Iran’s Challenge to the Nonproliferation Regime

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2006 Volume 27 Issue 2

Iran has consistently disavowed an ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, but its clandestine pursuit of technology and materials useful to that end has rightly put its proclamations into question. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon, or the genuine threat of any further spread of nuclear weapons, appropriately raises alarm but should not provoke a crisis atmosphere. The ultimatums, threats, and deadlines that attend crisis decision-making inevitably work against accommodation.

Enough time and policy options are still available to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activity in a way that could yet strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The primary and essential objective, of course, is to fully verify that Iran is being true to its stated commitment not to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. Iran enjoys the same rights and must fulfill the same obligations that apply to all non-nuclear weapon states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Essential elements of a deal

A successful resolution of the Iran nuclear confrontation will have to recognize Iran’s legitimate security needs and respect its formal rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. It will also certainly have to respect the international community’s security needs by ensuring strict adherence to nuclear nonproliferation principles and practices as embodied in the NPT and related measures and obligations. In other words, under no circumstances can Iran be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran faces the particular challenge of regaining the trust of the international community – trust that was lost when Iran decided to operate, over a period of two decades, a clandestine research program on nuclear technologies relevant to bomb-making. A settlement with Iran therefore must necessarily involve trust- and confidence-building measures, as well as verifiable adherence to the safeguard requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the most recent report on Iran, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei indicated that the agency is still not able to confirm that all of Iran’s nuclear activities have been disclosed and that it still awaits satisfactory explanations of activities that appear to be weapons-related.1

The essential elements or outlines of a resolution of the dispute have been extensively debated and can be summarized as five linked measures:

  • a moratorium on all Iranian uranium enrichment or reprocessing efforts (as a temporary confidence-building measure that does not deny in principle Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes) until the IAEA has established to its satisfaction that all Iranian nuclear facilities are fully declared and that current and future nuclear facilities will operate in accordance with IAEA inspection standards;2
  • agreement that new nonproliferation inspection standards require that Iran ratify and fully implement the IAEA Additional Protocol;
  • the establishment of a mechanism to assure Iran of reliable access to fuel for its power-generating nuclear reactors;
  • the provision of credible security assurances to Iran, including unambiguous adherence to NPT-related negative security assurances by all nuclear weapon states (NWS); and
  • other political and economic undertakings, notably an end to Iran’s destructive threats and rhetoric regarding Israel, to facilitate Iran’s participation as a constructive member of the international community.

Rebuilding trust

The international community is currently demanding more of Iran than is legally required of it under the NPT or the IAEA Safeguards Agreement. In its February 2006 action the IAEA Board (2006a) links confidence in Iran’s claims regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear program to “full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities” and to implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, a special agreement permitting more intrusive and surprise inspections, which is not legally required but is widely encouraged.

While not denying Iran’s right to pursue nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment, for peaceful purposes, ElBaradei (UN 2006) explains that the suspension is needed now specifically as a confidence-building measure. The IAEA (2006a) has also acknowledged that it is requiring extraordinary transparency measures of Iran, “which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, and include such access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development as the Agency may request in support of its ongoing investigations.” It calls on Iran to “understand that there is a lack of confidence in Iran’s intentions” and to consider the measures called for as confidence-building measures.

On the same theme, the UN Security Council (2006) has called on Iran to take the steps required by the IAEA, “which are essential to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear programme.”

Iran, on the other hand, has taken the position that it will respect the NPT but that it will not respect demands on it that are not required of other NPT signatories: “We aren’t demanding more rights than envisioned by the non-proliferation treaty, but we cannot undertake obligations in excess of what the NPT members should observe either,” says the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki (ITAR-TASS 2004). The demand for equal treatment is appropriate in principle, but Iran also has to recognize that for it to be treated the same as all other NPT members it must be in verifiable compliance with its nonproliferation obligations.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons

Iran has made major strides in its nuclear technology research and “is now on the verge of mastering a critical step in building and operating a gas centrifuge plant that would be able to produce significant quantities of enriched uranium for either peaceful or military purposes” (Albright & Hinderstein 2006, p. 1). Of course, such advances do not in themselves mean that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons. To move beyond its current capacity to produce low enriched uranium (LEU) suitable for power plants, to the production of high enriched uranium (HEU) suitable for use in a weapon would take a much larger order of accomplishment (Dutto 2006). But there is little doubt that if Iran wanted to do it, and if it were not prevented from doing so, it could, within years rather than decades, build a nuclear bomb – it is now a matter of time and intention, not capability.

While Iran continues to insist it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, there is significant circumstantial evidence that a nuclear weapons capability is the real point of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

It is at least unusual for a state that has yet to bring a nuclear power reactor on stream to pursue the expensive and technically exacting challenge of uranium enrichment when the only objective is to generate electricity. Even well-established nuclear energy producers choose to buy their reactor fuel on the international market rather than mount their own enrichment programs. Once Iran’s first nuclear power reactor, being built with Russian support and designed to use LEU fuel, is up and running, Iran will be able to acquire all the fuel it needs under the various proposals it has been offered to end the nuclear dispute. In other words, Iran does not require its own uranium enrichment facility in order to press ahead with its declared interest, nuclear power, and a requirement to halt all enrichment activity imposes no hardship on Iran (indeed, it would save a lot of money).

