Top Democratic and Republican leaders absolutely believe that Iran is planning to develop nuclear weapons. And one of their seemingly strongest arguments involves a process of deduction. Since Iran has so much oil, they argue, why develop nuclear power?
In an op-ed commentary former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that "for a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources," a position later cited approvingly by the Bush administration.
But U.S. leaders are engaging in a massive case of collective amnesia, or perhaps more accurately, intentional misdirection. In the 1970s the United States encouraged Iran to develop nuclear power precisely because Iran will eventually run out of oil.
A declassified document from President Gerald Ford's administration, for which Kissinger was Secretary of State, supported Iran's push for nuclear power. The document noted that Tehran should "prepare against the time--about 15 years in the future--when Iranian oil production is expected to decline sharply."1 The United States ultimately planned to sell billions of dollars worth of nuclear reactors, spare parts and nuclear fuel to Iran.
The Shah even periodically hinted that he wanted Iran to build nuclear weapons. In June 1974, the Shah proclaimed that Iran would have nuclear weapons "without a doubt and sooner than one would think."2 Iranian embassy officials in France later denied the Shah made those remarks, and the Shah disowned them. But a few months later the Shah noted that Iran "has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons but if small states began building them, then Iran might have to reconsider its policy."3
If an Iranian leader made such statements today, the United States and Israel would denounce them as proof of nefarious intent. They might well threaten military action if Iran didn't immediately halt its nuclear buildup. At the time, however, the comments caused no ripples in Washington or Tel Aviv because the Shah was a staunch ally of both.
Nukes and Party-Mad Dictators
In the 1970s, successive U.S. administrations were tickled pink with the Shah's regime. As far as the United States was concerned, the Shah had a stable government that was modernizing an economically and religiously backward society. True, he ran a brutal dictatorship unconstrained by elections or an independent judiciary. The National Security and Intelligence Organization (SAVAK), his secret police, was infamous for torturing and murdering political dissidents. But the Shah made sure that Iran provided a steady supply of petroleum to U.S. and other western oil companies. He had his own regional ambitions and also acted as a gendarme for the United States.
But beginning in the late 1960s, the Shah began to worry about Iran's long-term electric energy supplies. Iran had less than 500,000 electricity consumers in 1963, but those numbers swelled to over 2 million in 1976.4 The Shah worried that Iran's oil deposits would eventually run out, and that burning petroleum for electricity would waste an important resource. He could earn far more exporting oil than using it for power generation.
Successive Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States backed the Shah's elaborate plans to make nuclear power an integral part of Iran's electrical grid, in no small part because he would buy a lot of his nuclear equipment from the USA.
The United States established Iran's first research reactor in 1967 at Tehran University. In November of that year, the U.S. corporation United Nuclear provided Iran with 5.85kg of 93 percent enriched uranium.5
General Electric and Westinghouse ultimately won contracts to build eight reactors in Iran. By the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Shah had plans to buy a total of eighteen nuclear power reactors from the United States, France, and Germany.6
Evidence has emerged since the 1979 Iranian revolution that the Shah did more than make embarrassing public references to building nuclear weapons. Documents show that Israel and Iran had discussed modification of Israel's Jericho missiles, which could have been fitted with a nuclear warhead.7 A research report from The Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization founded by conservative Democrat and former Senator Sam Nunn, explained that the Shah was suspected of experimenting with nuclear weapons design, plutonium extraction and laser-enrichment research.8
Nuclear expert Sahimi argued that presidents Nixon and Ford "would not have minded if the Shah developed the bomb because the Shah was a close ally of the United States. Remember Iran had a long border with the Soviet Union. If the Shah did make a nuclear bomb, that would have been a big deterrent against the USSR."9
Since the United States wasn't terribly concerned about an Iranian Bomb in the 1970s, it also wasn't worried about Iran enriching its own uranium. The United States gave approval when Shah bought a 25 percent stake in a French company making enriched uranium. But the Shah wanted to build enrichment facilities inside Iran as well. No country wants to be reliant on others for fuel that could shut down a portion of its electricity grid. The United States actually encouraged Iran to enrich its own uranium.10
Today when Iran demands that it be able to enrich uranium for nuclear power purposes, under strict international supervision, the United States says that's proof Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons.
Is Nuclear Power Islamic?
Shortly after coming to power, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini scrapped the Shah's nuclear power programs as un-Islamic. In fact, he called nuclear power "the work of the devil."11
Not coincidentally, the United States and Europeans had completely halted their devil's work in Iran. Germany had stopped construction on the Bushehr nuclear reactor. The United States, Germans and French cut off supplies of equipment and nuclear material. All three governments refused to refund any money already paid, despite cancellation of the nuclear contracts. So while Koranic scholars might disagree on whether nuclear power was consistent with Islam, as a practical matter, Iran wasn't getting any.
