America’s antipathy to the Iranian Atom is especially remarkable given the fact that it was Washington that exported nuclear technology to Teheran in the first place.
Russia may have become Iran’s best nuclear supplier since the 1979 Revolution, but, in the earliest days of Tehran’s flirtation with the atom, it was the Eisenhower Administration that provided encouragement, equipment, funds and uranium to kick-start an Iranian nuclear program.
An instructive timeline of America’s shifting views towards the Iranian Atom (compiled by the Iranian Website Alakhbar) details this curious history.
Beginning as far back as the 1950s, the US was busy promoting nuclear power around the world and one of the nuclear industry’s first clients was Iran – then under the control of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a pro-Western despot who maintained his hold on power through the brutal excesses of his secret police, the Savak.
In 1957, under the “Atoms for Peace” program, the US inked a civilian nuclear development deal with Iran. Three years later, the US sold a small research reactor to Iran. After the reactor went online in 1967, Iran signed and ratified the NNPT.
In 1970, the US (joined by France and Germany) began negotiations for the construction of as many as 20 nuclear reactors inside Iran. The “nuclear superpowers” also reportedly discussed establishing an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The American public was not apprised of Washington’s plan for an Iranian bomb program but it certainly heard a lot about Iran’s civilian nuclear power program.
The US nuclear industry was in an expansionist mode and would-be reactor builders needed to assure a wary public that atomic reactors would be safe and trustworthy neighbors.
And that’s how Iran’s despotic and tyrannical Shah came to star in a string of eye-grabbing nuclear power ads in the USA.
The Shah Loves Nukes So Why Don’t You?
The advertising campaign was backed by large energy companies like Westinghouse and General Electric and the ads carried the names of burgeoning nuclear operators from across several East Coast states.
The ads, which began to appear in the early 1970s, bore the slogan “Nuclear Energy. Today’s Answer.” Small print at the bottom identified the sponsors: Boston Edison, Eastern Utilities Association, New England Power Co., Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, New England Gas and Electric Companies.
The ads featured a striking photo of the Shah, in all his embroidered, beribboned, imperial splendor, epaulets ablaze and medallions aglow. Hovering over his photo was the phrase: “Guess Who’s Building Nuclear Power Plants.” There was no question mark at the end of the sentence because there was no question about the message.
“The Shah of Iran is sitting on top of one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world,” the ad copy began. “Yet he’s building two nuclear plants and planning two more to provide electricity for his country. He knows the oil is running out – and time with it.”
It read like an Earth Day message delivered by a well-meaning nuclear industry that wanted nothing more than to save the world from a plague of oil spills, pollution and global warming.
But the real message wasn’t about the shortcomings of fossil fuels, it was about the abiding fear of atoms.
The Shah “wouldn’t build the plants now if he doubted their safety,” the ad copy read. “He’d wait. As many Americans want to do.” But the Shah was clearly wiser than the average American. “The Shah knows that nuclear energy is not only economical, it has enjoyed a remarkable 30-year safety record.”
That 30-year span would include the first atomic tests at Alamogordo, the two bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, and years of above-ground nuclear bomb tests that spread fallout around the world. Leaving aside those minor historic footnotes, the advertising copy pressed on to argue that atomic power’s safety record was “good enough for the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts, too. They’ve approved their second nuclear plant by a vote of almost 4 to 1. Which shows you don’t have to go as far as Iran for an endorsement of nuclear power.”
But the Shah wasn’t in the nuclear game just as a hedge against Peak Oil. There was more to it.
The Shah tipped his hand in 1974 when he boasted to a French reporter that he expected to be “in possession of a nuclear bomb” much “sooner than is believe” (sic).
President Gerald Ford publicly supported the Shah’s nuclear ambitions, as did his White House henchmen Dick Cheney, Ronald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger who served as the Shah’s nuclear lobby in Washington.
By 1978, relations between Washington and Tehran were so cozy that the US bestowed its “most favored nation” status on the country, which allowed Iran to undertake the reprocessing of nuclear fuel (a sure pathway to acquiring “weapons-grade” uranium).
The Shah’s nuclear ambitions were never realized, however. In 1979, a popular revolution toppled the Shah and the hated Savak. The country’s new leaders terminated the nuclear pacts with the West and ordered the nuclear program shut down for religious reasons.
Nuclear Iran, After the Revolution
For the next two years, Iran remained a staunchly anti-nuclear nation. In 1982, however, the ayatollahs were forced to rethink Iran’s nuclear-free status.
What happened? Iran had come under attack by its neighbor to the west. In 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking what would turn out to be a bloody eight-year war.
Did the US condemn Iraq’s aggression? Far from it, the US actively partnered with Saddam in his military campaign against the anti-US leaders of post-Shah Iran.
The nuclear weapons program that had been warmly supported under the Shah’s rule suddenly became hot-button issue among Iran’s critics in Washington, triggering a frenzy of anti-Iranian “nuclear-fear-mongering” that has raged unabated for the last 30 years. (The term “Islamic bomb” has recently begun to proliferate in the Western media. At the same time, US news agencies have never felt the need to refer to the Pentagon’s atomic weapons as “Christian bombs.”)
