The multilateral agreement hammered out with Iran over its nuclear program is in "the best interest of humanity" and an important next step in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, says the vice president of the American Society of International Law.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Prohibition on the Use of Force for Arms Control: The Case of Iran’s Nuclear Program, said that the deal, announced Tuesday, is in the security interest of the United States.
The Vatican also responded favorably to the news, with its spokesman issuing a statement saying the agreement is "viewed in a positive light by the Holy See."
"It constitutes an important outcome of the negotiations carried out so far, although continued efforts and commitment on the part of all involved will be necessary in order for it to bear fruit," said Father Federico Lombardi. "It is hoped that those fruits will not be limited to the field of nuclear programme, but may indeed extend further.”
O’Connell, who is also the author of Twenty-First Century Arms Control Challenges: Drones, Cyber Weapons, Killer Robots and WMDs, spoke with Aleteia about the agreement.
What does the deal provide for, and why is it important for the US to have such an agreement?
The deal is a multilateral agreement. It’s not between just the United States and Iran but among the permanent members of the Security Council, Iran, and it’s also associated with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That agency oversees and implements the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran is a party to that treaty, as are all the permanent members of the Security Council. And the treaty permits the five permanent members to have nuclear weapons, but no other state may have nuclear weapons. They may, however, have peaceful uses of nuclear power for nuclear power generation.
So the very long-running issue between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the other parties to the NPT and the US and the other permanent members of the Security Council and Iran is the suspicion that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon and not just a nuclear power source. Iran has long contended—and we’re talking about 15 or 20 years—that it is only developing nuclear power. The reason why this has led to these long years of negotiations and then eventually sanctions against Iran by the Security Council and other states is because Iran has not always cooperated fully with the IAEA, has not allowed IAEA inspectors into Iran, to all sites that they wish to visit, and this has raised a suspicion that Iran is diverting some of its fuel and some of its capacity to make a nuclear weapons in addition to nuclear power.
That’s the heart of the issue, and there’s been very committed and serious negotiations for about 10 years now, since the Security Council passed sanctions to convince, to persuade Iran to open its nuclear sites to IAEA inspection. Those negotiations have not been successful until now, and in the last several years the United States has put its own unilateral sanctions on Iran basically forbidding Americans to do business with Iran, telling US banks or international banks with a US presence not to lend money, not to purchase Iran’s oil. So it’s been a very financially difficult time for Iran, and still it won’t open up its nuclear sites to these inspections.
It’s questionable that the US had the right to put those kinds of sanctions on Iran outside the Security Council process, but it did that, and the US also pressured, in the last couple of years, the European Union to put sanctions on Iran, which were also questionable.
So Iran has been under very heavy sanctions, and with other pressing issues in the Middle East right now, it finally seemed to be an opening for fruitful negotiations on how to go forward with Iran remaining a full member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The latest round of negotations, which have been going on intensively for the last several months, reached an interim agreement in April, and then that was turned into this final agreement about two weeks after the June 30 deadline, thanks to the really wonderful negotating skills of US Secretary of State John Kerry and the lead negotiator for Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The backdrop has been that Israel has complained probably the most vocally about Iran developing a nuclear weapon and has threatened on a number of occasions and most seriously under Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, to carry out a military attack on Iran if the inspections were not carried out and Iran did not give sufficient assurances from Israel’s point of view that it was not devloping a nuclear weapon. The alarming thing, from my mind as an American, is that the United States under President Obama seemed to give some support to Israel that if the nuclear negotiations didn’t turn out that the US would join Israel in some kind of military operation. The words of the president have been, “We don’t take the military option off the table.”
That has always been a worry to me because under international law there is no legal right to attack a nation, kill its people in large numbers because they’re developing a weapons program of any kind. We know how to ensure that weapons are kept under control, under arms control agreements, and that’s through what happened today—through treaties—and what this treaty will do is ensure that IAEA inspectors will have more access to Iran than they probably have to any other country. It’s guaranteed to be permitted for many years to come. Iran has promised to limit the amount of nuclear fuel it will be making, and that is going to be in effect for a number of years. It’s a very technical agreement, as anything involving this kind of high level of science would be—it’s 100 pages long, with many pages of scientific annexes.