Starting in 1980, Iran fought a bloody war with Iraq. Each side feared the other might develop nuclear weapons. Iraq repeatedly bombed Iran's unfinished nuclear facilities, further setting back any possibility of completing them.
By the end of the war in 1988 Iran was in the midst of a population explosion. Iran's population grew from 39.2 million in 1980 to 68.7 million in 2006. Iran's energy planners could see that demand would far outstrip supply. Continuing to extract oil and natural gas at the projected levels wouldn't be enough to guarantee a steady supply of electricity.12 An analysis by a National Academy of Sciences scientist predicted Iran could run out of oil to export by 2015.13
So nuclear power was back on the table. In 1989 Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani signed a ten-point agreement with the USSR to provide nuclear materials and related equipment. The Soviets were to finish the Bushehr reactor started by the Germans in the 1970s. In 1990 Iran signed a ten-year nuclear cooperation agreement with China.
Although it was kept secret at the time, Iran also bought parts and technology from A.Q. Khan, Pakistan's so-called father of the atomic bomb, who also had nuclear dealings with Libya and North Korea. Iran built a secret nuclear facility in the central Iranian city of Natanz. Later, after three years of inspections, the IAEA also determined that Iran had used lasers to purify uranium starting in 1991 and had researched a rare element called polonium 210, which could be used in a nuclear bomb trigger.14
The Iranians argued they engaged in the secret activity to prevent the United States from stopping their plans for nuclear power development, and had no intention of developing nuclear weapons.
In 2003 Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa, an official religious ruling, that declared Islam forbids the building or stockpiling of nuclear weapons.15 Before dismissing such a ruling as propaganda, it's worth noting that similar religious reasoning stopped Iran from using chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, despite Saddam Hussein's numerous chemical assaults against Iranian troops and civilians.
Iran Is Just 5-10 Years from Making a Bomb, Really
Every few years U.S. intelligence officials estimate Iran is just years from making a bomb. In 1995, a "senior U.S. official" estimated Iran was five years from making The Bomb.16 A 2005 National Security Estimate, representing a consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, predicted Iran could have The Bomb somewhere around 2015.17
In early 2006 Israeli intelligence, on the other hand, argued that Iran is much closer to having a bomb, perhaps one to three years away. In citing such estimates, the U.S. media don't provide any corroboration, nor explain why the Israeli assessment differs so widely from the CIA and IAEA. Indeed, Israel keeps postponing its estimates of when Iran will have the bomb. At the end of 2006 Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, claimed Iran could have a bomb by 2009 or 2010.18
Israel's estimates are clearly influenced by its political and military goals. Using Ahmadinejad's statements attacking Israel and questioning the existence of the Holocaust, Israel proclaims Iran an immediate military threat. In reality, Ahmadinejad poses no offensive nuclear threat to Israel.19 Iran would be insane to launch a first strike against the militarily far superior Israel, let alone a nuclear strike with an arsenal of one or two bombs. Such an action would give the United States and Israel a political excuse to wreck havoc on Iran and gain lots of international support.
But Israel does have a vested interest in creating anxiety around a possible Iranian Bomb. While Iran has no ability to wipe Israel off the map, it does support the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese political party and guerrilla group Hezbollah. Iran gives them political, financial and military backing. Israel doesn't want to suffer another defeat like its 2006 war against Hizbollah. So rather than give up occupied territory and agree to establishing a Palestinian state, Israeli leaders blame outsiders. Israel seeks to weaken or, preferably, overthrow Iran's government.
Israeli officials, along with U.S. hawks, argue that Iran will soon reach "a point of no return," in which they have both the theoretical knowledge and practical ability to create weapon's grade plutonium. After that point, the hawks argue, Iran must be confronted militarily. The advantage of this argument, of course, is that it's all hypothetical. The Iranians cross this point of no return at whatever time the hawks allege. Who can prove otherwise?
In the spring of 2006 Bush seemed to echo those sentiments, justifying a military attack by setting an impossibly high bar for Iran to meet. "The world is united and concerned about their [Iranians] desire to have not only a nuclear weapon, but the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon...," (emphasis added)Bush said in an April 2006 press conference.20 No one can possibly prove what knowledge scientists might have in their brains. But according to Bush's logic, Iran is a dangerous enemy so long as its scientists might, at some time in the future, think about building a bomb.
On July 31, 2006, the United States rounded up European powers, and got China and Russia to acquiesce, to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1696. The resolution demanded that Iran stop "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities."21 (Reprocessing involves removing highly radioactive plutonium from nuclear waste products, a procedure that can lead to production of bomb-grade fuel.) A month later, in a report not released to the public, IAEA Director ElBaradei indicated that Iran was not reprocessing uranium.
