If nothing else, the decade-long nuclear dispute with Iran has produced its share of myths. Among these is the idea that the United States has genuine regard for and is seeking to uphold the global nonproliferation regime.
It is instructive, however, to examine just how the United States and its European partners have treated Iran’s nuclear program in comparison to other states. Of particular interest are those countries which are more closely allied to the West and have run into similar trouble with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as those that exist outside the nonproliferation regime altogether.
This analysis makes evident that the Iranian nuclear dispute, at its core, is political in nature and far removed from legitimate concerns with nonproliferation. In fact, it can be argued that the politicization of this dispute has exacerbated, not dampened, proliferation concerns, by provoking Iran to accelerate the scope of its civilian nuclear program.
Iran’s nuclear program has routinely and consistently been treated differently from that of other countries. It is only by understanding the disparate treatment Iran has received from the United States that we can begin to sympathize with Iran’s position in the nuclear talks. Too often, nonproliferation goals have been used as little more than a rhetorical excuse for policies Washington has long advanced toward the Islamic Republic.
The South Korean Case
In many ways, South Korea provides a useful comparison for gauging the American approach to Iran’s nuclear program. As the controversy with Iran was heating up in 2004, IAEA inspections uncovered laboratory-scale experiments with highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in South Korea. This led to the opening of South Korea’s nuclear file before the IAEA Board of Governors.
A year earlier, the United States had taken the position that any violation of a state’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA, designed to ensure compliance with its substantive obligations under the NPT, should trigger the offending state’s immediate referral to the UN Security Council.
At the time, the United States desperately sought to push Iran’s nuclear file to the Security Council where the United States would have more leverage and more substantive power to deal with Tehran.
The obvious question was whether the U.S. government would apply the same legal standard towards South Korea, which explicitly violated its safeguards obligations and perhaps even the NPT itself, as it had towards Iran.
The answer was no.
When the IAEA discovered undeclared HEU experiments in South Korea, which were short-lived but nonetheless involved bomb-grade material, the United States was put in the troubling position of having either to abide by its own rhetoric and refer its close ally to the Security Council, or to admit its own hypocrisy. The United States chose the latter course: U.S. representatives at the IAEA pressured other member-states to argue that South Korea’s undeclared activities did not rise to the level of ‘non-compliance’ and thus required no referral.
While this hypocrisy was not remarked upon in the United States, close observers elsewhere, including then-head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, noted the discrepancy. In his 2011 memoir, ElBaradei cited U.S. treatment of the South Korean nuclear file as “contradict[ing] the initial U.S. position of automatic referral…the Americans were advocating in the case of Iran.” This was one of many instances of “nuclear double standards” ElBaradei observed while at the IAEA, often (but not exclusively) practiced by the United States.
The Indian Case
While the South Korean episode revealed the obvious hypocrisies that dominate U.S. nonproliferation policy, it was nonetheless a case limited in time and in scope. The civil nuclear agreement the United States would soon enter with India proved to be a much more egregious example of Washington’s double standards.
Colloquially known as the 123 Agreement, the bilateral pact was first hatched in 2005. Under the terms of the deal, India, a nuclear-weapons state not party to the NPT, would separate its civil and military nuclear programs from one another, place all civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA Safeguards, and be rewarded for its actions with full nuclear cooperation from the United States.
In order to legally comply with this accord, the United States had to change both its domestic law and international regulations, each of which contained sharp restrictions on the export of sensitive nuclear material and technologies. In fact, the powerful Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international body formed to regulate the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies following India’s testing of a nuclear weapon in 1974, granted a waiver to, of all places, India.
Again, the inconsistencies in approach were palpable. Due to Iran’s alleged failure to meet its safeguards obligations under NPT Article III, the U.S. government had long maintained that Iran lost the substantive, inalienable rights affirmed in Article IV, which are enjoyed by all other signatories to the treaty. In line with this position, in late 2009, the United States explicitly denied Iran the ability to purchase nuclear fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, a safeguarded facility that produces medical isotopes for cancer patients, arguing that Iran was not entitled to receive international cooperation on its nuclear program.
By contrast, in the 123 Agreement with India, the United States agreed to fully cooperate with New Delhi on its nuclear program, despite the fact that nuclear –armed India is one of the only countries that exists outside of the international nonproliferation regime. And while the deal was loudly opposed in Washington’s nonproliferation community, few pushed as hard a line as they did, and continue to do, towards Iran.
These are circumstances that do not escape Iran’s attention. It is unsurprising then that the Iranians view U.S. policy toward Iran as borne out of three decades of unrelenting hostility, rather than actual concern with the spread of nuclear technologies.
The Israeli Case
Nuclear hypocrisy is most clearly on display in the way the United States deals with Israel’s nuclear program.
Iran’s obligations to suspend enrichment and other nuclear activities, as demanded by a series of Security Council resolutions passed since 2006, are regularly invoked by U.S. commentators. Few care to mention, however, that Israel, a nuclear-weapons state that like India is not party to the NPT, has long violated Security Council Resolution 487, which calls upon Israel to place its nuclear program under IAEA supervision. This obligation, flouted now for more than 32 years, was reaffirmed in 2009 upon passage of Security Council Resolution 1887, again to no avail.
Even more egregious is the unwritten rule between the United States and Israel that the latter’s arsenal of nuclear weapons will remain unacknowledged, so as to allegedly stave off proliferation in the Middle East. Notwithstanding widespread public knowledge of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, the United States has largely scrupulously adhered to this agreement since first affirmed by the Nixon administration in 1969.
If non-proliferation is truly an American concern and disarmament its ultimate goal, this is a curious arrangement, particularly given the strategic imbalance Israel’s stockpile has created in the region.
Betraying Obama’s Rhetoric
While Iran’s potential procurement of nuclear weapons is often described as unleashing the nuclear genie from the bottle in the Middle East, honest observers would do well to admit the genie has been out for more than four decades and will not be contained unless and until a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) is implemented and enforced in the region.
But the United States has played the role of spoiler on this point, canceling a long-planned regional conference on the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East last December following pressure from Israel.
One wonders whether President Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 thanks in part to his rhetorical flights of fancy about a world without nuclear weapons, has any intention of realizing his promise and living up to the award’s ethos. His administration has so far refused to consider leveraging its influence on Israel to force its participation in the NWFZ talks.
These are just a few of the many cases in which U.S. nonproliferation policy has meant one thing for Iran and another to everyone else. While Secretary of State John Kerry continues to insist Iran does not have the right to domestically enrich uranium, one wonders exactly what legal authority applies to the many states that have active and industrial-scale enrichment programs.
If the United States claims Iran lacks the right to enrich uranium, then it is only reasonable to hold other countries to the same standard. But the obvious contradiction between the treatment of Iran’s enrichment program and the nuclear programs of South Korea, India and Israel, amongst others, are all too easy to ignore, especially when the corporate news media proves easily compliant with the dominant U.S. government narrative.
When presented with the historical record, it becomes immediately evident that the chief antagonists to the non-proliferation regime are not the Iranians, but rather the United States and its partners.