William O. Beeman: United States Instigated Iran's Nuclear Program 30 Years Ago
[Mr. Beeman is Professor, Anthropology and Theatre, Speech and Dance and Past Director, Middle East Studies at Brown University.]
'The White House staffers, who are trying to deny Iran the right to develop its own nuclear energy capacity have conveniently forgotten that the United States was the midwife to the Iranian nuclear program 30 years ago. Every aspect of Iran's current nuclear development was approved and encouraged by Washington in the 1970s. President Gerald Ford offered Iran a full nuclear cycle in 1976, and the only reactor currently about to become operative, the reactor in Bushire, was started before the Iranian revolution with U.S. approval.
Kenneth Timmerman, in Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran presents a misleading description of this plant, claiming again and again that the facility might be used to produce nuclear fuel.
As the late Tom Stauffer and I wrote in June, 2003, the Bushire (Bushehr) reactor--a "light water" reactor--does not produce weapons grade Plutonium. It produces Pu 240, Pu241 and Pu242. Although these isoto pes could theoretically be weaponized, the process is extremely long and complicated, and also untried. To date no nuclear weapon has ever been produced with plutonium produced with the kind of reactor at Bushire. Moreover, the plant would have to be completely shut down to extract the fuel rods, making the process immediately open to detection and inspection. (The plant IS shut down to change the fuel rods, but only every 30-40 months to provide longer and better energy generation)
By contract, the Dimona reactor in Israel--a "heavy water" reactor--is an example of a reactor that is ideal for producing weapons fuel. It produces Pu239 and the fuel rods can be extracted "on the fly." without any need to shut down the plant or alter its operation. The fuel rods are exchanged every few weeks.
The full original article with much more detailed analysis and reader commentary can be found at this URL.
It is paired with a companion piece explaining why nuclear power makes perfect sense for the Iranian economic situation. This article can be found here.
A number of former officials have questioned the proposition that the United States fostered Iran's nuclear development. Certainly it is inconvenient for their present course of action to have to admit that an American hand was present in the gestation of the program.
Professor Ahmad Sadri, Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College in Illinois was a young man in Iran when the United States was touting nuclear power facilities to the government of the Shah. He reminisces:
The image that came to me was the late sixties' lavish exhibit of the United States in Tehran's annual International E xhibit that was fashioned as a nuclear reactor complete with a white dome. Easily the most popular exhibit in the entire international gala, the American exhibit sported by far the longest snaking lines of eager visitors. It was dedicated to the single theme of extolling the virtues of atomic energy and the feasibility of its transfer to Iran. White clad attendants offered inspiring tours to small flocks of the overawed visitors and encouraged them to emulate atomic researchers by lifting small cubes and pyramids laying behind thick Plexiglas walls with the use of mechanical hands. That image found its companion a few days ago as I soaked in the hot tub of my local gym in one of the northern burbs of Chicago with a gentleman that turned out to be Octave J. Du Temple, executive director emeritus of the American Nuclear Society. He fondly reminisced about half a dozen trips in early seventies to Tehran and Shiraz in order to participate in conferences and summits on "transfer of nuclear technology." For whatever it's worth, this native's account is
awash in images that confirm a fair amount of enthusiasm on behalf of the United States for Iran's nuclear program in the 1970's.
Washington International Lawyer Donald Weadon points out that after 1972, and the oil crisis, the United States was rabidly pursuing investment opportunities in Iran, including selling nuclear power plants. He writes:
' . . . utilizing the good offices of the Hoover Institution and the
self-interest of Bechtel and other U.S. A&E contractors who found
significant profit in Nuclear Power Plants at home and overseas (e.g, Taiwan), the Iranians were wooed hard with the prospect of nuclear power from trusted, U.S.-backed suppliers, with the prospect of the reservation of significant revenues from oil exports for foreign and domestic investment (this was not solely and Iranian pipe dream, as the Kuwaitis had targeted by 1980 to be obtaining half of their GNP from investment income, not sales of wasting assets like oil). Obviously, the principal benefit from the U.S. perspective was the significant absorption of petrodollars, NOT Iran's fiscal and national best interest. '
Despite current White House denials of U.S. instigation of the program, there is absolutely no question that the United States did not oppose Iran's nuclear development in the 1 970's--even to the point of facilitating training for Iran's senior engineers at MIT, CalTech and other U.S. institutions. Nor is it in question that the Bushire plant was started before the revolution with the United States' blessing.
