Does Iran Have an "Inalienable Right" to Enrich Uranium?

Most articles in the Iranian media on the nuclear issue reiterate Iran's "inalienable right" to enrich uranium according to the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. Iran contends that as a member of the NPT, it is treated unfairly by the international community when demands are made that it suspend enrichment. Iran has repeated this mantra so often that many experts and policymakers – even if critical of Iran's nuclear program – concede that as a member of the NPT, Iran indeed has the right to enrich uranium. Ahead of a fresh round of negotiations with Iran that could begin soon after the US presidential elections, it is important to examine the veracity of this claim.

Since 2006, Iran's claim is actually negated by the six resolutions passed by the UN Security Council instructing Iran to suspend enrichment-related activities, which Iran has blatantly violated. These Security Council resolutions "trump" any privilege provided by the NPT, as was clarified in analyses published by the Carnegie Endowment.[i][1] The demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment is currently a legally binding demand.

But there is a more fundamental issue at stake. The right of Iran – or any other non-nuclear state – to pursue nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment activities, is not absolute. According to the NPT, this right is explicitly conditional. Iran's ongoing claim to an inalienable right is based on a partial reading of the relevant clause in Article IV of the NPT. What the continuation of the critical sentence clarifies is that the right to nuclear energy – including enrichment activities – is contingent upon upholding Articles I and II of the treaty, including the stipulation that states not manufacture nuclear weapons.[ii][2] In other words, if a state engages in weapons-related activities, the right no longer holds....

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