The Fight for a “Right”: How an Iran Deal Might Hinge on One Simple Word

Avoiding conflict will require finessing a thorny sticking point

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Adrees Latif / REUTERS

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks to journalists during a news conference in New York September 27, 2013.

Talk of war is in the air as envoys from Iran and six major powers head into a new round of talks over Tehran’s nuclear program in Geneva later this week. The goal will be to craft an interim agreement that can buy time and trust for a grander bargain sometime next year. The two sides will haggle over several technical issues, like how much uranium Iran is allowed to retain and how may centrifuges it can operate. But one of the hardest questions is an abstract one: does Iran have a “right” to enrich uranium?

The United States says definitely not. Iran says absolutely yes. The difference in opinion, western diplomats say, was a key reason why the last round of talks earlier this month hit a dead end. It is no academic matter: both sides understand that the point cuts to the heart of the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. At some point, it could be central to the argument for a potential U.S. military strike on Iran if negotiations fall apart.

Iranian leaders take the idea of a “right” to enrich uranium—the process that purifies harmless uranium ore into the stuff of nuclear bombs—extremely seriously. “The mastery of civil nuclear technology, including the enrichment of uranium, on Iranian soil is the absolute right of Iran,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Monday. In a November 10 address to parliament, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared domestic enrichment to be a “red line” that can’t be crossed.

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In part, Iran is simply making clear that it will never accept a deal that requires giving up its enrichment program—including by dismantling the 19,000 centrifuges it now possesses. And while Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many members of the U.S. Congress insist it must do so, but most experts say there’s little chance of a final deal that doesn’t allow Iran to continue enriching uranium at home—albeit under strict limitations to prevent it from quickly developing a bomb.

“Do I envisage a deal where they give up all their domestic enrichment? I don’t envisage that deal,” says Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution, who formerly worked on arms control and nonproliferation issues at the Obama State Department.

A different but related issue is a legal one. Iran has insisted that the U.S. and its allies explicitly concede in writing its legal right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory. The treaty does allow for “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” Iran says that obviously the right to enrich uranium. The U.S. says domestic enrichment is not specifically cited in the treaty, and notes that many other nuclear powers—including South Africa, Spain and Mexico—get their fuel from outside their borders.

“There is no right that is specific within the NPT about enrichment,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the BBC on November 11. A top Israel minister more bluntly calls the notion “an insult to human intelligence.”

Why the bluster over one little word? One reason is precedent. The NPT is meant to allow peaceful nuclear programs, but under strict safeguards—like International Atomic Energy Agency inspections—to prevent countries from shifting to military purposes. (Bombs require more highly enriched uranium than do nuclear plants; countries that import nuclear fuel can’t turn it into bombs.) Granting Iran the right to enrich, says Blaise Misztal of the Bipartisan Policy Center, “would put the lie to the NPT and the attempt to divide enrichment technology between peaceful and military purposes.”

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But there’s also a crucial implication for the world’s ability to police Iran’s future nuclear activities. If the major powers grant Iran a “right” to enrich uranium, suddenly the case for limiting or sanctioning Tehran’s nuclear program gets more complicated. Einhorn says the U.S. resisted Iranian demands for a guaranteed “right” for fear that “they would try to exploit any acknowledgment of that right in order to insist on an unfettered enrichment program.”

While the NPT insists its signatories not “manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,” it doesn’t clearly prohibit them from enriching uranium to bomb-grade levels of purity. And doing that could position Iran to quickly “break out,” and sprint to the development of a bomb within weeks—potentially faster than the world can detect what’s happening and respond.

If the U.S. has dealt away an explicit declaration that Iran has a “right” to enrich uranium, the case for international sanctions on Iran—even if it continues to enrich uranium at levels beyond what is needed for peaceful purposes—loses its legal footing. And should it come to a scenario that might involve military force, the case for striking a country over an explicitly guaranteed “right” won’t be easy to make at the United Nations.

Which means any currently plausible nuclear deal with have to perform a neat two-step, allowing Iran a de facto right to enrich without explicitly declaring a legal one. The good news is that Zarif may have signaled new flexibility on that point over the weekend “We do see right of enrichment not only nonnegotiable but see no necess[ity] for its recognition as a right,” he was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Zarif appeared to argued that the right is so self-evident that the major powers needn’t bother granting it.

That agree-to-disagree language  may suit the U.S. just fine. “Any deal will fudge the issue of right to enrichment,” says Gary Samore, who served until earlier this year as Obama’s White House nonproliferation czar. “We will agree that Iran can have a limited enrichment program without explicitly accepting right to enrichment, and Iran will claim we have recognized its right to enrichment because we agreed it could have a limited enrichment program.”

Sound complicated? Everything about striking a deal with Iran will be.

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