Iran, the US, and nuclear plans: pen and sword

Behrad Nakhai
17 September 2006

The annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Geneva on 18-22 September 2006 takes place against a background of tension and foreboding over Iran's uranium-enrichment programme. A series of negotiations involving the Tehran government, leading European Union states, and the IAEA itself has so far failed to resolve the issue of Iran's compliance with the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Meanwhile, the referral of Iran to the United Nations Security Council has exposed differences of opinion over which course of action to pursue (in particular, whether to impose sanctions or not); and the suspicion and hostility of the United States towards Iran makes a peaceful outcome of the crisis uncertain. Where, then, can a way forward be found?

Behrad Nakhai is an Iranian-born nuclear engineer who lives in the United States

Also in openDemocracy on Iran and the "international community":

Fred Halliday, "Iran vs the United States – again" (14 February 2006)

Bahram Rajaee, "Iran's nuclear challenge" (14 February 2006)

Kaveh Ehsani, "On the brink: the Great Satan vs the Axis of Evil" (3 May 2006 )

A nuclear alliance

The latest deadline delivered to Tehran - that it should cease development of its fuel-enrichment cycle by 31 August 2006 or face possible UN sanctions - passed without any sign that it will bring a resolution to the ongoing dispute. There is every sign that the United States's rejection of all overtures on the part of Iran - justified by its claim that Tehran's real purpose in pursuing nuclear researches is to develop nuclear weapons - will prolong and deepen the dispute.

There is no definitive evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear-weapons programme. But in any case, a neglected factor in the controversy is the thirty-year history of Iran's nuclear researches, in which the US itself has played a central role. Iran's nuclear programme was begun under the Shah in 1976 with the encouragement of the then (1974-76) US president, Gerald Ford, who offered the Iranians technological help to complete a full nuclear cycle. The programme survived the Islamic revolution of 1978-79, despite the change in regime and the generation of rooted hostility between Iran and the US that followed.

The United States began to object to Iran's nuclear development in 2003, accusing them of concealment of processing facilities under the NPT - even though this had not taken place when the US made the claim. That consideration aside, Iran had offered as early as 1997 (the year that the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected as president, after Hashemi Rafsanjani's eight years in power) to open its nuclear facilities to inspection.

It was in 1997 that, at the request of Iran, I - an Iranian nuclear engineer working in the United States - arranged for a group of prominent US nuclear scientists to visit Iran's nuclear facilities. After a couple of days of discussions, I was able to secure the agreement of the US state department; but two months of requests to the defence department met with an absolute refusal to cooperate.

During this period, I responded to all the Pentagon's concerns, but, like a telemarketer reading from a prepared statement, my contact there repeated the same negative formula many times over. I offered to include a representative nominated by the defence department in the inspection group, but to no avail. Since these scientists required the highest clearance from US government to make the visit, I was forced to cancel it. This was one among many missed opportunities.

In spring 2003, Iran - led by Mohammad Khatami, but with the full support of Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - made a general offer to negotiate all outstanding issues with the United States: among them, the question of Iran's nuclear development and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The George W Bush administration rejected the offer out of hand, and excoriated the Swiss diplomatic officer who acted as intermediary.

Moreover, Iran publicly accepted the proposal made in 2003 by the head of the IAEA, Mohammad ElBaradei, that weapons-usable fissile materials be placed under international control - a step towards fulfilment of the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FCMT), passed by the United Nations general assembly in 1993 despite US objections. The UN general assembly voted 149-2 in favour of ElBaradei's idea, with only the US and Palau dissenting (and Israel and Britain abstaining).

If implemented, the decision would have permitted monitoring of all nuclear-fission activities and guaranteed that non-nuclear weapons states would be able to obtain adequate supplies for the non-military use of enriched plutonium. This might have ended the Iranian nuclear crisis, as part of the introduction of a comprehensive system of control in the interests of greater international security.

The civilised option

The United States continues to project Iran's nuclear development as an international danger, while denying its own previous knowledge of and involvement with Iran's nuclear programme into the bargain. Iran draws the conclusion that the US is using the nuclear issue as a pretext to vilify them to the international community, perhaps as a prelude to a military attack (when senior US administration officials from President Bush downwards insist "all cards are on the table" with regard to Iran, it is easy to see how the regime might reach that conclusion).

But if a peaceful path out of this manufactured nuclear crisisis is truly desired, a sound solution is at hand, one that would avoid threats, sanctions, and hostilities. It would involve the five permanent members of the UN Security Council empowering the IAEA to enter into an agreement with Iran to build and co-manage Iran's nuclear facilities, including its uranium-enrichment facilities and constructions of advanced nuclear reactors. This approach would both yield the sanest solution to a nuclear crisis created by the west, and provide the most verifiable means for an effective NPT.

Such an "atoms for peace, revisited" project - in echo of the visionary initiative proposed at the United Nations by the then US president, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1956 - could serve as a pilot programme for other nations choosing to opt for nuclear power. It would be better yet if the US helped ensure its safe operation and completion by encouraging the active participation of its research institutes, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (www.nrc.gov), the American Nuclear Society (www.ans.org), the Electric Power Research Institute (www.epri.com), and the Nuclear Energy Institute (www.nei.org), as well as US nuclear utilities with a wealth of experience in the construction and operation of nuclear-power plants (among them, Entergy (www.entergy-nuclear.com) and TVA (www.tva.gov/power/nuclear/index.htm).

A host of global problems - energy crises, climate change, and pollution among them - is making nuclear power look ever more promising as an answer to many of the world's energy needs. Refinements and advancements in the design and operation of nuclear reactors have alleviated most, if not all, of the concerns and reservations that stalled the second generation of nuclear reactors.

Sixty years ago, the mighty atom was the catalyst in bringing to an end the most destructive war in the history of mankind. Today, the same force can serve as the catalyst in opening a phase of cooperation to end war, and start to heal wounds ignored for so long. The technological advancement in weaponry has pushed the "war" option further beyond the realm of ethics and morality. The only civilised option remains dialogue. For as Albert Einstein said: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them".

Mohammad Khatami attempted in 2000 to replace the idea of "clash" of civilisations with that of "dialogue" between civilisations. His successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, albeit from a different ideological standpoint, has reiterated it. There is still a chance to recover from past missed opportunities, and for the atom to energise the pen rather than the sword.

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