Iran's mantralike insistence that its pursuit of nuclear technology is an internationally guaranteed right that it will never curtail has countries as diverse as the United States and China worried it is seeking a nuclear weapon.
But the huge increases in energy demand anticipated across the developing world over the next two decades, coupled with a growing urgency about global warming, have nuclear nonproliferation experts focused on Iran's case for broader and even more unsettling reasons. If a sense of entitlement to nuclear power and the fuel that makes it possible is allowed to take root, they say, the world soon could find itself with dozens of nuclear countries with the means to switch from peaceful energy production to building a nuclear arsenal virtually overnight.
Many of those countries would be in such hot spots as the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where a mounting temptation to keep up with worrisome neighbors could be too much to resist.
"It's not too difficult to foresee a world of dozens of virtual nuclear-weapons states, capable of building a bomb because of the nuclear material and technology they have, and Iran represents the danger of this future scenario," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "A country that claims it is within its rights defies the international community, and gets right up to the edge of producing bomb-grade uranium."
The question of how to control the spread of nuclear technology – which can supply both civilian electrical energy production and horrendous mass destruction – has been on the international agenda since the early 1950s. A key worry has always been how to control the nuclear fuel, uranium or plutonium, that powers a civilian plant but that also is a key building block for military use of nuclear energy.
Concerns receded in recent decades, as interest stalled in nuclear-power generation. But with the US Department of Energy predicting a 50 percent rise in global demand for electricity in little more than a decade – and with rising concerns about the effect of energy sources that produce greenhouse gases – nuclear is again a "hot" energy solution.
Enter Iran and its repeated claims to a "right" to nuclear technology and power. The UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany met in London Monday to consider a second round of sanctions against Iran, which the UN's nuclear watchdog agency last week said was accelerating its uranium-enrichment program. The meeting, not concluded at press time, was expected to produce ideas for additional turns of screws designed to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table.
Since the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), international law has acknowledged a universal right to peaceful nuclear energy. But Iran is using a "pick-and-choose" approach to the NPT, many experts say. Even before the part of the treaty that speaks of a right to nuclear energy, they point out, the language first lays out a country's responsibilities to forswear military uses and to provide assurances that its uses are peaceful.
"What we're talking about here is a loose interpretation of a right to something that brings you to within days of having a bomb, but when people say there is a right to that they are wrong," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington and a former Pentagon nonproliferation official.
It is "sloppy reading" of rules that include safeguards, Mr. Sokolski says, that has allowed Iran to move forward while citing "rights" but not responsibilities. Some countries and some US officials are pressing for a stricter interpretation, he says, that there is "no per se right to technology" without an equal willingness to prove that its use is solely for peaceful purposes.
A problem, though, stems from past practice of the US and other nuclear powers who have looked away as friendly nations with nuclear-energy programs developed their own programs for producing nuclear fuel. That response has allowed a list of nonnuclear-weapons countries like Japan and Germany to nevertheless possess all the material they need to have a bomb in no time (an alternative Japan has occasionally mulled over as North Korea has gone nuclear).
"We have winked at a list of friendly countries like Japan, Germany, Brazil, and others on the question of whether or not they should be able to make their own nuclear fuel, and the result is the idea that if it was true before it must be true for everybody," Sokolski says. The NPT says no such thing about nuclear fuel, he adds, because the international nuclear-fuel regime was never taken up by the treaty.
A problem for the international community is that many developing countries, no matter what they may think of the Iranian regime, perceive that Iran has a point when it speaks of developed-world favoritism, says the Arms Control Association's Mr. Kimball. Other analysts agree.
"Whether we like it or not, Iran is tapping into this issue of fairness and equality," says Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for America Progress and author of a new book, "Bomb Scare," on the future of nuclear weapons.
Regional fears about Iran's intentions are also a factor. As Iran has asserted a right to nuclear technology, other countries in the oil-rich Middle East have announced plans to develop nuclear energy – something many experts doubt is a coincidence.
"We may still be debating whether Iran's nuclear program is ultimately for peaceful purposes or progressing with the intent of building nuclear weapons, but the countries in the region have made their decision that it is an aggressive program that requires a counter," says Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and an Iran expert.
Noting that at least eight countries in the Middle East have recently declared intentions to develop nuclear technology, he says: "They are looking for some sort of counterweight to the Iranian program, which the Iranians may say is for peaceful purposes but which [these countries] know has the potential of being a nuclear-weapons program as well."
Beyond the immediate case of Iran, Mr. Berman says, the NPT poses a problem in that its guarantees of access to nuclear power encourage countries to develop technology "that allows them to come within striking distance of a nuclear-weapons capability."
An urgent need, he adds, is a new international system that creates "disincentives" for countries to move beyond nuclear power to producing nuclear fuel.
Ideas are out there, though no one is jumping at adopting them.
One proposal is to create a privately funded "fuel bank" – a stockpile of low-enriched uranium for use by countries that pledge not to build their own fuel-cycle capabilities. The Nuclear Threat Initiative co-founded by Ted Turner and former US Sen. Sam Nunn has committed $50 million to creating such a bank through the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Others, such as the proliferation education center's Sokolski, say the incentives for nuclear-power production, including huge subsidies that countries give it, must be accounted for so that nuclear programs make economic sense. That would level the playing field as countries look for energy alternatives, and limit the "excuses" for developing a technology with a military adaptation, he says.
While jitters about nuclear's potential for destructive uses are not new, they are heightened by the need for clean energy sources and new security threats.
America's first National Intelligence Estimate, issued under the Eisenhower administration, noted that countries would choose how to use nuclear technology "depending on how they think the wind is blowing," notes Mr. Cirincione.
"The challenge we face now is this: If we think nuclear energy is part of a global-warming solution, then we have to solve the nuclear-fuel problem to make the world safe for nuclear-power production."