What if Iran were to say that it is considering withdrawing from the NPT?

The risk for failure in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran has increased after the emergence of difficulties put to light in the last meetings in Oman and Vienna. The resolution of the main remaining points of contention, which concern the Iranian capacity of enrichment, and even more problematic, the timetable of the lifting of sanctions, call for daring political decisions from both parties, running counter to the positions of their respective establishments. The new majority of the American Congress, obviously eager to intervene in the process, can at any time, by adopting additional sanctions, threaten to trigger the collapse of the discussions or make it irreparable.

As the perspective of a comprehensive agreement has become more elusive, the idea has been floated of a less damaging solution, based on revolving extensions of the present provisional agreement. After all, the Joint Plan of Action adopted on November 24, 2013, offers to the United States and its partners inside the P5+1 Group (the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany), in exchange of modest alleviations of sanctions, an effective control over Iran’s nuclear ambitions : as long as its uranium enrichment activity remains capped at the low rate of 5% and the completion of the Arak reactor is indefinitely postponed, the two ways to the bomb (production of highly enriched uranium and production of weapon grade plutonium) are blocked for good.

 But for Tehran, such a deal would mean a freeze in the development of its nuclear capacities while reducing any hopes of regaining some day its freedom of making decisions within the framework of a clear and permanent set of rules. It is therefore doubtful that Iran will wait passively until the United States makes it choice between extending again, or not, the present provisional agreement; inking, or not, a comprehensive and long-term agreement; imposing, or not, new sanctions on Iran… eventually striking, or not, the Iranian nuclear facilities.

At such a juncture, people in charge on the P5+1’s side should be careful not to entertain the illusion that they have finally cornered Iran under the pressure of sanctions, now combined to a dramatic drop in oil price. Tehran still keeps at its disposal a capacity for turning the tables. Americans and Europeans could be themselves under pressure to review their behavior if, for instance, Iran were to announce its intention to evaluate the opportunity of launching in the near future a legal procedure of withdrawal from the Treaty of Non-Proliferation.

Article X of the Treaty reads :“Each Party shall … have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” Iran is in a position to argue that the almost complete blockade imposed on its economy and its population in the name of a supposed “threat to peace” has all the aspects of a discriminatory and extraordinary measure deeply hurting its supreme interests. And of course, new American sanctions would only make things worse. It could underline that such a behavior directed against a fellow member of the Treaty having accepted not to acquire the bomb by members of the NPT enjoying the privilege to maintain a nuclear arsenal is indeed contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Treaty.

Iran could argue along the same lines that, whatever its past infractions to its obligations under its safeguards agreement with the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA), with most of them admitted and corrected, nobody, even among the numerous inspectors of the Agency after thousands of hours of research, has been able to present any “smoking gun” pointing to the manufacturing of a nuclear explosive device and the preparation of a nuclear test. Tehran could also argue that the focus put by the P5+1 Group on the famous “breakout time” makes it clear that, in all cases, Iran still is behind he starting line of an eventual race to the bomb. As a result, it could conclude that the Security Council had no right to impose upon Iran the type of sanctions provided for by Chapter VII of the United Nations’ Charter only in response to an alleged “threat to peace” – and for some of its most prominent members, even less right to adopt on the wake of these first sanctions their own unilateral sanctions.

At the same time, Iran, in order to present itself as a responsible player, should clearly state that its withdrawal from the NPT would have no influence upon the validity of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA and its overall commitment not to acquire the bomb. In accordance with the provisions of this agreement, Iranian nuclear material placed today under IAEA safeguards would remain submitted to exactly the same controls and inspections. New facilities such as the nuclear reactors to be built in Bushehr by the Russians would also be submitted to the same IAEA safeguards.

Within such a new legal framework, Iran, in order to escape IAEA safeguards, would need to run nuclear facilities built without external assistance, using only domestically extracted uranium and nuclear fuel produced in Iran. But to alleviate all fears and suspicions, it would be in Iran’s interest to accompany its eventual withdrawal from the NPT by a declaration stating that it would keep on abiding on a voluntary basis to the Treaty’s provisions by keeping all its nuclear material and facilities, present and future, under IAEA safeguards. Such an occurrence is not unknown in History. France, which joined the NPT only in 1992, issued in 1968 a statement at the United Nations explaining at the same time its reasons of principle for not signing the Treaty, but also its firm intention, for the sake of non-proliferation, to behave like a signatory. Of course, it would be made clear at the same time that any plan to attack Iranian nuclear facilities placed under IAEA safeguards would definitively compromise this set of commitments.

Finally, it would be important for Iran to declare that it would be ready, if it were to engage in such a venture, to rejoin the NPT the very day the UN and unilateral sanctions related to its nuclear activities were rescinded. Considering the importance of not setting a precedent undermining the coherence and the effectiveness of the Treaty, the  risk of Iran’s withdrawal should force the P5+1 to face up their responsibilities as the main guardians of the NPT. Hopefully, it could have a sobering effect on the American Congress, and hasten the conclusion of the comprehensive agreement under discussion with Iran.