The international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program:
Q&A with Yousaf Butt
By Cesar Jaramillo
The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 3 Autumn 2013
Few countries have had their nuclear programs subjected to as much scrutiny and media attention as has Iran. Yet key questions about the nature and extent of this program remain unanswered or in dispute.
Some Western countries accuse Iran of clandestine efforts to divert its nuclear energy program to the production of nuclear weapons. Iran’s response: its nuclear energy program is exclusively for peaceful purposes and permitted by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a party. Especially skeptical of Iran’s claims are the United States and Israel, both of which possess nuclear arsenals themselves—the latter outside the nearly universal NPT.
Rounds of talks (the first in 2006) to resolve the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) have yielded few tangible results. Also beginning in 2006, the UN Security Council passed a number of resolutions that imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran in response to its reported refusal to meet International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard requirements and to stop enriching and reprocessing uranium. Further sanctions have been imposed unilaterally by the United States, member states of the European Union and other countries. Critics contend that not only do these measures constitute a thinly veiled attempt at regime change, but that they have done more to harm to the average Iranians than to persuade the Iranian government to change its nuclear posture.
The IAEA—the organization tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear energy program—has never definitively claimed that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. However, it has not been able to fully certify that Iran has NOT diverted nuclear material for military purposes, in part because Iran ceased to implement the IAEA Additional Protocol (AP), which strengthens the classic safeguards system with more stringent inspections of declared and undeclared facilities, in 2006.
Iran has accused the IAEA of a pro-Western bias. In a 2009 U.S. State Department cable revealed by Wikileaks, a U.S. diplomat stated that IAEA chief Yukiya Amano “was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”
Iranian officials have repeatedly asserted that Iran is not willing to renounce its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But the facilities, processes, and technical expertise required for a peaceful nuclear energy program are to a great extent also essential for a nuclear weapons program.
Project Ploughshares Program Officer Cesar Jaramillo posed the following questions to Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist who has written extensively on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program. Dr. Butt is director of the Emerging Technologies Program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, a non-profit headquartered in MacLean, Va., dedicated to promoting fact-based cultural awareness among individuals, institutions, and governments. The views expressed here are his own.
CJ: Let’s start with the basics: is it accurate to speak of Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” as some public figures and news organizations have done?
YB: No, there is no known Iranian nuclear weapons program. Western intelligence agencies confirm this. A research-level effort prior to 2003 may have examined some aspects of nuclear weapons, but even that was not a bomb factory.
CJ: Are there legitimate concerns about the possible diversion of nuclear material by Iran to produce nuclear weapons?
YB: As nuclear technology is dual use there are always such concerns, as there are with several other nations. But the IAEA monitors the inventory of such nuclear material and has confirmed the non-diversion of declared nuclear material consistent with Iran’s Safeguards Agreement.
CJ: Is Iran in violation of its NPT obligations by enriching uranium below 20 per cent? Is there a ‘red line’ beyond which it would become clear that it has chosen to pursue nuclear weapons?
YB: Iran is not currently in violation of the NPT, and is also, since 2008, abiding by the letter of its safeguards agreement. As long as the IAEA can confirm the non-diversion of nuclear material to weapons uses that is the only legal ‘red-line’.
CJ: Who has the primary responsibility to resolve the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program? Are those with suspicions required to prove that Iran is working to acquire nuclear weapons or should Iran prove that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes?
YB: The emphasis should be on trying to get Iran to abide by the voluntary Additional Protocol; as nuclear technology is inherently dual use it is impossible to “prove” things one way or the other.
CJ: If Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, would it not be in its best interest to adhere to the IAEA Additional Protocols?
YB: Yes and Iran voluntarily abided by the AP for a few years; most likely, it could be induced to do the same if some of the important sanctions are lifted.
CJ: It is often reported that Iran is X months or years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In your view, how quickly could Iran develop a nuclear weapon?
YB: Such scenarios are purely hypothetical. In the early 1990s [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu predicted that Iran was only a few years from a bomb. As long as Iran does not have a weapons program it cannot be X months from a bomb.
CJ: What other countries have nuclear capabilities similar to Iran’s?
YB: Brazil, Argentina, Japan are all examples of nations that have similar or even more developed nuclear technology sectors. Brazil and Argentina also do not abide by the AP.
CJ: Why do you think efforts to end the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program have been largely unsuccessful?
YB: Mainly because there has been reluctance to offer significant sanctions relief.
CJ: Are chances of progress in negotiation better under recently elected President Hasan Rouhani?
YB: I remain hopeful, but honestly doubt that the situation will be resolved, since the reluctance to lift sanctions is a problem in the Western polity.
CJ: The imposition of sanctions against Iran has been a key strategy of both the UN Security Council and the United States. How effective is it?
YB: It does not appear to have made a big difference in Iran’s nuclear technology development, but has punished the common people. It has also enriched the black-market profiteers and the [Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution].
CJ: In your view, does Iran’s nuclear program currently constitute a credible security threat for Israel or the United States?
YB: As Iran’s current nuclear program does not have a weapons component, it is not a threat. But all efforts—such as lifting of sanctions—should be made to persuade Iran to ratify the AP.