Paper - Managing the Atom Project, Belfer Center

Iran and a New International Framework for Nuclear Energy

| November 2016


As early as the end of the Second World War it was recognized that nuclear fuel cycle technologies developed for military purposes—specifically, uranium enrichment and reprocessing—had major potential for peaceful applications but remained inherently dual-purpose, and if not controlled appropriately, could be diverted to military use. The very first issue considered by the newly founded United Nations was “the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy.” Unfortunately, given all that has followed, ideas advanced then for international control of the fuel cycle did not gain the support needed to be taken further.

Today the principal international framework for ensuring peaceful uses of the nuclear fuel cycle comprises the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which apply primarily to non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) to verify that their nuclear programs are used only for peaceful purposes. Some of the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded with Iran in July 2015, and the need to address the dangers posed by Iran’s program once key restraints of the JCPOA expire, create both an opportunity and a need to strengthen the international framework for control of sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technology.

The usual interpretation of the NPT is that NNWS can develop any nuclear technology provided they do so under IAEA safeguards. But the NPT does not actually say this. Article IV says the NPT does not affect “the inalienable right of all the Parties . . . to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (emphasis added) for peaceful purposes,” in conformity with other key provisions of the treaty. This is not an explicit right to develop a particular technology regardless of the impact on the NPT’s objectives.

Unfortunately the NPT is vague about the extent to which a party can pursue a particular technology, provided this is for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards.  As Iran and others in the non-aligned group of states are quick to remind, NPT signatories agree to the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information.” Today it is clear that the NPT did not anticipate the problem of the spread of proliferation-sensitive nuclear technologies, and does not adequately address this problem. Hence the effort now to develop multilateral approaches, ensuring sensitive stages of the fuel cycle are not left exclusively in national hands.

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For Academic Citation: Carlson, John. “Iran and a New International Framework for Nuclear Energy.” Paper, Managing the Atom Project, Belfer Center, November 2016.

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