Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations

25 September 2007

Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations

 By Gwynne Dyer

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two speeches in New York this week, at Columbia University and then at the United Nations General Assembly, have stirred up the usual storm of outrage in the Western media. He is a strangely naive man, and his almost-but-not-quite denial of the Holocaust — he called for “more research,” as if rumours had recently cropped up suggesting that something bad happened in Nazi-occupied Europe — was as bizarre as his denial that there are any homosexuals in Iran.

But he is not a “cruel dictator,” as Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger, called him. He is an elected president who will probably lose the next election because of his poor economic performance in office. Nor does he have dictatorial powers.

Indeed, in the areas that matter most to foreigners — foreign policy, defence, and nuclear questions — Ahmadinejad has no power at all. Those subjects are the sole responsibility of Iran’s unelected parallel government, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council.

So ignore the capering clown on the stage. Instead, let’s analyse the drumbeat of accusations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons with which, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned the General Assembly, it could “threaten the world.” Does it have a nuclear weapons programme? Could it threaten the world, even if it did? And why does the rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat sound so much like the rhetoric about the Iraqi nuclear threat five years ago?

We know that there once was an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, but that was under the Shah, whom Washington was grooming as the policeman of the Gulf. After the revolution of 1979 the new leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, cancelled that programme on the grounds that weapons of mass destruction were un-Islamic, although he retained the peaceful nuclear power program.

Then came the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, in which the United States ultimately backed Saddam Hussein although he had clearly started the war, and despite the fact that he was known to be working on nuclear weapons. Despite their Islamic reservations, the Iranian ayatollahs sanctioned the re-starting of the Sha’s nuclear weapons programme in 1984 to counter that threat. That is when they began work on the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz that figures in so many American accusations.

When peace returned in 1988, work at Natanz slowed to a crawl. After Saddam Hussein’s foolish invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to his defeat in the first Gulf War, and United Nations inspectors dismantled all of his nuclear facilities, Natanz seems to have stopped functioning entirely. It was only in 1999 or 2000 that work started there again — and in 2002 an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a political front for the outlawed terrorist organisation Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, revealed what was going on at Natanz.

The construction of Natanz began in secret, because in 1984 there were daily Iraqi air-raids across the country. It remained secret because there was no legal requirement to reveal its existence to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until six months before it began to process nuclear fuel, and Iran had reason to fear an Israeli attack on the facility. Iran was embarrassed when the secret was revealed and immediately suspended work at Natanz for three years, but it is not illegal and it does not prove that Iran is currently seeking nuclear weapons.

Many countries have similar enrichment facilities to upgrade uranium as fuel for nuclear reactors, and that is what Iran now says it is doing, too. If the Iranian government also knows that, in a crisis, it could run the fuel through the centrifuges more times and turn it into weapons-grade uranium, well, so do lots of other governments. It is called a “threshold” nuclear weapons capability, and it is a very popular option.

The IAEA found no evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons, which is why since 2005 the issue has been transferred to the UN Security Council, where political rather than legal issues determine the outcome. The Security Council has imposed mild sanctions on Iran, and the United States is pressing hard for much harsher ones. It also threatens to use force against Iran, but for all the over-heated rhetoric there is still no evidence that Iran is doing anything illegal.

Why did it re-start work at Natanz seven or eight years ago? Probably in response to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998 and the subsequent overthrow of the elected government there. Iran is Shia, Pakistan is largely Sunni and home to some quite militant extremists. They are not in power now, but Iranians worry that one day they might be, so they are taking out an insurance policy.

The enrichment facilities may be solely for peaceful nuclear power now, but they would give Iran the ability to build its own nuclear deterrent much more quickly in a panic. And if it had nuclear weapons, would it really “threaten the world,” as Presidents Bush and Sarkozy allege? Why would it do that? And how could it hope to escape crushing retaliation if it did?

President Ahmadinejad is a profound embarrassment to his country, but the grown-ups are still in charge in Iran.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The construction…option”)