The Iran deal: Moving towards a day without fear of the atom

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It was December 1953, eight years after the bombing of Hiroshima, when US President Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace campaign, designed to “hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people.” This passionate address is considered the starting point of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear inspectorate organization, which aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The day Eisenhower hoped for has not yet arrived. But thanks to the recent Iran nuclear deal, it could be a little closer.

Paradoxically, Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program contributed significantly to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which date back to 1957 and continue to this day. The US itself provided Iran with training, highly enriched uranium and nuclear technology until the 1979 revolution. Actually one secret intention of the Atoms for Peace program was to give the USA a strategic and political advantage over the Soviet Union.

Some believe that Atoms for Peace set nuclear aspirants, like Iran, on the path to acquiring necessary technologies and materials for the development of a nuclear weapons program. In fact, the essential problem that Eisenhower raised is the one the world is still struggling with today: how to protect peaceful activities involving fissile material from misuse for bombs.

The anticipated Iranian nuclear deal raises both enthusiasm and concern in the international community. Iran is set to agree to reduce its enriched uranium stockpile; to remove some centrifuges from Natanz; to transform the Fordow enrichment facility into a research centre; and to transform the design of the Arak heavy-water reactor to take low enriched uranium and produce far less plutonium. In exchange, nuclear-related sanctions to Iran will be lifted.

However, hardliners in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh don’t think Iran will stick to the agreement and fear it will develop nuclear weapons in the future. Peaceful use of nuclear power brings with it risks of proliferation, but these risks can be mitigated by effective controls by the IAEA. That’s why a key aspect of the deal is to allow IAEA inspectors to visit the Natanz and Fordow enrichment sites daily and the Arak reactor at least monthly. Without these inspections, there would be no deal.

The verification arrangements are underpinned by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and drive disarmament. Opened for signature in 1968, the NPT allowed only five states (United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France) to keep nuclear weapons temporarily, but it expressly prohibited the remaining 185 signatories from possessing them. It obliges those States parties without nuclear weapons to enter into safeguards agreements with the IAEA. The IAEA's responsibility is to report to the UN Security Council when those safeguards are broken, and it is the Council's job to judge whether this becomes a threat to international security and to act accordingly.

However, at the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, six countries (the five nuclear weapons states, as well as Israel) had more than 70,000 nuclear weapons; since then, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have also joined the nuclear club. Iran was found in non-compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreements and failed to answer some of the questions the IAEA has asked about past and possibly continuing research associated with nuclear weapons.

The Iran nuclear deal is the best possible option – for now. Without a deal, Iran would have greater freedom to build a nuclear weapon: sanctions didn’t prevent Iran from developing its nuclear assets, nor have they prevented North Korea from developing nuclear bombs. In addition, accepting the deal means that Iran sacrifices part of its sovereignty to open its nuclear activities to IAEA and agree strict limits to its activities. In exchange, Iran will benefit from better economic, social and, hopefully, political conditions resulting from the lifted sanctions. That could set an example to other countries in the region.

However, its success will depend on compliance verification, which will cost the IAEA an extra $10 million a year in additional inspections. According to Yukija Amano, Director General of IAEA, “The IAEA’s budget is very, very tight... I don’t think we can cover everything by our own budget.”

It would be unfair to blame the Atoms for Peace program for rogue nuclear activities. Despite flaws, the IAEA made valuable contributions to contain non-proliferation, while providing support to the peaceful use of this controversial technology. Even when the Atoms for Peace program stopped, Iran received help from other countries.

In his speech, Eisenhower remarked that, “if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.”
IAEA will play an essential role in the definition of the Iranian nuclear deal. The day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people is still a long way off. But without Eisenhower’s vision — and the individuals, governments and international organizations working to make it a reality — we could not even hope for it.  

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