Iran has been accused of secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Although Iranian leaders claim to be enriching uranium only for peaceful nuclear energy purposes, these claims have been treated with derision by the West. Despite the fact that most experts believe that Iran is still years away from developing a nuclear weapon, there are media reports suggesting that Israel and the US are making plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, should Iran not give up its uranium enrichment program. Given this possible military scenario, and the recent vote by the Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council, what is Iran likely to do?

First, Iran will continue to assert its right under Article IV the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program. Article IV refers to the “inalienable right” of states to nuclear energy. The parties to the treaty are promised assistance from more technologically advanced countries in pursuing this right. While this may be considered an untenable stipulation in the treaty, it is, nonetheless, the way the law stands. In accord with the treaty, in exchange for pursuing this right, Iran must agree to inspections of its nuclear facilities to assure that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials for making weapons. In fairness, if this aspect of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to be altered, it must be done for all states, not singling out Iran for special punitive treatment. Currently, uranium enrichment plants are operating in China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom and United States. Of these, Germany and Japan are non-nuclear weapons states that are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and thus have a similar relationship to the treaty as does Iran.

Second, Iran will assert that under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States and the other nuclear weapons states have not fulfilled their obligations for “good faith” negotiations for nuclear disarmament. It will point to the 1996 International Court of Justice advisory opinion that states: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” And it will point out the blatant refusal by the nuclear weapons states to carry out their Article VI commitments, including the plans by the United States to develop the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new type of nuclear warhead to extend the viability of the US nuclear arsenal.

Third, Iran will question the unequal treatment that it is receiving as compared to another Middle Eastern country, Israel, which is thought to possess some 200 nuclear weapons. Iran will note that there is not only a double standard between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” but also a double standard between Israel and other countries in the Middle East. It will rightly point out that there have long been calls for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone, including at the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, which have been largely ignored by Israel and the Western countries.

Article X of the Non-Proliferation Treaty allows for a party to withdraw after giving three months notice if it decides that “the supreme interests of its country” are being jeopardized by the treaty. With threats of an attack against Iran if it does not cease its uranium enrichment, and the example of Israel developing a nuclear arsenal outside the NPT, it would not be unreasonable for Iran’s leaders to conclude that Iranian interests were better served by withdrawing from the treaty. Should they reach this conclusion, they may also point to the precedent of the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 on grounds that US national interests were being jeopardized by that treaty.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is the most widely adhered to treaty in the area of arms control and disarmament. Only four countries are not parties to this treaty – India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – and all have developed nuclear arsenals.

To effectively preclude Iran from leaving the treaty and possibly developing a nuclear arsenal, and avoid risking the significant dangers involved in preventive military strikes, larger problems must be solved. First, the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime must be made universal, applicable to all states, bringing in the four states currently outside the treaty. Second, the nuclear weapons states, both within the treaty and those currently outside of it, must begin the good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament required by the treaty. These negotiations must be aimed at a Nuclear Weapons Convention that provides for the phased and internationally verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons from all national arsenals. Third, all enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium, fissile materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons, must be brought under strict and effective international control.

If this sounds utopian, it is surely no more so than believing that the current set of double standards, those that allow some states to continue to possess nuclear weapons while seeking to prevent others from having them, will be maintainable indefinitely. It is also certainly no more utopian than believing that preventive war, such as that waged illegally against Iraq, is a reasonable answer to every suspicion of nuclear weapons proliferation.

The only safe number of nuclear weapons in the world is zero. The only way to reach this number is for the nuclear weapons states to become serious about the “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate their nuclear arsenals that they made at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Until they do so, the prospects are high of countries like Iran following North Korea’s example of withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursuing nuclear weapons programs.


David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is the author of many studies of peace in the Nuclear Age, including Nuclear Weapons and the World Court.