels can be used to make an atomic bomb. One can enrich uranium in centrifuges, which spin at high speeds transmuting the chemical into U-235. Or, the uranium can be irradiated – exposed to radiation in a nuclear reactor converting the element to plutonium. Standard nuclear power plants that harness the atom for energy use tend to only enrich their uranium to around 5% purity. However, the Iranians have only been able to enrich uranium to about 20% (still far below the 90% needed for a warhead). This country in the heart of the Middle East currently has two uranium enrichment facilities at Fordo and Natanz. The Fordo plant is scheduled to be renovated into a research center and cannot enrich uranium for 15 years under the Iran Deal. The Natanz facility may maintain its current function, but will be limited to 5,060 of the older centrifuge models down from the over 20,000 operating today. The International Atomic Energy Agency will be responsible for monitoring as well as inspecting all Iran nuclear facilities for violations of this agreement. However, there are still some key questions few have highlighted.

Photo by Flickr User 'Tjflex2'

Photo by Flickr User ‘Tjflex2’

At first glance, it is easy to conclude that it is an Executive Order from President Obama and thus is law. However, this is erroneous as its official title is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is merely a piece of paper under International Law and is by no means legally binding. So why did we spend months negotiating arduous and extensive specifics? The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has also been oddly left out of the headlines; however, this landmark United Nations treaty continues to be tested as countries vie for nuclear power. Similarly, in light of this trend, which countries possess nuclear weapons – and why we should be vigilant of other states attempting to join this select group – remain top security concerns. The answers to these questions will hopefully provide insight into a deal that has seen significant media coverage, yet, has not been depicted in the context of the greater threat of nuclear proliferation.

The uproar the Iran Nuclear Deal has caused in the foreign relations sphere is quite interesting given its legal nature. The media has consistently highlighted the continued “stress” that has been placed on Israeli-US relations, specifically concerns expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the JCPOA is not a legally binding agreement. In fact, it essentially holds fewer connotations than an Executive Order from the President, and was not voted on by Congress nor did Obama ratify it. “The framework of the agreement itself explicitly states that a Security Council resolution “will endorse the JCPOA and urge its full implementation.” The use of the word “urge” immediately signals that neither the Security Resolution nor the JCPOA is legally binding. Even given this fact, it is in the best interest of Iran to follow the regulations of the deal because the U.N. with the United States at the forefront will continue to impose strict sanctions on the country until the International Atomic Energy Agency presents their first “positive” report.

In legal terms, the NPT is far more powerful than the JCPOA; however, there relationship is more complicated than that. Iran ratified the NPT in 1970. Article II of the treaty states,

“Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Photo by European External Action Service

Photo by European External Action Service

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is absolutely legally binding. All countries that have since gained nuclear warheads after signing the treaty broke international law. Article II also deals with safeguards that all signatories of the NPT are expected to follow. Fundamentally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is an extension of the regulations presented in the treaty. The NPT permits a state party “to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events . . . have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. Withdrawing states must “give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance.” Realistically, Iran is nearly the size of Texas and if their government wanted to build a nuclear weapon it would be entirely possible. The JCPOA changes this. Under the new regulations presented by the JCPOA and the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would be an incredibly difficult undertaking. Even without a three-month notice by Iran, party states to the NPT as well as the Security Council would, through the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have an appreciable amount of time to react if extreme violations did occur. The contradiction this presents – that an executive agreement with little legal standing is necessary to empower a near-universal, legally binding treaty – highlights the messy nature of nuclear weapons in international diplomacy.

Nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons: United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The most recent countries to gain this capability are India, Pakistan, and North Korea, which should raise eyebrows for several reasons. First, none of these countries are signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. All states that have chosen to abstain from signing this treaty are prolonging the threat of a serious nuclear war. Alarming evidence can be traced to India and Pakistan, who have been feuding since 1947. Stakes are raised in conventional conflicts such as these with the addition of nuclear weapons. In a similar trend, India tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, which gives Pakistan a basis for claiming self-defense as a reason for having nuclear warheads. Such instances provide other countries with a perfect excuse to dodge military or legal threats from signatories of the NPT as well as other careful nations. Other issues in the fight for non-proliferation are world leaders that disregard common diplomatic procedure and utilize his or her country’s sovereignty for absolute amnesty and free reign. The most infamous of these leaders is dictator Kim Jong-un of North Korea. He frequently moves his nuclear warheads, drawing international attention, and has tested three of his bombs. Similarly, recent allegations by the US and Israel as well as photographic evidence indicated that there was a nuclear reactor site in Syria at Al Kibar. Sources confirmed that North Koreans were working at the site, undoubtedly reinforcing Syrian scientists’ knowledge of the subject. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is among the world’s most ruthless rulers and the growing relationship between him and Kim Jong-un is a primary security concern for the United States and her allies. In a possible retaliation against the Iran Nuclear Deal, Israeli combat planes destroyed the facility at Al Kibar without consulting US officials. Events such as this one serve as a humbling reminder of the many national security intelligence dilemmas surrounding nuclear proliferation.

Today, over 45 countries are actively considering embarking upon nuclear power programs. It is, however, important to note that nuclear does not equate to evil. And although the first steps to establish a nuclear program are the most challenging, once formulated, such an agency provides countries with a viable way to create a nuclear warhead. However, even when considering this daunting threat, the power of the atom is still remarkably unexplored. Constant research and analysis of its other uses (especially for energy) could solve very relevant problems that the entire world will face as all of us become more technologically reliant on energy consuming ways of life.