A few months ago I had an email exchange with the former Deputy Director General of The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Bruno Pellaud.
I had intended to weave this interview with the Swiss physicist into a larger report, but that didn't materialise. With IAEA inspectors recently concluding a trip to Iran and western powers still seemingly convinced that Iran is developing a bomb (watching the Republican Presidential Debates in the US you'd be forgiven for thinking they already have a nuclear arsenal and war is imminent); and with the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists plus fears that Iran may cut off the Straits of Hormuz in response to economic blockade - anxiety and tensions are escalating from multiple directions. This is why I felt this interview was too good to waste, because understanding some of the nuclear aspects of this standoff may be helpful, however overwhelmed they may be by the politics.
I began by highlighting to Mr Pellaud that, because the burden of proof was on the accusers and not the accused, Iran's accusers had reminded me of Bertrand Russell's teapot theory. Russell wrote:
'' If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.''
So why should Iran have to prove that it doesn't want a nuclear weapon? Why isn't it up to its accusers to prove their claim? And are we seeing a situation that could be resolved peacefully if there was the appetite for it from all parties, be it not for a global game of chicken, of poker-faces and hurt feelings?
Here's an excerpt of the exchange:
IG: Is it actually possible for a nation to categorically prove that a nuclear programme is peaceful?
BP: Not in absolute terms. For sure, Bertrand Russell's teapot theory applies here also - on the impossibility of the accused party proving a negative, and the shifting of the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused. Or of demonstrating the absence of a needle in a stack of hay. Nonetheless, circumstantial evidence provided in full transparency will help the State to come pretty close to a solid proof. Firstly, through the absence of suspicious activities which do not belong by nature to a peaceful programme (e.g. working on uranium in metallic form). Secondly, by being outright forthcoming, by offering more information and access than requested by inspectors.
The accumulation of circumstantial evidence over the scope of activities, over the full extent of the country and over time put gradually the State in a position to prove the point categorically.
IG: What do you make of President Obama's claim that Iran is the only member of the NPT who has not been able to demonstrate that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes?
BP: Be it only for Russell’s teapot theory, this formulation is patently wrong. Some other countries have recently been named rightly or wrongly in this connection: Myanmar and Venezuela in particular. Some countries have in the past engaged in non-peaceful activities – e.g. South Africa, Argentina and Brazil. Did those countries provide an iron-clad demonstration that they have renounced? I think so, but others may still believe differently - in the name of the “absolute truth” and of a more categorical proof.
President Obama should have said “that Iran is the only member of the NPT who denies to the IAEA the information and the access to facilities that would enable the IAEA to verify that its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes”. Take note: “…the IAEA to verify”, not to ascertain, not to prove categorically. The obligation for the accused is to allow the accuser to do an appropriate verification job.In Iran, the refusals to respond to IAEA’s requests and the systematic attempts to conceal information have marked the relationship with the IAEA since the early nineties. Accepted by the highest officials of the Islamic Republic in 2003, the obligation to provide early information to the IAEA about new facilities has been contested by Iran since 2007 with fallacious legal arguments (an obligation that has been accepted by all other States). Furthermore, Iran refuses to join the more than 100 countries that open the doors to any relevant facility that the IAEA may wish to inspect. Hiding activities and facilities goes counter to proving categorically that the programme is peaceful.And one counter example. In late 1993, South Africa “demonstrated” that its nuclear programme had been dismantled by granting the IAEA full access to all corners of the former programme. Comparing that with a huge tree, the IAEA verified a large number of branched activities (not all) – walking up the trunk, the branches, the twigs and then to the leaves, with the complete help of all the South Africans met by inspectors. On this account, the IAEA Director General Hans Blix concluded - with a very high degree of confidence - that South Africa had fulfilled its commitment. In early 2003, Hans Blix concluded that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction left, after conducting a vast verification campaign during which the Iraqis tried systematically to deny access, to refuse information, to hide people and facilities, to lie about minor things and to mislead the inspectors - AS IF they had much to hide. Among other things, this behaviour led the Americans to believe wrongly that Hans Blix was wrong…