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The U.S. and Iran - Pride and Prejudice

Gunnar Westberg, TFF Board member


August 1, 2011

The most frequent question to me during my three visits to Iran was: How can we convince the West that our country is not going to produce nuclear weapons? The question I hear in Europe and USA is: When will Iran have nuclear weapons? There seems to be a need for a dialogue. No one wants a war. It might still happen and may escalate into a nuclear genocide.

Why does Iran have a nuclear program? The country has enormous reserves of oil and gas. Why then nuclear power? During the sixties and seventies, the time of the Shah, the reason was probably first of all a part of the “Westernization” of the country. After the Islamic revolution in 1979 it became a symbol of the nation’s independence and defiance against foreign pressure.

Before 1979 Iran was assured of uranium fuel deliveries from USA. Iran had also invested in a uranium enrichment plant in France. When USA and France broke the agreements after the Islamic revolution and even kept the money Iran had paid, it became a matter of prestige to develop an independent enrichment facility. Officially the fuel would be needed for the power plants that were planned.

However, the only plant built so far, the Busher reactor, is supplied with fuel from Russia. No other power plants are being built or decided. The small research reactor which produces isotopes for medical investigations and which uses uranium enriched to 20% will soon have its need satisfied. Thus, nuclear power generation is not an explanation or the enrichment program.

The uranium enrichment program has cost Iran dearly. The enrichment plant should have declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, as Iran was a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT. After an investigation the IAEA experts were satisfied that Iran had declared in sufficient detail the activities at the plant. The IAEA Board of Governors, made up to a large degree by representatives of participant governments, decided after considerable persuasion from the USA that Iran’s breech against the rules of IAEA should be reported to the United Nations Security Council, UNSC. The council has repeatedly demanded that Iran should stop all uranium enrichment, although the NPT rules do not prohibit uranium enrichment by member countries.

Is prestige really a sufficient reason? It may be. Prestige is the main reason for the continued existence of the French nuclear weapons program, maybe also for that of India. But the nuclear program may also have a military purpose. In a few years Iran may be in a position to say: We can produce nuclear weapons in a very short time, if we are forced to make that decision.

Forced? We must remember the attack by Iraq against Iran 1980, which led to the longest war in the previous century. The use of chemical weapons by Iraq has left a scar in the minds of the Iranians. Iraq was supported by the West, and Saddam Hussein was congratulated by the US representative Donald Rumsfeld shortly after the gas attacks . Many Iranians feel that if they had obtained nuclear weapons Iraq would not have attacked.

A military attack against Iran is unlikely today. Yes, a sizable group of Republican Congressmen in the USA did last year demand preparations for a possible preemptive attack on Iran. Yes, not infrequently a member of the Israeli government pops up and demands the same. However, no rational government in either country would attack Iran. There is still a cost for acting against the international opinion, and a cost for foolishness. Similarly, a premeditated attack from Iran against a neighbor is out of the question. The Iranian leaders do not want to commit suicide.
But often wars are not planned. They happen. Attacks by Hezbollah against Israel, seen as initiated from Iran, could lead to increased tension, escalation and finally an Israeli attack against Iran. In a situation like that, generals in Iran would consider a nuclear deterrent useful.
The domestic political scene in Iran is very complicated. There are several counterbalancing centers of power, religious, political, economical and military. It is not possible for anyone to predict the outcome of a power struggle in a situation of international tension.
What can be done to decrease the risk of a war?

Iran should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, CTBT. This would increase the confidence that the country will not develop nuclear weapons. The inverse is even more important: Iran’s refusal to ratify the treaty is taken as an indication that the country is considering nuclear weapons.

To terminate the uranium enrichment would be an even more reassuring decision. However, the international pressure on Iran through the UNSC is working in the other direction. Iran considers - and with good reason - that this demand is unjustified. It is indeed difficult for Iran to bow to pressure from the superpower after having fought for the program for so long. A compromise could be that Iran continues the program until the need of the research reactor in Tehran is filled and then keeps the program going at low speed. Thus Iran would keep the competence.

Furthermore, President Ahmadinejad should make it unequivocally clear that Iran has no intention to attack Israel. He has certainly never said that Iran will attack Israel, but his statements that “the Zionist state will disappear” must be clarified. He and all Iranian leaders understand that an attack on Israel would have terrible consequences for Iran.

The government of Israel should do likewise and declare that a preemptive attack against Iran is out of the question. This should not be a difficult thing for the Israeli leaders to do, although it might cause an uproar from the parties to the right and from extreme religious groups. In the US there are also extremists, both Jewish and Christian, who believe that preemptive war is the solution.

The superpower, the U.S., ought to be able to change its policies. To threaten Iran with even harder sanctions will only serve to unite people against the foreign pressure. During the leadership of president Khatami Iran tried to negotiate with the West, and the uranium enrichment was discontinued. The US president responded by calling Iran a member of the Axis of Evil and reintroduced sanctions. The Iranian leaders learnt the lesson, and the people rejected the accommodating policies in the next election.

There are strong groups in Iran that want to end Iran’s isolation. The desire to increase trade is strong and widespread. An admiration of and fascination with USA is common. This should be taken advantage of by the West. Trade is one key, intellectual and cultural exchange is another. It is strange that the USA does not understand how contagious a free market, intellectual freedom and democracy can be.

To give up a policy that has failed takes courage and strong leadership. This is missing in all three partners, Iran, Israel and USA. Possibly Russia and Europe could find ways to turn the politics of sanctions and enmity around and give the USA an excuse to search for a new course.

Next year a conference is planned to establish a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East. Maybe this offers an opportunity? Israel is reluctant to participate, but there is also an understanding in that country that the intransigence and the reliance on military power that Israel has developed will not be tolerated for ever, not even in the USA. If the conference fails, the Nonproliferation Treaty is in danger, a treaty which is of value for all parties. In order to make the work of that conference possible compromises and new attitudes are necessary from all parties.

In the long run the present situation is dangerous and can easily lead to a devastating war. All parties must give up their cherished illusion that the other side will retreat if the confrontation is escalated sufficiently. Fear and prestige has ruled for too long. New thinking is needed and the conference offers a possibility which must not be wasted.

I finish with words of the Danish poet – and nuclear physicist! – Piet Hein:

"The noble art of losing face
Might one day save the human race
And turn into eternal merit
What weaker minds would call disgrace."

Salam! Shalom! Peace!

Gunnar Westberg


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