American dissimulation on this point reveals some interesting motives on Washington's part. Iran under the Shah was as much of a threat to its neighbors (including Iraq) as it might be said to be today. Its nuclear ambitions then could have been inflated and denigrated in exactly the same way they are being inflated and denigrated today, but the U.S. was blissfully unconcerned. The big, big difference is that Iran is now perceived to be a threat to Israel, and that is why we see retired military as consultants to the news media bandying about plans to bomb multiple sites over an area the size of California, Arizona and Nevada (Good luck!) .
Even those who admit that the United States helped start Iran's current nuclear developmen t claim that two factors make a difference in how Iran should be treated today as opposed to the 1970's: Iran's concealment of nuclear energy development activities in the past and President Ahmadinejad's remarks on Israel.
What White House officials never tell the American public is that President Ahmadinejad's remarks have little or no connection with any probable action on Iran's part regarding Israel (or "the Zionist regime" to be strictly accurate regarding his reference). President Ahmadinejad has no effective power in this area, and his remarks aren't even embraced by Iran's clerical leaders. His remarks are widely understood as a clumsy attempt to pander to his own right-wing base in an attempt to shore up his faltering power within the Iranian government.
However, the second proposition is equally specious. It is fruitful to examine the now conventional wisdom that Iran had "regularly hidden information about its nuclear program" etc. as if this in and of itself was proof of a nuclear weapons program. Of course, it is not, although many breathlessly cite it as the principal smoking gun.
First of all, much of what the United States has called "concealment" was never concealed at all when the reports of the United Nations inspection team are examined. Many of the charges about removing topsoil and bulldozing material at some of the research sites never took place. However, even if one concedes that Iran did conceal some processes, whatever concealment of whatever activity started 18-20 years ago when the Revolution was still young and Ayatollah Khomeini was still alive.
There was, of course, a different Iranian administration than is in power today, or that was in power when the nuclear question became an issue. If George W. Bush were to be held responsible for things that happened 18 years ago, or even 8 years ago, there would be howling in the Capitol. The myth of a monolithic unchanging government in Iran i s indeed very powerful, overwhelming all common sense and reason.
Second, whatever Iran did or didn't do in the past, they are in compliance with the NNPT at present. Indeed, there would be no way to accuse them of anything if they were not so compliant.
Third, it is essential to emphasize that there are many countries who have concealed their nuclear activities (Israel, India, Pakistan, Brazil, North Korea), and some who still do--it is an open secret. Mohammad Elbaradei gave a half-dozen plausible reasons why Iran might have felt it prudent to conceal its activities (the U.S. embargo, the ran-Iraq war, the U.S. actions in Gulf War I and II right next door, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons-again right next door, the hidden weapons program in Israel, etc. etc. ). This didn't excuse the concealment, but neither is it proof that Iran has a weapons' program at present. In fact, no one has shown that such a weapon s program exists.
The mantra "Iran must not get nuclear weapons" has been repeated so often now that most people have come to believe that Iran has them or is getting them. Has anyone stopped to think that this only became an issue when the neoconservative agenda to "remake" the Middle East--including Iran-became actualized? The Iran nuclear crisis is truly a manufactured crisis, based on the flimsiest of evidence and reasoning. I can only hope that soberer minds rethink this position.
The tragedy would be that in the end, the U.S. may goad Iran in to a real nuclear weapons program. The Iranians may reason that since they are being punished for the crime anyway, they might as well commit it. '
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