Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Juan on Iran

Juan Cole's Fishing for a Pretext to Squeeze Iran is a necessary inoculation of reason against the relentless framing of Iran as a rogue nation:
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows Iran to develop civilian nuclear energy, and the United States itself urged Iran to build reactors in the 1970s. Iran does not have a heavy-water breeder reactor, which is the easy way to get a bomb. It does have light-water reactors for energy production, but these cannot be used to get enough fissionable material to make a bomb. Although Vice President Dick Cheney has made light of an oil state seeking nuclear energy, it would be a rational economic policy to use nuclear energy for domestic needs and sell petroleum on the world market. Certainly, the NPT permits such a policy.

The difficulty for those concerned with proliferation is that for Iran to independently run its light-water reactors, it needs to complete the fuel cycle of uranium enrichment. The ability to produce nuclear fuel is only one step away from the ability to refine uranium further, to weapons-grade quality. Still, it is a step away and could not easily be done in secret with inspectors making visits. Iran is experimenting with refrigerator-size centrifuges as a means of enriching uranium, but would need 16,000, hooked up in a special way, to produce a bomb. It has 164, and one of its proposals to defuse the crisis with the U.S. is to limit itself to no more than 3,000. Otherwise, it says it ideally would have 50,000 centrifuges.

No signatory of the NPT that allows regular IAEA inspections has ever moved to the stage of bomb production. Inspections have been extremely effective tools. United Nations weapons inspectors discovered and dismantled Saddam Hussein’s weapons program after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. The IAEA was even able to detect trace plutonium on Iranian equipment that came from Pakistan, which manufactures bombs. Those who remain suspicious of Iran’s ultimate intentions are not completely without a case. But there is good reason to believe that Iran’s nuclear program could have been monitored successfully.

The Bush administration has arbitrarily taken the position that Iran may not have a nuclear research program at all, even a civilian one. This stance actually contradicts the guarantees of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington officials continually intimate to the press that Tehran has an active weapons program, which is speculation. And, of course, the United States itself is egregiously in violation of several articles of the NPT, keeping enough nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to destroy the world several times over and actively pursuing new and deadly weapons, even dreaming of “tactical” nukes. Its ally in the region, Israel, never signed the NPT and was helped by the British to get a bomb in the 1960s.

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in summer 2005 estimates that if Iran did have an active nuclear weapons program, and if the international atmosphere were favorable to it being able to get hold of the requisite equipment, it would still be a good 10 years away from a bomb. But the international atmosphere is actively hostile to such a development, and anyway it has not been proved that there is such a weapons program.

If the Supreme Jurisprudent of theocratic Iran has given a fatwa against nukes, if the president of the country has renounced them and called for others to do so, if the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence of a military nuclear weapons program, and if Iran is at least 10 years from having a bomb even if it is trying to get one, then why is there a diplomatic crisis around this issue between the United States and Iran in 2006?

The answer is that the Iranian nuclear issue is déjà vu all over again.

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