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

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    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference at United Nations headquarters on Monday.
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Is Iran violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

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.

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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.

That IAEA resolution noted “serious concern” that Iran “continues to defy the requirements and obligations” of IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions – three of which impose sanctions and require Iran to halt uranium enrichment.

While the NPT grants every nation the right to enrich uranium to produce nuclear energy, the UN Security Council – which in Iran’s case is the enforcement mechanism for the NPT – has suspended that right until Iran resolves IAEA concerns about possible weapons efforts.

Even in censure, IAEA doesn't say Iran 'violated' NPT

The November censure also said that Iran's new plant was “in breach” of Iran’s “obligation to suspend all enrichment activities,” and the tardy declaration “inconsistent with its obligations” under Iran’s updated NPT Safeguard Agreement.

The two-page document does not use the word “violate.” Neither does that word appear in the 10 pages of the IAEA’s latest quarterly report on Iran from February.

The agency said Iran’s lack of full cooperation “reduces the level of confidence” that it has no undeclared nuclear facilities. It stated the IAEA could not exclude the “possible existence in Iran of past or current [activities] related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."

Such splitting of diplomatic hairs does not satisfy leaders such as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who on Sunday stated flatly that Iran had “violated the terms of the NPT” and “been held under all kinds of restrictions and obligations that they have not complied with.”

Part 1: How relevant is the cold war treaty in an age of terrorism?

Part 2: Which countries have nuclear weapons?

Part 3: Why Iran sees nuclear 'hypocrisy'

Part 4: Clash between nuclear haves and have-nots

Part 5: Is Iran violating the nuclear treaty?

[Editor's note: The original version of this story attributed the word "onus" to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, though in fact it was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who said: "The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its program."]

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