Did the United States Just Grant Iran the Right to Enrich Uranium?

For weeks, Western negotiators have huddled in a luxury hotel in Geneva with their Iranian counterparts to defuse tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program. In the early hours Sunday, the diplomats finally secured their long-sought prize: a deal that puts the breaks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief. Now comes the hard part. ...


For weeks, Western negotiators have huddled in a luxury hotel in Geneva with their Iranian counterparts to defuse tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program. In the early hours Sunday, the diplomats finally secured their long-sought prize: a deal that puts the breaks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.

Now comes the hard part. With the details of the agreement public, skeptics of Iran’s sudden willingness to compromise with the West have been handed heaps of ammunition with which to attack the Obama administration as a sell-out to Tehran. The Geneva deal bears the hallmarks of a compromise solution, the terms of which do not require Iran to dismantle its nuclear program — as Israel has demanded — but to scale back activities over the next six months that are most useful for producing a nuclear weapon. The diplomats who drafted the agreement are describing it as an interim, confidence-building measure. Iran skeptics are describing it as hopelessly naïve. "If five years from now a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning," Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economic minister, said in a statement.

At the center of that debate — whether the agreement represents a clear-eyed test of Iran’s true intentions or a victim of Iran’s savvy bait-and-switch negotiating tactics — is the question of whether the document recognizes what Tehran describes as its right to enrich uranium. Immediately after the agreement was announced, Fars News, the Iranian state-sponsored news outlet, proclaimed that the accord "includes recognition of Tehran’s right of uranium enrichment" and that the "right to enrichment has been recognized in two places of the document." Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, made exactly the opposite claim on ABC’s This Week on Sunday: "There is no right to enrich. We do not recognize a right to enrich."

Over the next few weeks one of these two narratives will become the dominant interpretation of the Geneva agreement — and which one catches on will go a long way toward determining its ultimate success. Either the West has by force and calculation compelled Iran into accepting a change in its strategic outlook and abandoned its nuclear ambitions. Or the West has backed down — "appeased" Iran, if you will — and allowed Tehran to hold on to its nuclear program in the hopes of avoiding war in the Middle East.

The problem for the ideologues on either side of this debate is that the text of the agreement provides no clear answer on whether Iran does or does not have the right to enrich uranium. And that piece of diplomatic maneuvering provides important clues about what lies ahead for President Obama’s effort to defuse the stand-off with Iran.

Contrary to Fars’ assertion, the document does not explicitly recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. But it doesn’t explicitly deny it, either. The phrase "right to enrich uranium," or one of its variants, appears nowhere in the document, and the only use of the word "right" comes in the following two phrases. First, "this comprehensive solution would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the [Nonproliferation Treaty] in conformity with its obligations therein." Additionally, "the final step of a comprehensive solution, which the parties aim to conclude negotiating and commence implementing no more than one year after the adoption of this document, would … reflect the rights and obligations of parties to the NPT and IAEA Safeguards Agreements."

What the document does do is allow Iran to continue some of its enrichment activities, and that has handed Iranian hardliners an important rhetorical victory. Throughout the negotiating process, Iranian leaders have repeatedly emphasized that they refuse to give up the ability to enrich uranium. As recently as Friday, just before the deal was struck, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif laid out Iran’s negotiating position. "Our right to enrichment is our red line. The enrichment program that Iran has, will continue. … Any agreement should include enrichment program for Iran," he said in an interview with Iran’s Press TV. "We will not accept anything else other than that." On that point, Zarif can now claim victory. The agreement allows Iran to continue the enrichment activities it has in place, though that enrichment cannot go beyond 5 percent and the uranium already enriched to 20 percent — a level that is a hop, skip, and a jump from weapons grade — must be diluted or converted into oxide.

The Geneva agreement thus produced a diplomatic breakthrough by completely ignoring one of the thorniest issues on the table. The West insists Iran has no right to enrich uranium. Iran considers that right sacrosanct. The agreement solves the complete lack of overlap between those two negotiating positions by making no mention of that conflict. Regardless of the substance of the agreement, it’s a neat diplomatic trick.

The question of whether a country has a right to enrich uranium goes back to a somewhat obscure debate over the terms of the NPT, the nonproliferation treaty that governs the spread of nuclear weapons. That treaty does not grant any countries a right to enrichment, noting only that "nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty." Iran has frequently cited that clause in defending its nuclear program, but it’s one that the West has rejected outright. The question isn’t so much whether any country, at any point has the right to pursue nuclear program, but whether Iran has the right to do so now and whether that program is actually for peaceful purposes.

By skirting the debate over the right to enrichment, the Geneva agreement lays out a clear compromise position: Iranian leaders are welcome to crow to their domestic audiences that they have finally squeezed the West to grant its right to a nuclear program. Western leaders are willing to take that political blow in order to keep the Iranian nuclear program contained at a manageable level. Western leaders will meanwhile make exactly the opposite argument to their domestic audiences and hope that the Iranian position doesn’t catch on and become the accepted interpretation of the agreement.

That scenario also paints a clear path forward: The interim nature of the agreement requires Iran to meet a series of disclosure requirements, in addition to diluting their stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. At the same time, the vague terms of the agreement protect Rouhani from hardliners in Tehran, from whom he can defend himself by pointing to the provisions that allow Iran to continue some enrichment activities.

The path forward, then, looks something like this: Iranian leaders will make the case that they have secured the future of their nuclear program and ended the country’s painful economic isolation. Western leaders will claim that Iran has decided to limit that program to peaceful ends. Provided that both sides live up to their end of the bargain, both of those statements are true.

This is hairsplitting

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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