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NPT 101: Is Iran violating the nuclear treaty?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran had 'violated' the treaty ahead of this week's NPT Review Conference in New York. But the UN nuclear watchdog has never used that term. Who's right?

By Staff writer / May 4, 2010

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference at United Nations headquarters on Monday.

Richard Drew/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

Is Iran violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

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The answer isn't black and white. It depends on whom you ask – and how deftly you define “violation.” But in essence, Iran is following the letter but not always the spirit of the NPT.

Iran claims it is in complete compliance with its NPT obligations, including declaring all its nuclear material and allowing inspectors to monitor its facilities. It advocates against nuclear weapons and notes that despite thousands of hours of inspections in Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the United Nations body that monitors NPT compliance – has found no evidence of a bomb program.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated Monday at the NPT Review Conference that nuclear weapons were "a fire against humanity."

Also Monday, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano verified that Iran has not been diverting its declared nuclear material to a weapons program. But he said that due to a lack of cooperation from Iran, the IAEA “remains unable to confirm that all nuclear material is in peaceful activities" – meaning there may be some undeclared material in play.

Mr. Amano said Iran had to clarify doubts about "activities with a possible military dimension."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the "onus" was on Iran.

Iran's prickly history with the IAEA

Iran and the IAEA have had a prickly relationship since 2002, when a dissident group – believed to have been fed information from Israeli intelligence – revealed that Iran had been secretly working for years to build a 50,000-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant.

Technically, Iran was not required to declare that Natanz site until six months before nuclear material was introduced. But the IAEA in late 2004 derided Iran’s “policy of concealment” and “many breaches” of its NPT Safeguard Agreement, which spells out terms under which nuclear work and material is monitored and controlled.

Iran agreed to a 2003 update that requires it to declare any new nuclear facility from the moment building is authorized.

Still, it was only after years of work that Iran declared the 3,000-centrifuge Fordow site near Qom in September 2009. IAEA inspectors found it in “an advanced state of construction.” That prompted the IAEA Board of Governors, in a rare direct censure, to vote 26 to 3 against Iran in November.

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