Former congressional CoS Yleem Poblete: Time for an integrated approach to Iranian arms proliferation

Throughout the past decade, as we have struggled to prevent Iran from becoming another North Korea, the U.S. and other responsible nations have enabled Tehran’s assertion that it has a right to possess virtually the full array of technology and materials that could also be applied to a weapons program. 

If we hope to stem Iran’s quest, it is time for an integrated approach to arms proliferation. The first step in this process is speaking clearly. Diplomatic chatter by U.S. and international officials has been anything but that. 

For example, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently sought to unlink the IAEA’s investigation into Iran’s nuclear program from global discussions on the very treaty that provides the basis for the agency’s verification efforts in Iran: the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). 

This schizophrenic stance is dangerous. It undermines global proliferation efforts and enables Tehran to continue to manipulate the international system to advance its nuclear ambitions. It is also not a new problem.

Resolutions adopted by the IAEA board of governors have cited Iran’s “policy of concealment” and “many breaches” of its obligations. Rather than take concrete steps to punish Iran for its violations, the IAEA measures reaffirmed that Article IV of the NPT stipulates “nothing in the Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable rights of all the Parties to the Treaty…” The most recent iteration of this diplomatic two-step underscores the “serious concern” over Iran’s continued defiance of international requirements and obligations “including the continuing and expanding uranium enrichment activities” yet continues to “recall” the “inalienable rights” of all parties under Article IV. 

It therefore should come as no surprise that Iran focuses its rhetoric and political strategy on its nuclear “rights.” It did so recently in Geneva, where its deputy foreign minister addressed the NPT conference on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement. It did so in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April when Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili proposed that the P5+1 accept Iran’s “inalienable rights” to enrich uranium as a means of “unlocking” the stalemate in the discussions over Tehran’s nuclear program. 

There are no absolute nuclear “rights.” Article IV establishes conditions, namely, that the programs and activities conform to the overarching purpose of the treaty to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. 

The "right" to "develop research, production and use” must be solely for "peaceful purposes.” The nature and extent of Iran's nuclear activities demonstrate a military application. The IAEA’s reports have clearly documented Iran’s “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon … testing of components" and attempts to miniaturize a nuclear warhead designed to fit a missile. 

Looking at intent, if Tehran’s program were benign, the regime would have no problem complying with its obligations under Article III of the NPT. This section provides a mechanism for "verification" that there is "no diversion … to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Under this article, Iran, as a non-nuclear weapon party to the treaty, was required to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. 

Tehran continues to violate it by engaging in covert activities and denying access to requested nuclear-related sites, information, documents, material and personnel. 

If we are to prevent the doomsday scenario where the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism achieves breakout capacity, we must adopt an integrated approach. Rather than look at IAEA efforts in isolation, as the IAEA director suggested last week, the U.S. and other responsible nations must state clearly and repeatedly, including in all international forums, that Iran has forfeited its nuclear privileges under the NPT and that Article IV is not a grant or entitlement.

Iran must be censured and all its membership privileges at relevant U.N. agencies immediately suspended until it is in full and continued compliance with its nonproliferation obligations and requirements under U.N. Security Council resolutions. 

Easing of sanctions must be taken off the table. All sectors of the Iranian economy, all transactions, and all affiliates or agents of this pariah state should be targeted. There can be no delays or exceptions in implementation or we risk affording Tehran time to adjust and realign in order to mitigate the effects of these punitive measures.

 For our security, for the survival of our critical allies, and if the NPT is to maintain any credibility, we must end the schizophrenic approach to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Poblete, a Ph.D., served for over 18 years, including as chief of staff, on the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives. During this time, she was responsible for drafting and shepherding numerous bills enacted into law, particularly with respect to Iran, Syria and North Korea.