OpinionIran in the World PressThere is no absolute right to nuclear energy

There is no absolute right to nuclear energy

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Financial Times: Hardly a day has gone by in the past two years without the Iranian government, pressed to explain its troubling pursuit of nuclear technology, reasserting its “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear energy. Invoking that “right” – enshrined in the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) – has had substantial diplomatic effect, helping put pressure on states to let Iran do as it pleases. Financial Times

By Michael Levi

Hardly a day has gone by in the past two years without the Iranian government, pressed to explain its troubling pursuit of nuclear technology, reasserting its “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear energy. Invoking that “right” – enshrined in the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – has had substantial diplomatic effect, helping put pressure on states to let Iran do as it pleases. Though the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded on Saturday that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment activities, Tehran has managed to ward off US-backed moves to refer its case to the UN Security Council.

So long as the Iranian gambit works, the world should expect more states to assert their “inalienable rights” as they pursue questionable nuclear ventures. But that is an offence to basic common sense. No “right” to nuclear power should be fundamental; access to peaceful nuclear energy is a privilege. As with other privileges, it should entail commensurate responsibilities. States pursuing nuclear technology should be responsible for proving that the technology will not be used to acquire nuclear arms.

The non-proliferation regime does not now take that responsibility seriously. Consider two examples.

Canada operates one of the world’s largest nuclear power complexes. For years it has allowed broad and intrusive international inspections to verify its peaceful programme. It has never violated any arms control agreement and its transparent system of government reassures others that there will be no unwelcome surprises.

Iran also aspires to operate a significant nuclear power complex, and seeks even more sensitive technologies than those that Canada uses. It has never allowed broad and intrusive international inspections. It has violated arms control agreements for nearly 20 years. Its government is opaque, prone to unpredictable policy changes.

Both these states have precisely the same “inalienable rights” under the NPT. This status quo is untenable. States that want the privilege of developing these technologies should be made responsible for reassuring others that their facilities will not be redirected towards making bombs. Those states that cannot should be denied the technology and face consequences.

Imagine we were to treat nuclear technology in the same way as we treat transport technology. Since cars offer a mix of benefits (efficient transportation) and risks (potential for accidents), the privilege of their use entails important responsibilities. Nuclear technology should too. To drive, an individual must carry a licence, which cannot be acquired unless he or she has reached an age of responsibility. By analogy, nuclear technology might be restricted to responsible states, with responsibility defined in terms of transparency and non-aggressive government.

An individual who commits a series of driving infractions fails in his responsibility to reassure the public that he will drive safely – and his privileges are revoked. The same should go for a state that consistently violates the rules of the nuclear road, such as fully disclosing programmes to international authorities.

How could this be implemented? At a minimum, states would be required to submit to stringent inspections of their nuclear facilities, using IAEA intrusive Additional Protocol inspections, as has been commonly proposed. But those inspections would not be regarded as tools for the international community to ferret out illicit activity – they would be tools for states to promote confidence in their activities. With a shift from rights to responsibilities, the burden of proof would shift to the state that wanted nuclear technology.

States would have to tell the IAEA the truth. This sounds trivial, but it is not currently embraced. The IAEA has repeatedly highlighted Iran’s changing stories and contradictory statements – lies – yet for a long time there have been no substantial consequences. In a system where responsibility and reassurance come first, lying can have no place. States might also have to forgo sensitive technologies as part of their responsibility to reassure. Those that disregarded their responsibilities would lose their rights to the technologies.

In theory, the world can have an “inalienable right to nuclear energy” while it maintains a tough prohibition on the spread of nuclear arms. In the 1960s, when the NPT was born, that might have even been practical. But technological advance has blurred the line. Today, an inalienable right to nuclear energy is too close to indistinguishable from an inalienable right to a nuclear bomb.

The writer is co-author of The Future of Arms Control (Brookings Institution Press, forthcoming)

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