Iran has, for years, created controversy over its process of uranium enrichment, allegedly as an attempt to develop nuclear weapons. Over the past decade it has been a lightning rod of criticism, while being diplomatically, commercially and financially marginalized. The dangers of the situation are clear. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it weakens an already fragile non-proliferation regime, threatens to spark a regional arms race, upsets delicate geopolitical relationships and endangers global security by facilitating international terrorism by proxy or by jihadi elements. The Canadian government broke off diplomatic ties with Iran in early September. One of the justifications for this move was Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program. So, it seems as if Canada has jumped into the Iran debate and taken a clear side.
Part of the problem with the development of nuclear weapons is that it reduces the effectiveness of the international Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. So, what exactly does the treaty do? It broke substantial ground when it entered into force in 1970. The five nuclear-weapons states of the era – coincidentally, the same five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – had three simple objectives in mind when they signed and ratified the treaty. Reducing and eliminating the spread of nuclear weapons, the eventual disarmament of countries that already had weapons, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy technology. Since then 180 other countries have signed or acceded onto the NPT, including Iran. Notable exceptions include India, Pakistan and Israel, all of which have never agreed to the treaty’s limitations and so developed their own nuclear arsenals. And North Korea, which abandoned the treaty in 2003 after contravening it by building its own nuclear weapons.
In the case of Iran, news of a clandestine nuclear program was leaked to the world in 2002 by an exiled dissident group based in Iraq, the Mujahedin e-Khalq. Interestingly, the same group that was delisted by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization in late September, a major political coup for the collective Iranian opposition. Since 2002, the United States verified several such claims over the years. With satellite photography and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a body set up by the United Nations in part to fulfill the mandate of the NPT, it has conducted multiple investigations and filed several reports on Iran’s nuclear program. After highly enriched weapons-grade uranium was discovered in 2003 and two years of European diplomatic efforts achieved little progress, the IAEA found Iran in noncompliance with its commitments under the NPT in 2005. This was reported to the UN Security Council in 2006 and marked the beginning of international pressure on Iran as the UNSC passed the first of many resolutions and sanctions.
Under the pressure of four rounds of comprehensive UN sanctions and tougher US-European measures, the Iranian economy has begun to show signs of strain. Oil exports are down to 800,000 barrels per day – a low not seen since the Iran-Iraq war ended – from a high of 2.3 million just one year ago. Revenues have sunk dramatically as a result. Unemployment is estimated to be at 20% and inflation 25%. While the Iranian currency (rial) has lost two-thirds of its value relative to the dollar in the past year, it lost 30% of its remaining value in the past week due to speculation and government mismanagement. International sanctions have effectively frozen Iran out of global financial institutions and banking mechanisms, making it prohibitively expensive for the country to borrow from abroad to finance a growing debt, subsidize traditional industries, pay public sector wages or import goods.
The Iranian government claims that it has a legal right as a signatory to the NPT to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Because uranium enrichment is part of its civilian nuclear energy program, the country sees no problem developing nuclear power to meet the country’s growing energy demands and to supply it with reactors useful for research and medical isotopes. Furthermore, Iran claims that it “has constantly complied with its obligations under the NPT and the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency”. While these are reasonable claims, they do not stand up to serious scrutiny.
First of all, Iran has a long history of non-cooperation with the IAEA dating back at least 10 years and has been consistently criticized in reports developed by the organization. Second, Iran has been found in contempt of four cumulative rounds of UNSC resolutions explicitly demanding a halt in uranium enrichment activities. As a result, it has been targeted with the most punitive sanctions by the international community. Third, the Iranian government supports Islamic terrorist organizations and repressive regimes while espousing a fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam, qualities that would be strengthened by the possession of a nuclear bomb in their weaponry. Finally, Iran has made its intention to eliminate Israel no secret, a task which would be greatly facilitated by the destructive potential offered by nuclear weapons.
The consequences of an empowered and emboldened nuclear Iran are serious. Because of the risks and dangers posed by nuclear weapons technology, it is up to the Iranian government to convince the rest of the world of its benign intentions. The fact that Iran continues to lob rhetorical grenades at its political enemies, especially to excoriate American imperialism and demonize Israeli existence, does not create any goodwill in its direction among those countries that can positively contribute to Iran’s success and rehabilitation in the international community. On this note, war remains a very real possibility in the region, and this is in large part because of Iran’s refusal to desist from continuing with its nuclear program. Its flagrant disregard for the IAEA and international law also undermines the long-term effectiveness of the NPT by weakening the collective ethos of non-proliferation that it represents. The Iranian government is testing the limits of the NPT by behaving defiantly. Whether and in what form the NPT survives the Iranian challenge will depend largely on how the international community reacts.