Iran’s Purported “Right” to Enrich Uranium, and Alleged Bias at the New York Times

As attention turns to the upcoming negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, an important factor will be the media coverage that inevitably shapes public opinion. In a recent piece in Salon, Patrick Smith alleges that the New York Times’ reporting on Iran’s right to enrich uranium is biased and misleading. Smith’s article has gained favorable recognition in social media from Kevin Jon Heller, Stephen Walt, and others.

Smith’s argument, however, lacks substantiation, and his assertions about the clarity of international law on this topic are flawed. The latter–his claims about international law–provide a broader lesson about common misunderstandings of the relevant legal rules. This comes at an important time, because whether Iran retains a legal right to enrich uranium will implicitly affect the context of the negotiations, and it will potentially shape the conditions for military force if the talks prove unsuccessful.

I. Media bias?

Smith begins: “Never before have I written a column concerning nothing more than a pair of quotation marks.” His main contention is that in reference to Iran’s right to enrich uranium, the New York Times inserted the word “right” in scare quotes and thus nefariously cast doubt on the legitimacy of Iran’s claims. Smith focuses on the following line in the Times piece:

The Iranian government’s insistence on formal recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium emerged as a major obstacle, diplomats said Sunday.

Smith states that this “irresponsible use of inverted commas … to shape national opinion on a question of vital importance” is “not a new trick.” Referring to the Cold War period, Smith writes:

Enclose something in quotation marks and all between them is instantly de-legitimized; no argument or explanation need be made. Here, try it:

“… the Cuban ‘doctors’ sent to Angola…”

Or: “… Soviet-made ‘farm equipment’ in Portugal since its 1974 revolution…”

There are two problems with Smith’s analysis.

First, there is an immense difference between the New York Times statement on Iran and the Cold War examples. In the former, quotation marks for the word “right” are appropriate because it is the very term that is being debated in negotiations. The issue has been whether the word “right” will be accepted by the P5+1. Indeed, it is Smith who takes the language out of context.

Second, the New York Times was not the only media outlet to use quotation marks for the word “right.” It is easy to find other examples across the world:

Russia Today: “Western diplomats have said that one the main problems during the negotiations earlier this month was Iran’s insistence that it has the ‘right’ to enrich uranium.”

Agence France Presse: “In return Iran wants UN and Western sanctions that have been hammering the Islamic republic’s economy to be eased soon, and its ‘right’ to enrich uranium recognised.”

Australia’s Sky News: “In return, Iran wants UN and Western sanctions that have been causing the Islamic republic considerable economic problems eased soon, and its ‘right’ to enrich uranium recognised.”

Irish Times: “What appears to have prevented agreement, press reports suggest, was a refusal on principle by Iran to a deal unless it included a formal recognition of its ‘right’ to enrich uranium, a necessary step in a civil nuclear programme, but also, at a higher level, in the production of plutonium for military use.”

Smith’s theory of conspiracy, or complicity, is that the Times has a particular interest in supporting the US government. Surely that theory does not run the gamut of all these other news outlets.

II. The status of international law

Smith concludes with a bald statement about the status of international law on this topic, which he claims is his effort to re-educate readers of the Times and other media:

IRAN HAS AN UNAMBIGUOUS RIGHT UNDER LAW TO A NUCLEAR PROGRAM, INCLUDING ENRICHMENT, EVEN IF THIS MAKES IT (AS IT WILL) NEARLY CAPABLE OF WEAPONIZING. [capitalization in the original]

Unambiguous? At the very least, it is not difficult to construct a good legal argument on the other side. Consider just one such legal argument: In a series of resolutions starting in 2006, the UN Security Council has demanded that Iran suspend it enrichment activities; and according to the UN Charter (art. 103) such decisions override any legal right that Iran might have held under an international treaty (the NPT). I am not contending that is the answer to the legal question. I am simply suggesting that the international legal issues and the status of Iran’s “right” are more contestable–far more than suggested by Smith’s essay or by other scholars’ lauding of it. 

Going into the next round of negotiations, Smith’s type of advisory is not the one to heed. A better advisory: be wary of anyone who says that international law on this issue is “unambiguous.” 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.