Iran has undeniably shown a lot of interest in technologies and plans that are weapons-related:

  • IAEA Resolution GOV/2006/14 (2006a) reports that Iran is in possession of a document on the production of uranium metal spheres, a process related to the fabrication of nuclear weapons components.
  • The Iranians have carried out experiments involving the separation of polonium-210, an element that can be used to “help trigger a nuclear chain reaction in certain types of nuclear weapons.” ElBaradei reported in November 2004 that the IAEA is “‘somewhat uncertain regarding the plausibility’ of Iran’s claim that the experiments were not for nuclear weapons because the civilian applications of polonium-210 are ‘very limited’” (Arms Control Association 2006, p. 5).
  • The IAEA (2006b) is investigating “experiments involving the separation of small (milligram) quantities of plutonium,” the core ingredient of one kind of nuclear weapon. Iran also continues construction of a heavy water nuclear reactor, a reactor system that is especially suited for producing plutonium.
  • US intelligence officials also claim that there is evidence that Iran is exploring modification of its Shahab-3 missile to allow it to carry a nuclear warhead (Linzer 2005).

Strengthening the IAEA

The IAEA is the most vital of the international community’s nonproliferation instruments. It is essential that the authority and autonomy of the IAEA be maintained and strengthened and that any conflict or contest between the Security Council and the IAEA, such as the one that developed in the run-up to the Iraq war, be resisted. A constructive outcome of a settlement of the Iran issue should include the strengthened mandate, authority, and capacity of the IAEA, an objective emphasized by Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay (DFAIT 2006).

Iran and multilateral control of the fuel cycle

Iran’s nuclear fuel requirements could be met most obviously by a Russian proposal to supply that fuel. The European Union (EU) and the United States have both supported the Russian proposal, leaving unsettled the question of whether the arrangement would be permanent or temporary. Iran has expressed some interest in the arrangement as a provisional measure but rejected any implication that Iran would permanently eschew domestic enrichment.

If the sensitive, weapons-relevant nuclear fuel cycle that Iran is now pursuing as a basic right is not brought under strict international control, it is inevitable that the international community will ultimately have to accept uranium enrichment and other advanced nuclear research and technology in Iran and other NNWS signatories to the NPT. The international community will of course continue to insist that such states be subject to the IAEA’s ongoing verification that such nuclear programs are not covers for the pursuit of nuclear weapons, but the continuing spread of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities will prove a daunting challenge to the inspection system.

On the other hand, efforts to limit the spread of nuclear technology by blocking the spread of knowledge are not finally realistic. The movement of know-how is inevitable, which means that nonproliferation efforts will have to focus not on blocking knowledge but on building effective firewalls between nuclear knowledge and technology and nuclear weaponization.

The Iran case could produce a nonproliferation bonus if mechanisms developed to facilitate a resolution of the Iran nuclear dispute could also advance universally applicable standards and procedures to control weapons-related technologies like uranium enrichment. An arrangement whereby Iran would end its enrichment and reprocessing efforts in exchange for international commitments to assure it access to nuclear fuel could conceivably further efforts toward a system of international or multilateral control of the nuclear fuel cycle.

ElBaradei and the IAEA, aided by an experts’ group study, have considered ways to multinationalize uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities so that these sensitive processes that produce weapons-grade materials, even if intended only for electricity generation, do not remain under the control of individual states. Most such proposals include provisions for an international, perhaps IAEA-controlled, fuel bank that would provide fuel to civilian reactors unless ordered not to do so by the Security Council (IAEA 2005).

Security assurances and Chapter VII responses

In the event that Iran rejects a settlement along the lines set out above, it will have to face further censure by the international community and concrete consequences. But references to “consequences” must not be code for military action against Iran. Military vulnerability is a critical element of any Iranian temptation to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. Memories of the chemical attacks on Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, which elicited no help or even protest from the West, Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, and the prominent presence of large numbers of American troops in two bordering states feed a sense of vulnerability and generate pressures to seek a nuclear weapon that would theoretically trump all these threats.

That sense of vulnerability is heightened by Iran’s larger neighbourhood, which is heavily burdened with nuclear weapons. Pakistan, India, and China are all acknowledged nuclear weapon powers, and it would not be a surprise for Iran and other states in the area to pursue a similar status.

The general point that the Iran dispute should be the subject of diplomacy rather than of overt force or coercion is emphasized by Sen. Richard Lugar, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He split with the White House in April, calling for direct US negotiations with Iran and discouraging the push toward sanctions: “I believe, for the moment, that we ought to cool this one…. We need to make more headway diplomatically” (Reuters 2006).

