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The Question of Enrichment

Iran and the Non-Proliferation Treaty

by CONN HALLINAN

There are any number of obstacles that could trip up the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1”—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany— but the right to “enrich” nuclear fuel should not be one of them. Any close reading of the 1968 “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (NPT) clearly indicates that, even though the word “enrichment” is not used in the text, all signers have the right to the “peaceful applications of nuclear technology.”

Enriched fuel is produced when refined uranium ore—“yellowcake”—is transformed into uranium hexafluoride gas and spun in a centrifuge. The result is fuel that may contain anywhere from 3.5 to 5 percent Uranium 235 to over 90 percent U-235. The former is used in power plants, the latter in nuclear weapons. Some medical procedures require fuel enriched to 20 percent.

Iran currently has some 15,700 pounds of 3.5 to 5 percent nuclear fuel, and 432 pounds of 20 percent enriched fuel. International Atomic Energy Agency investigators have never turned up any weapons grade fuel in Iran and have certified that Teheran is not diverting fuel to build nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies, including Israel’s, are in general agreement that Teheran has not enriched above 20 percent. A nuclear weapon requires about 110 pounds of uranium fuel enriched to between 90 and 95 percent.

Iran insists it is not building a weapon, and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against the production of nuclear weapons as being contrary to Islamic beliefs.

The U.S. and its allies claim that the NPT does not include an inherent right to enrich fuel because the words “enrich” do not appear in the document. But the Treaty clearly states, in at least two different places, that the only restriction on nuclear programs is the production of a weapon.  It is worthwhile to examine the two passages.

The preamble to the NPT affirms “the principle that the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology, including any technological by-products which may be derived by nuclear-weapon States from the development of nuclear-explosive devices, should be available for peaceful purposes to all Parties of the Treaty, whether nuclear-weapon or non-nuclear weapon States.” (Italics added)

Since one cannot produce a nuclear weapon without enriched fuel, and since it is impossible to obtain weapons-grade nuclear fuel on the open market—it violates the Treaty (and common sense)—all nuclear weapons states enrich fuel. Several non-weapons states, including Japan and Germany, do as well.

The second passage is Article IV, which has two parts:

* “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop, research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” [Articles I and II bar countries from transferring or receiving nuclear weapons or “any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapon…”].

* “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

The NPT has been signed or agreed to by virtually every country in the world, with the exceptions of Israel, India, Pakistan and South Sudan. North Korea, exercising its rights under Article X, withdrew from the Treaty in 2003. In theory, those countries who do not sign the NPT cannot buy uranium on the open market, but the Bush administration subverted this section of the NPT by agreeing to sell uranium to India. The Obama administration has not repudiated that decision, although the Indians have yet to act on it.

Rumor has it that France supplied the Israelis with the knowledge of how to build its bomb, and Apartheid South Africa supplied the fuel. India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons on their own. North Korea may have received the technical knowledge on how to produce its nuclear weapon from Pakistan, although there is no “secret” to building a bomb. All one needs is the right fuel and some engineering skills.

Delivering a bomb is another matter. Putting one on a missile requires miniaturization, which is devilishly hard, and delivering one by aircraft is unreliable if the target country has even a semi-modern anti-aircraft system.

It appears as if the P5+1 will eventually allow Iran to enrich fuel, although to what percentage is the rub. Will 20 percent be a red line for the P5+1? One hopes not. While 20 percent is closer to bomb-grade fuel than 3.5 or 5 percent, the increased inspection regime already agreed to two weeks ago would quickly spot any attempt to produce weapons-grade fuel. In any event, the 20 percent fuel can be configured in a way that makes it virtually impossible to upgrade it to bomb-ready material. There is also nothing in the NPT that bars enriching to 20 percent.

At this point the heavy water reactor at Arak is also a potential obstacle to an agreement. Commenting on Iran’s commitment to building the Arak reactor, Teheran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said that such a reactor is a “red line, which we will never cross,” indicating, at this point, that Iran intends to follow through with the project. Iran did, however, invite UN inspectors to examine the plant.

Heavy water reactors produce plutonium, which can also be used in nuclear weapons. The Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium weapon, and many of today’s nuclear weapons use it as a fuel. Heavy water reactors are efficient and don’t require an extensive enrichment industry, but they are expensive and produce what is unarguably the most dangerous and toxic substance on earth.

However, there is nothing in the NPT that differentiates between light water reactors and heavy water reactors, and signers have the right to use both technologies. Whether that is a good idea is entirely another matter, but certainly not an excuse for the massive sanctions that have tanked the Iranian economy. Every country has the inalienable right to do something dumb, like produce plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years (and you wouldn’t want to get too close to it even after that).

Adherence to the NPT is no obstacle to an agreement. The roadblocks will come from Israel—which is not a party to the Treaty—the Gulf monarchies, the Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress, and the alliance between the neo-conservatives who successfully pushed for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A close reading of the NPT is something everyone can do. The document is only four and a half pages and its language is accessible to anyone. In contrast, wading through the 53-page “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty” , a document certainly as important as the NPT, is an ordeal. But a close reading of the NPT is not necessarily comfortable for the governments of the U.S., China, France, Britain, or Russia. In particular Article VI:

“Each of the parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com