WASHINGTON - Continued research and development on advanced nuclear technology in Iran might be protected by international law and will be difficult to curtail in the long term, says a leading independent expert on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that the ability of the international community to constrain Iran’s R&D cannot be guaranteed “with even 90 percent assurance.”
Indeed, the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – to which Iran is a signatory – only directs countries against developing or transferring nuclear weapons or devices, explicitly saying it should not be interpreted “as affecting the inalienable right of all the parties to the treaty to develop research.”
Albright, quoted extensively by members of both parties on the Iranian program, testified last week on the matter in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he described the failure to address Iranian R&D as a “loophole” in the interim deal reached in Geneva in November.
The deal effectively freezes Iran’s enrichment of uranium to near-high grades, and its construction of a plutonium nuclear facility, in exchange for $7 billion in sanctions relief from world powers. The deal expires in five months.
“The weakness of the interim deal on centrifuge R&D needs to be fixed in the comprehensive solution,” Albright told the Senate committee.
“Any long-term deal needs to limit significantly Iran’s centrifuge R&D program.”
Albright said Iran’s work on advanced centrifuges may continue uninhibited for the next five months, allowing Iran to “make up for time lost” after the interim accord expires.
Yet in conversation with the Post, Albright said it’s a hard needle to thread for reasons both legal and practical.
“You can’t design a verification regime around detecting every scientist,” Albright said.
“The NPT is a little vague on this, but the modern interpretation is that we can restrict activity that is state-sponsored.”
“States interpret it differently,” he continued, “but in Switzerland, the sheer possession of tested nuclear-weapons designs was illegal. The NPT is a living document, and some interpret it more broadly.”
On several occasions, US President Barack Obama has alluded to the difficulty of limiting any country’s research into any topic already broadly explored.
“I think it’s important for everybody to understand this is hard because [of] the technology of the nuclear cycle, “ Obama said at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in December. “You can get it off the Internet; the knowledge of creating a nuclear weapons is already out there.”
Testifying before the same Senate panel last week as Albright, Wendy Sherman, the chief US negotiator with Iran in the nuclear talks, noted that Iranian scientists “cannot unlearn what they know” about nuclear science and weaponization.
US officials now say the priority of the Obama administration is to physically disable Iran’s ability to build a bomb.
The White House also seeks a strict and long-term verification program, run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Sherman reflected that policy in her testimony last week.
Asked about the failure of the interim deal to address Iran’s research into nuclear weapons delivery systems, the top US diplomat said that the knowledge would be “almost irrelevant” if Iran is not able to produce a nuclear warhead.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Sherman he hopes for a verification program that would last several decades.
Contacted for this article, a State Department official said that “R&D is an important issue for the comprehensive solution,” referring to the talks beginning next week between Iran and world powers geared to a final-status nuclear accord.
Over the summer, Albright estimated Iran had expanded its program so significantly that it could have the fissile material required to build a bomb in less than two months.
“How do you know if a scientist some place is designing a nuclear weapon on a sheet of paper?” Albright said in the interview.
Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), a strong proponent of passing new sanctions against Iran, told the Post last week that Iran’s research should be treated as extraordinary, as it serves as a subterfuge to multiple international agreements.
“Iran’s pursuit of advanced centrifuge technology should remind us that this terror-sponsoring regime ultimately wants nuclear weapons,” Kirk said.
“There’s a reason why Wendy Sherman’s appeasement policy in North Korea failed – dictators will always embarrass the American politicians who side with them.”
Sherman led negotiations with North Korea over its illicit nuclear program in the Clinton administration.
Meanwhile, Iran has agreed to take seven preliminary measures on nuclear cooperation with the IAEA by May 15, the country said in a joint statement with the UN nuclear watchdog on Sunday.
In a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency and issued after two days of “constructive technical talks” in Tehran, Iran and the IAEA did not spell out the measures, but said full details would be reported to the governors of the UN agency by the watchdog’s director-general.
Reuters contributed to this report.