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has joined others in calling on the Security Council to consider non-military measures that are “phased and incremental, as well as reversible” (DFAIT 2006)—that are imposed in stages and afford Iran the opportunity to adopt compliance measures that would avoid new sanctions, that increase in severity and impact, and that allow for the rolling back of previously imposed sanctions in response to demonstrable compliance by Iran.

Possible graduated sanctions are summarized by the International Crisis Group (2006, p. 16): “denying travel visas to senior officials; freezing foreign bank accounts and assets of senior leaders; banning exports to Iran of all nuclear and missile technology, dual use technologies and conventional weapons; a moratorium on all new economic agreements with Iran; a ban on all new investment…; and an imposition of land, air and sea interdiction regimes to prevent Iranian import of nuclear or dual use technologies.”

Threats of military attack on Iran are not only politically counter-productive; the consequences of an actual attack are literally immeasurable. An attack designed to halt Iran’s nuclear programs would include the bombing of multiple nuclear sites, some of them underground (although not deeply buried) facilities, using aircraft and cruise missiles. There would also be an attempt to destroy airbases, radar installations, and anti-aircraft missile sites to limit any counterattacks. Iranian naval bases and coastal missile sites would be hit to prevent retaliation against American military and international commercial ships in the Persian Gulf. Long-range missile installations would also be hit.

To delay the program substantially the military option would have to destroy much of Iran’s infrastructure and economy, wreaking incalculable devastation on the people of Iran. Such an attack would also do extraordinary damage to the stature of those leading the attack, and without UN authorization it would also be an egregious violation of international law.

The White House has nevertheless taken the military option to new and dangerous levels. On April 18 President Bush repeated, in a Rose Garden press conference and in response to a specific question on the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, that all options are on the table. This nuclear threat is in direct violation of negative security assurances given in 1995 by the US and the other NWS (confirmed by Security Council Resolution 984), never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state signatory to the NPT, except when such a state is attacking the United States in cooperation with a nuclear weapon state. Iran is a non-nuclear member of the NPT and is not threatening the US in cooperation with any nuclear weapon state.

Addressing the wider issues

A resolution of the current Iranian nuclear dispute must also deal with broader security concerns. Steps to normalize relations between Iran and the US and other states, for example, will certainly require Iran’s explicit and demonstrable renunciation of support for terrorism (Doyle & Kutchesfahani 2006).

Iran rightly sees the Middle East as a region in which the nuclear weapons question is far from settled. Israel already has such weapons, and some observers believe that it is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia begins serious work on its own nuclear program (UPI 2006). A resolution of broader security concerns would involve practical steps to address the internationally agreed objective to make the Middle East a nuclear-weapon-free zone. In particular, progress in the context of the Middle East will certainly require recognition of Israel and an end to the Iranian President’s invective against the Jewish people and calls for the destruction of Israel.

Iran has consistently disavowed any intention to weaponize its nuclear capacity, and its ongoing membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty solemnizes that commitment as a legally binding obligation. The international community has the right to expect Iran’s cooperation in the measures required to assure the international community of Iran’s compliance with that pledge.



  1. “The Agency is unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. After more than three years of Agency efforts to seek clarity about all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programnme, the existing gaps in knowledge continue to be a matter of concern” (IAEA 2006, paras 33 and 34).
  2. A controversial variation on this point that would offer greater face-saving value to Iran would be to allow Iran some continued enrichment research, provided it falls well short of anything approaching industrial-level enrichment.


Albright, David and Corey Hinderstein 2006, The clock is ticking, but how fast? The Institute for Science and International Security, March 27.

Arms Control Association 2006, Questions surround Iran’s nuclear program, Fact Sheets, March 3.

DFAIT 2006, Statement by Minister MacKay on IAEA Director General’s report to UNSC on Iran’s nuclear program, News Release No. 47, April 28.

Doyle, James E. and Sara Kutchesfahani 2006, Resolving Iran, Carnegie Endownment, March 21.

Dutto, Caterina 2006, Iran’s long nuclear road, Carnegie Endowment, April 13.

IAEA 2005, Multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle: Expert Group Report submitted to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIR 640, February 22.

––––– 2006a, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2006/14, February 4.

––––– 2006b, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2006/27, April 28.

International Crisis Group 2006, Iran: Is there a way out of the nuclear impasse? Middle East Report No. 51, February 23.

ITAR-TASS News Agency 2006. Tehran won’t yield to nuclear demands beyond NPT scope – FM, April 17.

Linzer, Dafna 2005, Iran is judged 10 years from nuclear bomb, Washington Post, August 2.

Reuters 2006, Key senator bucks Bush, urges US-Iran talks, April 16.

UN 2006, UN atomic agency chief calls for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment activities, UN News Service, April 15.

UN Security Council 2006, Presidential statement, SC/8679, March 29.

UPI 2006, Saudi Arabia may join nuclear club, April 9.

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