The IAEA, which has nuclear scientists, are very pleased with the agreement and feel confident that if all sides honor it they will be able to do their job of assuring the world that the kind of nuclear fuel being produced and the kinds of processes being developed will only aim at generation of nuclear power and not nuclear weapons.
Is there anything about this deal that you still have concerns about, things that might be missing?
Good will is really important on all sides. Iran agreed to these intrusive inspections and to these extra promises that they’re not required to make under the NPT in terms of the kind of fuel they’re producing and so on, in exchange for the UN Security Council, the US and the EU lifting sanctions against Iran. So it’s a nuanced agreement in which all parties have to do something to get something. That could go wrong. It really will require everyone involved, all the parties to the agreement to fulfill their promises.
We have an unfortunate precedent of a similar agreement of a number of parties with North Korea in the 1990s, in an effort led by the United States, to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon. The agreement involved the US promising to give two major electricity-generating plants to North Korea in exchange for North Korea giving up its development of nuclear power capacity that could be diverted to weapons. The US simply did not fulfill its side of the promise; it never produced electricity generators, and this was due to a fault of the Clinton Administration not being robust enough, not following through, and Congressional foot-dragging. North Korea, as we all know, withdrew from the NPT and then developed a nuclear weapon. You can’t even say that what North Korea did was unlawful because our promise under the separate agreement with North Korea and other parties was not fulfilled, and they had the right to withdraw from the NPT, which they did, and then they developed a weapon, much to the great fear and anxiety of everyone that’s a neighbor within missile-striking distance of North Korea.
So that precedent gives me a lot of concern that the United States won’t fulfill its promise. We know there’s a lot of negativity in the United States and in the US Congress and among the many people running for president—even on both sides. We’ve heard in the past Hillary Clinton, in particular, very critical of Iran and not supportive of the international legal obligation to never use military force in that type of situation.
So there’s a chance the US will not fulfill its promise.
We know the Iranian leadership is authoritarian; it’s not sensitive to human rights and international law obligations. They have been required by the Security Council to meet the demands of the IAEA in the past and they have not complied with those demands of the Security Council. So there’s a chance that even if sanctions are lifted and Iran gets what it was promised under this deal that it still won’t fulfill its promise to begin to limit its program.
So we need to have a lot of good faith and support and I think we need to really show as an international community that we want this deal to work. It’s really in the best interest of humanity everywhere for an important next step in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
What do you make of some of the concerns that have been expressed, and how do you feel about Israel’s concerns?
I’ve heard Israel complain about Iran for many years, but on the other hand I don’t see Israel in a very good position to make those complaints because Israel itself has secretly and in violation of US law was able to create a nuclear weapon.
Israel has a path under international law to create greater security for itself, and that would be in a lawful and acceptable agreement with the Palestinians to create two states so the Palestinians have a life of dignity in the Middle East. If Israel were to do that Israel would not need a nuclear weapon and it would have no need to fear other countries in the Middle East having a nuclear weapon. So instead of focusing on this deal, which, if it fails—even many of the critics realize that should this deal fails and Iran goes ahead and builds a nuclear weapon and relations deteriorate even more in the Middle East among different countries, the US and other Middle Eastern countries, Israel and other countries, Saudi Arabia—the situation we now see as catastrophic, involving the implosion of Syria, Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the implosion and catastrophe in Yemen, might just get worse. So rather than focusing on that and trying to create a situation that’s even worse for most of the people in the Middle East, the Israelis [should] focus on fulfilling their obligations under international law, which require a return to the 1967 borders and withdrawing from the territories of the Palestinians so they may have their own sovereign state. This is what the Vatican has supported consistently for decades in terms of our Church’s foreign policy, that is, the right policy, that’s what international law requires, that’s what basic decency requires.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.