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Iran’s nuclear program: a defiant quest for modernity

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Iran’s quest to build a nuclear arsenal by hook or by crook has degenerated into a global crisis, having consumed the efforts of diplomats for the past decade.

Israel’s threat to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, combined with U.S. President Barack Obama’s determination “to prevent [Iran] from getting a nuclear weapon,” as he stated in his State of Union speech to Congress last month, only amplifies the issue.

It remains to be seen whether it can be resolved peacefully, but as British journalist David Patrikarakos correctly observes in Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State (Palgrave Macmillan), the need to find a solution is critical. Its resolution, he adds, “will affect the world for at least a generation.”

Although Iran’s nuclear program was launched more than 50 years ago, the full story of its development, from birth to the present day, has not been told until now. With this book, based mainly on primary sources, Patrikarakos fills in the gap admirably.

He’s a dispassionate writer, but he doesn’t bury his opinions. As he puts it, “If the spectre of a possible attack on Iran is deeply troubling, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is worse.”

Iran’s possession of nuclear arms, he argues, would be catastrophic ­–strengthening the Islamic fundamentalist Iranian regime at the expense of its neighbours, further inflaming the already tense standoff between Iran and Israel, emboldening Tehran’s proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, setting off a regional arms race and prompting non-nuclear states in the Middle East to emulate Iran.

“It is a deeply undesirable outcome, one that must be avoided at all costs,” he asserts.

In his view, the nuclear program offers Iran an opportunity “to engage with modernity” and “negotiate a place within a perennially hostile world.” He adds, “Understand the nuclear program and you will understand modern Iran.”

Iran, unlike its Arab neighbours, has never experienced the impact of direct colonialism, but it has been subjected to foreign meddling. Iran lost substantial territories to Russia in a war in the 1820s, and in the same decade, Iran was forced to cede land in Armenia and Azerbaijan. During World War II, the Soviet Union and Britain occupied Iran, and in the 1950s, a U.S.-backed coup deposed a nationalist prime minister.

As a result, he points out, Iran has been zealous to preserve its independence and territorial integrity.

Iran entered the nuclear age in 1957 when a nuclear training centre was established in Tehran under the auspices of the Central Treaty Organization, an alliance composed of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Britain. Subsequently, Iran signed a treaty with the United States for co-operation on the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran since 1941, believed that nuclear energy would lessen Iran’s dependence on oil for domestic power, put an end to endemic electrical shortages and place his underdeveloped country on a path of industrial and economic progress.

With German assistance, Iran built its first nuclear reactor in Bushehr. By the end of 1978, the eve of the Islamic revolution that deposed the shah’s monarchy, Iran had a civil nuclear program in place.

The Iranian government, having publicly rejected the allure of nuclear weapons, signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the shah warned he might revise his policy if “20 or 30 ridiculous little countries are going to develop nuclear weapons.”

The shah’s arrogant comment notwithstanding, Iran was really in no position to build an atomic device because its nuclear program was based entirely on power plants rather than uranium enrichment.

Nonetheless, as Patrikarakos notes, the nuclear program was probably the “most developed expression” of the shah’s modernization program. Nuclear power, he elaborates, was “intertwined with notions of national pride and progress” and personal ambition on the part of the hubristic shah.

Yet in opposition circles, the nuclear program was synonymous with corruption, waste and royal excess. Frequent power cuts in the mid-1970s led critics to conclude that nuclear power was hardly a panacea for Iran’s problems.

The new Islamic regime initially considered the nuclear program excessively expensive and ideologically unclean, calling it a Trojan horse for western infiltration and imperialism. Nevertheless, a decision was taken that nuclear research, particularly in prospecting and extracting uranium, should continue.

Severe electricity shortages convinced the mullahs that the shah’s nuclear program could be useful. In 1982, with the Iran-Iraq War raging, the nuclear program was officially restarted. The program was now “an integral part of how the Islamic republic defined itself in the modern world,” says the author.

Iranian scientists living abroad were invited back, and Iran began exploring the possibility of signing co-operation agreements with Argentina, Pakistan, India and China.

 Convinced that a nuclear deterrent would confer prestige on Iran and protect the Islamic revolution from the schemes of its enemies, namely the United States and Israel, the regime took concrete steps to rebuild the nuclear program,

Iran secretly purchased centrifuges from the Khan network in Pakistan and bought equipment from China. Russia, however, would become Iran’s chief nuclear partner. In 1994, the Russians agreed to complete one of two unfinished reactors in Bushehr.

Iran’s belligerent attitude toward Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, prompted the Israeli government in 2002 to warn that Iran posed an existential threat to its statehood. With Mahmoud Ah­ma­di­ne­jad’s election as president in 2005, Israel hardened its policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.

By then, Iran had made headway in its covert pursuit of the full nuclear cycle and had officially informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of its uranium enrichment program, says Patrikarakos.

United Nations sanctions, he writes, had no effect on its nuclear ambitions.

He suggests that Iran’s willingness to engage the major powers in talks has been little more than a stalling tactic. Iran regards its nuclear program as

“a symbol of a defiant modernizing state” and will not likely abandon it in the face of international pressure.

Iran’s defiance prompts Patrikarakos to write, “The supreme irony … is that Iran’s nuclear program is the ultimate expression of its desire for acceptance (but on its own terms) that is pursued through the one means that will ensure it remains a pariah.”

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