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North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation

Historic Nuclear Agreement with Iran Made Possible by Iranian "Concession" About Recognition of the Right to Enrich Uranium

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Iran has demanded recognition of its right to enrich uranium since the beginning of talks on its nuclear program.[1] The United States has consistently rejected such a right.[2] Both sides have refused to budge over nearly a decade of negotiations, but Iran recently changed its approach and went public with a concession that facilitated nuclear negotiations between the sides.[3]

In more of a political maneuver than a concession, Iran “conceded” that the six world powers (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) no longer need to publicly acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium.[4] Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was recently quoted as saying, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is non-negotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right,’ because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”[5] Zarif’s statement came as a surprise because less than two months ago, President Hassan Rouhani conditioned any agreement on recognition by the United States and its allies of Iran’s right to enrich uranium.[6] Although both sides still disagree over the legal recognition of a right to enrich uranium, Iran’s “concession” allowed the sides to politically sidestep the issue and come to an agreement.[7]

Uranium enrichment is the most sensitive area surrounding Iran’s nuclear program because enriched uranium can be used both to make reactor fuel and to arm nuclear missiles.[8] Enriched uranium is required in commercial light-water reactors to produce a controlled nuclear reaction.[9] Enriching uranium to 20 percent allows it to be used in nuclear medicines and for reactor fuel, and uranium must be enriched to 90 percent to be used for a nuclear bomb.[10] Iran claims that its nuclear enrichment is only for producing power and for scientific and medical purposes.[11] It claims no interest in nuclear arms.[12] However, the United States and its allies point to Iran’s prior efforts to hide enrichment and claim that Iran’s enrichment facilities and stockpiles of enriched uranium far outweigh what it needs for medical and civilian purposes.[13]

On November 24, 2013, the sides reached a nuclear agreement entailing a six-month freeze on progress at all of Iran’s key nuclear facilities, barring the facilities from adding new centrifuges and capping (sometimes even eliminating) stockpiles of 20-percent-enriched uranium that Western officials fear to be fuel for a nuclear weapon.[14] Iran surprisingly agreed to daily monitoring by international inspectors, and committed to halt construction of a heavy-water reactor with the potential to provide the country with plutonium for a nuclear bomb.[15] The freeze of Iran’s nuclear facilities combined with the increased monitoring makes it virtually impossible for Iran to work on a nuclear weapon without being detected.[16]

In return, Iran receives modest economic incentives with the prospect of more substantial relief under the comprehensive deal to be negotiated in the spring of 2014 when the six-month agreement expires.[17] Iran gained access to $4.2 billion dollars of its foreign currency holdings that have been frozen in overseas banks, and Western governments agreed to ease restrictions affecting Iran’s trade in petrochemical products, precious metals, and airplane and automobile parts.[18] However, the most severe Western sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors will remain in place until Iran agrees to a comprehensive deal.[19] Although the six-month agreement is historic, it remains to be seen whether both sides will uphold the bargain, and ultimately whether a comprehensive agreement can be reached in 2014.

[1] George Jahn, Iran Nuclear Talks Move a Step Closer to Deal: Iranian Concedes on Right to Enrich Uranium, The Washington Post (Nov. 19, 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] See id.

[4] Id.

[5] Tehran’s ‘Right’ to Enrich Uranium Need Not be Recognized by Other Nations – Iranian FM, RT (Nov. 17, 2013), http://rt.com/news/iran-nuclear-talks-deal-869/ [hereinafter Tehran’s ‘Right’]

[6] See Jahn, supra note 1.

[7] See id.

[8] See Tehran’s ‘Right,’ supra note 5; Obama Plunges Ahead Toward Iran Nuclear Deal, NPR (Nov. 19, 2013).

[9] Uranium Enrichment, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, http://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cycle-fac/ur-enrichment.html.

[10] See Tehran’s ‘Right,’ supra note 5.

[11] Jahn, supra note 1.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Iran Agrees to Curb Nuclear Activity at Geneva Talks, BBC News: Middle East (Nov. 24, 2013), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25074729.

[15] Joby Warrick, Nuclear Pact’s Fine Print: A Temporary Halt in Advances, The Washington Post (Nov. 23, 2013), http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nuclear-pacts-fine-print-a-temporary-halt-in-advances/2013/11/23/0f71640a-54be-11e3-9e2c-e1d01116fd98_story.html.

[16] See id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Joby Warrick, After Iran Deal, Tough Challenges Ahead, The Washington Post (Nov. 24, 2013), http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/after-iran-nuclear-deal-tough-challenges-ahead/2013/11/24/9853518e-552c-11e3-835d-e7173847c7cc_story.html.


Posted by Wesley D. Mayberry on Wed. January 15, 2014 8:00 AM
Categories: Customary International Law

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