ElBaradei criticized Iran, however, for continued attempts at uranium enrichment. "Iran has not addressed the long outstanding verification issues or provided the necessary transparency to remove uncertainties associated with some of its activities...," wrote ElBaradei.22
An IAEA official told the New York Times that "the qualitative and quantitative development of Iran's enrichment program continues to be fairly limited."23
The IAEA report was hardly a smoking gun. But the Bush Administration huffed and puffed that Iran's failure to uphold the Security Council resolution meant the world should impose more sanctions. On March 24, 2007, the UN Security Council voted to impose another round of sanctions, prohibiting the sale of Iranian weapons to other countries and freezing the overseas assets of more Iranian individuals and organizations.
The United States failed to get any backing for military attacks on Iran to enforce the sanctions. The March resolution even restated the UN position that the Middle East region should be nuclear free, a criticism of Israel's large nuclear arsenal.
U.S. officials told the New York Times that the new sanctions went beyond the nuclear issue. "The new language was written to rein in what they [U.S. officials] see as Tehran's ambitions to become the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf and across the Middle East."24
Apparently, no one can hold that job except the United States.
No Nukes? Not Enough
The real dispute between the United States and Iran has little to do with Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons. The Bush administration declared Iran to be part of the "axis of evil" and has been pursuing a policy of "regime change," a euphemism for the U.S. overthrow of an internationally recognized government. The United States has adopted different tactical positions, sometimes calling for tightening sanctions, other times threatening military strikes. But the long-term goal is installing a friendly regime.
Let's say Iran stopped all nuclear programs tomorrow, which was verified by international inspectors. The United States could start a new campaign based on its current claim that Iran is "the most active sponsor of state terrorism" in the world.25 Iran could give terrorist groups chemical weapons. Iran has missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv and U.S. military bases in the Middle East. Iran presents an immediate danger because of its support for terrorism. Time for regime change.
Is Iran currently developing nuclear weapons? No. Could it do so sometime in the future? Sure. According to the ElBaradei, some 49 countries "now know how to make nuclear arms," including Japan, South Korea, and other U.S. allies. Neither the United States nor the UN Security Council can militarily prevent each of those countries from making a bomb, said ElBaradei. "We are relying primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries, intentions which are in turn based on their sense of security...."26
The only way to insure Iran doesn't make nuclear weapons is to devise a political, not a military solution. If the people of Iran have a government that truly represents them, and the United States ceases its hostility and negotiates in good faith, Iran won't see a need to develop nuclear weapons.
So What Would You Do?
First, no more demonizing Iran. I would apologize for years of U.S. aggression against Iran. I would offer to return the billions of dollars in illegally frozen Iranian assets now held by the United States, lift all existing sanctions against Iran and offer to restore full diplomatic relations.27 That would get Iran's attention. More importantly, it would set the basis for easing tensions on issues such as nuclear weapons.
I would announce plans to reduce the unconscionable number of nuclear weapons maintained by the United States in violation of the Non Proliferation Treaty. Most Americans have no idea that the Non Proliferation Treaty not only limits other states from obtaining nuclear weapons but also requires disarmament by the existing nuclear states, including the United States.28
Then I would do something neither side expects. I would tell them we will phase out our nuclear power reactors for safety reasons and because we can't safely store nuclear waste. Nuclear power plants in the United States aren't even hardened against an airplane crash, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refuses to require it.
Then I would suggest that Iran not develop nuclear power. Nuclear reactors and their tons of radioactive waste are disasters waiting to happen. Iran is already planning to have 20 percent of its electricity supplied by hydro power by 2021. Iran has the potential to develop a lot more wind and geo thermal power as well.29 In the meantime Iran could harness its tremendous natural gas resources as a relatively efficient source of electricity generation.
I don't know how Iranian leaders would react. These suggestions would certainly spark a lot of discussion among Iranians, a debate now largely nonexistent.30 Journalist and opposition leader Akbar Ganji is one of the few Iranians I met concerned about the safety of nuclear plants. "I am very worried that something like Chernobyl will happen to Iran," he told me. "If that happens, the Iranian people will pay the heaviest price."31
I would like to see Ganji's views prevail. But if after a genuine debate, Iranians decided they wanted nuclear power, so be it.
The IAEA has procedures that allow countries to develop nuclear power, subject to strict international inspection. On March 23, 2005, Iran offered a plan to Britain, France, and Germany that would have allowed Iran to develop nuclear power and engage in uranium enrichment. Iran agreed not to reprocess nuclear fuel, produce only low-enriched uranium, limit the number of centrifuges and guarantee on-site inspections by the IAEA.32 That proposal could serve as the basis for honest negotiations.
