Is Iran Trying to Build a Nuclear Weapon?
The Iranian government and U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies say no. Some members of Congress and other commentators say yes.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global body charged with monitoring the development of nuclear weapons, has expressed “serious concern” about Iran's lack of transparency about its nuclear energy program. Yet after an extensive investigation, the Reuters news agency reported on March 23 that “The United States, European allies and even Israel generally agree on three things about Iran's nuclear program: Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.”
So, what happens next to discourage Iranian leaders from deciding to develop a nuclear weapon? FCNL is one of the leading advocates on Capitol Hill for pursuing diplomacy, but some members of Congress and other commentators argue that Iran needs to be punished and pressured through sanctions and international isolation to stop its civilian nuclear program. “This is a regime that has crossed every red line of international law and civilized conduct,” explained Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT), and must be prevented from continuing its “current outlaw course.”
Yet in “outlaw” Iran, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization has three seismic monitoring stations and has other monitoring in place to detect any evidence of nuclear weapons testing.
The IAEA regularly sends inspectors to Iran, has cameras providing 24-hour coverage of several key nuclear sites in the country, and measures and seals enriched uranium containers to prevent tampering. IAEA scientists also regularly analyze data provided by intelligence agencies to detect any evidence of nuclear weapons activity.
All of this surveillance is possible because Iran signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1970. The NPT gives ratifying countries the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and provides strict international safeguards—IAEA inspections—to verify that member countries are not building nuclear weapons. Since 1968, the only countries to obtain nuclear weapons either never signed the NPT (India, Israel and Pakistan) or left the NPT (North Korea) before obtaining a weapon.
Still, the IAEA is not entirely satisfied with the extent of its monitoring in Iran. IAEA inspectors have not been allowed to visit, inspect and install monitors at all of the nuclear sites in Iran. And the IAEA believes that Iran has not adequately explained some of its nuclear enrichment activities prior to 2003, when the government was trying to acquire technology that could be used to build nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran ceased to pursue the development of nuclear weapons in 2003.
The United Nations Security Council ordered Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program in 2005 until full details of past enrichment efforts were provided to the IAEA. The Iranians argued that the new enrichment activities were focused on producing medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer patients and therefore allowed under international law. But the Security Council, working with the United States and other world powers, has continued to sanction Iran over the lack of transparency in the country’s nuclear enrichment program.
The movement to pressure Iran through more sanctions and preparations for war is also fueled by statements from some Iranian leaders that the state of Israel has no right to exist. For example, in May 2012, the official Iranian news agency quoted the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Hassan Firouzabadi as saying, “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel.” This hate speech fuels confrontation.
The dispute between other world powers and Iran has resulted in several rounds of new and increasingly restrictive economic sanctions.
The U.N. Security Council focus, however, has shifted from an insistence that Iran stop enriching uranium to a focus on ensuring that the international community has full access to Iran’s current nuclear program. Iran, the United States, and five other countries engaged in talks over Iran’s nuclear program agreed in 2012 that the NPT would be the framework for ensuring Iran’s nuclear program is solely used for peaceful purposes. This framework would allow Iran to continue its peaceful nuclear energy program while requiring the government in Tehran to fully cooperate with the IAEA to guarantee that Iran is not trying to weaponize nuclear materials.
Will Congress Help or Hurt?
Congress can have a positive or negative impact on these talks. As concerns over Iran’s nuclear intentions have mounted, Congress has responded with attempts to punish and isolate Iran. Congress has passed sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank, and new sanctions are scheduled to impact Iranian oil exports in the summer of 2012.
But the greatest danger from Congress may come from legislation that could limit U.S. diplomatic contacts with Iran. FCNL lobbyists are urging members of Congress to pursue diplomacy, not close the space for a peaceful solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities and promote unilateral demands that could lead to war.
Our message is slowly beginning to get through in Congress. We worked with Reps. Walter Jones (NC) and Keith Ellison (MN) this spring to gather 35 additional signatures on a letter urging President Obama to vigorously pursue a diplomatic strategy with Iran. In May, 77 representatives voted for a proposal offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) to support a peaceful resolution to the U.S. conflict with Iran and encourage diplomatic engagement. While sanctions and threats of war still garner more support in Congress, we at FCNL are illuminating for Congress an alternative, peaceful path. (Please check the FCNL website at fcnl.org/iran for the latest information on our efforts to prevent war with Iran.)
A Time for Patience and Diplomacy
More than 30 years of isolation and escalating sanctions have only heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The United States, the international community and Iran have an opportunity this year to chart a new course based on cooperation, transparency and diplomatic engagement. Former U.S. diplomats William Luers and Thomas Pickering summed up the situation well in a recent editorial in the New York Times:
“It is a grave and uncertain time. Patient, committed diplomacy is the only way to realize the long term and durable objectives of an Iran without nuclear weapons and a region without war…This opportunity should not be squandered.”
We at FCNL hope that members of Congress will heed this appeal for patience and diplomacy.
Find out more about how you can be part of this work to support a world free of nuclear weapons.