Response to Just Security

Over at Just Security, NYU Law Professor Ryan Goodman argues that the media’s insistence on referring to Iran’s right to enrich as a ‘right’ is not unwarranted – since (1) it is the subject of a dispute between the two parties – the U.S. and Iran, and (2) good-faith legal argument can be made over whether Iran, in fact, does have such a right under international law.

Prof. Goodman is wrong on both points.

First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the nature of the dispute matters. Is it a legal dispute, or a political one? I have reviewed tons of literature on the subject and think clearly the arguments being put forth to deny Iran a right to enrich are entirely political in nature. That is, most analysts disregard the legal question entirely and make a policy-based assessment of Iran’s nuclear rights. And, as I’ve noted, the policy-based arguments are entirely sensible (though unsupported by the relevant law).

If this is the case, and the dispute is a political – not legal – one, then I think the media are right to be called out on their use of quotation marks when discussing Iran’s right to enrich.

Second, Prof. Goodman is confused about what the U.S. legal argument actually is. As Secretary of State Kerry noted last week, the U.S. position is that nobody has a right under the NPT to enrich – not Iran, not others. That is much different than arguing, as Prof. Goodman does, that the Security Council resolutions regarding Iran have suspended Iran’s nuclear rights (to Prof. Goodman’s credit, he does not say that this is a particularly good argument – but just an argument).

If this is the U.S. position – i.e., that neither the NPT nor other principles of international law provide a right to enrich – then that is a hopelessly weak legal position, and it would behoove the U.S. media to point out that few, if any, accept that. There is no reason that the media have to couch Iran’s right as ‘alleged’ just because the U.S. is putting forth a very bad legal argument against such right. Instead, the media should be interrogating the U.S.’s position (as well as Iran’s) and disclosing the relevant law, the thrust of international opinion, etc.

Until that is done, I think the sharp critique that Salon published on the media’s handling of the Iran nuclear dispute is one that is wholly warranted.

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