Should the world simply trust Iran's leaders? No. We don't have to assume good faith. The IAEA is quite capable of detecting NPT violations because radioactive particles inevitably show up in water and soil. Over a period of time, and allowed full access, the IAEA can detect illegal nuclear activity. Since even U.S. intelligence agencies agree Iran is many years from having a capability of building a bomb, why not allow the IAEA to do its job?
In the long run, the people of Iran must change their government and revisit the nuclear power issue. I hope they choose to develop safer forms of energy. But that's a decision to be made by the people of Iran, not rulers in Washington.
Reese Erlich is co-author of the best-selling book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You. In 2001, he produced a one-hour radio documentary, "The Struggle for Iran," hosted by Walter Cronkite. He is also a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.
1. Dafna Linzer, "Past Arguments Don't Square With Current Iran Policy," Washington Post, March 27, 2005.
2. Monitor, June 25, 1974. See also Elaine Sciolino, "Nuclear Ambitions Aren't New for Iran," New York Times, June 22, 2003.
3. Der Spiegel, Feb. 8, 1975, as cited in Muhammad Sahimi, "Iran's Nuclear Program, Part V," Pavand Iran News, Dec. 22, 2004.
4. "Electricity in Iran," http://www.sedona.net/pahlavi/electric.html
5. Nuclear Threat Initiative, NTI, Iran Country Profile, Nuclear Chronology 1957-1985, http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/1825_1826.html
6. Alexander Montgomery, Social Action: Rogue Reaction, Ph.D. thesis, Stanford University, September 2005, p. 163.
7. Nuclear Threat Initiative, Country Profile: Iran, Nuclear Overview, May 1, 2006, http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Iran/index_1822.html. See also Sciolino, New York Times, June 22, 2003.
8. Nuclear Threat Initiative.
9. Sahimi interview.
10. Linzer, Washington Post. Also, Alfred L. Atherton, Strategy for your visit to Iran," confidential Department of State Briefing Memorandum, October 20, 1974, in National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com/marketing/index.jsp
11. Montgomery, Ph.D. Thesis, p. 159.
12. Muhammad Sahimi, "Iran's Nuclear Energy Program: Part IV," Pavand.com, Dec. 7, 2004. Sahimi points out that Iran's oil production had declined from 5.8 million barrels per day in 1974 to 3.9 million in 2004, and that the oil fields are far more depleted today than during the Shah's time.
13. Associated Press, "Iran Oil Revenue Quickly Drying Up, Analysis Says," Washington Post, Dec. 26, 2006.
14. William Broad and Elaine Sciolino, "Iran's Secrecy Widens Gap in Nuclear Intelligence," New York Times, May 19, 2006.
15. Robert Collier, "Nuclear weapons unholy, Iran says Islam forbids use, clerics proclaim," San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 31, 2003.
16. Mark D. Skootsky, "US Nuclear Policy Toward Iran," June 1, 1995, p. 3, http://people.csail.mit.edu/boris/iran-nuke.text
17. Dafna Linzer, "Iran is Judged 10 Years from Nuclear Bomb," Washington Post, Aug. 2, 2005.
18. Greg Myre, "Abbas Repeats Call for Vote as Truce Erodes," New York Times, December 19, 2006.
19. I explain the military issues between Iran and Israel in chapter 3.
20. President George Bush, Rose Garden Press Conference, April 28, 2006. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/04/print/20060428-2.html
21. IAEA Director General's Report, op. cit.
23. Elaine Sciolino, "Highly Enriched Uranium is Found at an Iranian Plant," New York Times, Sept. 1, 2006.
24. Thom Shanker, "Security Council Votes to Tighten Iran Sanctions," New York Times, March 25, 2007.
25. U.S. State Department, Chapter 6, "State Sponsors of Terror Overview," Country Reports on Terrorism, April 28, 2006.
26. William Broad and David E. Sanger, "Restraints Fray and Risks Grow As Nuclear Club Gains Members, New York Times, Oct. 15, 2006.
27. Some mainstream analysts advocate a similar negotiating position. Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote "Time for Détente With Iran," Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2007, p. 29.
28. Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/
29. Muhammad Sahimi, "Iran's Nuclear Energy Program: Part IV," Pavand.com, Dec. 7, 2004. Sahimi estimates total non-nuclear, alternative energy sources could meet 25 percent of Iran's needs under current conditions.
30. Norman Solomon, Sean Penn and I interviewed dozens of Iranians we met on the street in June 2005. Not a single one opposed the development of nuclear power. The anti-nuclear power position is equated with support for the United States. Absent U.S. threats, a real discussion could take place on the pros and cons of nuclear power.
31. Akbar Ganji, interview with author, July 30, 2006, Berkeley, California.
32. Mohammad Sahimi, "Iran's Nuclear Energy Program Part VI," Pavand.com, December, 2005
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