In 1984, Jane’s Defense Weekly primed the pump with an alarmist article warning Tehran was likely to have a nuclear bomb by 1986. When that threat failed to materialize, Senator Alan Cranston, a California Democrat, warned Iran would certainly be brandishing nuclear bombs by 1991.
Undeterred by these Western allegations, Iran stubbornly maintained its anti-nuclear stance — until 1988. That was the year Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sketched out an initial proposal to militarize the country’s civilian power program. Khomeini wasn’t acting in a vacuum. His proposal was prompted by the alarm that followed Saddam Hussein’s shocking use of chemical weapons against villagers during the Iraq-Iran War.
A Bomb Is Coming, We Know It Is
With the dawn of the 1990s, it was Israel’s turn to start beating the drums about a potential Iranian A-bomb. In 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu (then a member of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament) warned that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear bomb in “three to five years.” Netanyahu had a ready answer for how to confront this theoretical dilemma: “An international front headed by the US.”
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres followed up with a warning, as well. “Iran is the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East,” he proclaimed. Why? “Because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militantism.”
The criticism was blindingly ironic given the fact that Israel already possessed the Middle East’s only (and growing) arsenal of atomic weapons. Also, by this time, the State of Israel had accumulated an impressive record of pugnacious foreign policy adventures that could easily meet the defining test of “extreme religious militantism.”
Meanwhile, in the US, a team of House Republicans formed a research committee that claimed a “98 percent certainty” that Iran had amassed enough material for “two or three operational nuclear weapons.”
The fact that Iran never managed to meet any of these dire predictions did not deter the fear-mongers. In his 1995 book, Fighting Terrorism, Netanyahu warned Iran was “between three and five years away” from becoming a nuclear threat. A year later, Israel’s Foreign Minister Ehud Barak dialed back the hysteria a notch by warning the UN Security Council that Iran was expected to be able to produce a nuclear bomb “within eight years.”
In 1998, Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added another log to the fire with the claim that, in as little as five years, Iran could build an intercontinental missile capable of hitting the US with nuclear or biological bombs.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the Iranian Revolution had gone nearly two decades without announcing or producing any nuclear weapons. Instead, Iran’s leaders continued to formally condemn the use or possession of nuclear weapons as incompatible with the Islamic faith. Iran’s record failed to impress George W. Bush. Upon his arrival in the Oval Office, Bush declared Iran part of the “Axis of Evil.”
In 2003, as if to prove Mr. Bush wrong, Tehran invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nuclear facilities. While noting a past “pattern of concealment,” the IAEA concluded there was “no evidence” Iran was attempting to manufacture nuclear weapons. (In 2007, the NIE concluded with “high confidence” that Iran had completely abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions but US and Israeli politicians continued to predict Iran would produce a bomb — perhaps sometime between 2012 and 2014.)
If Iran Poses No Threat, Why Does the US Impose Sanctions?
Despite the universal agreement within the US intelligence community that Iran’s nuclear power program poses no imminent military threat, the US successfully petitioned the United Nations to apply a series of punishing economic sanctions on Teheran.
Washington’s persistent badgering of Iran — for presenting a hypothetical but unrealized “threat” — is at odds with a stunning (but rarely mentioned) parallel reality: the specter of nuclear war already haunts the Middle East.
The one country in the region that has an atomic arsenal also has a posture of belligerence that includes both threats of military action and a history of cross-border attacks targeting its neighbors. That nation is Israel. Unlike Iran, Israel is a nuclear “rogue nation” that has refused to sign the NNPT. Unlike Iran, Israel has never permitted international inspections of its secret nuclear energy and nuclear weapons facilities.
We are left with a puzzle. Given the strategic consensus that Tehran poses no immediate military threat to the region or to the US, why does Washington persist in applying potentially destabilizing economic sanctions on the people of Iran?
A possible answer was provided by General Wesley Clark, in his book, Winning Modern Wars. In 2001, Clark wrote, he had a conversation with a “senior military staff officer.” The Pentagon planner described a plan to attack Lebanon. “But there was more,” Clark was informed. Targeting Lebanon was part of “a five-year campaign plan” to topple a succession of governments. “There were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.”
In retrospect, it appears that this Pentagon game plan has played out in real-world events. General Clark’s stunning disclosure has never become part of the national foreign policy debate and you won’t find it in mentioned in newspapers or in college textbooks. But you can find it on Democracy Now! and YouTube.
A Fatwa against Fission
In 2005, US Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested to Congress that Iran was harboring a secret plan to build nuclear weapons. The argument was weakened, however, by the fact that it was Powell who earlier made the notoriously bogus claim that Iraq harbored “weapons of mass destruction.”
During a meeting with IAEA officials in Geneva, Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei offered a dramatic response to Powell’s allegations: He formally announced a binding fatwa banning the production, stockpiling, or deployment of nuclear weapons.
“We don’t need atomic bombs and, based on our religious teaching, we will not pursue them,” Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proclaimed. It was a sentiment that should have given comfort to a wary world that has yet to hear any similar statements from the leaders of nuclear-armed Superpowers.
The Greater Threat Is Closer to Home
True, President Barack Obama has called for the abolition of America’s nuclear arsenal (but so did Ronald Reagan). However, while paying lip-service to abolition, Obama approved spending $214 billion over the next ten years on new nuclear weapons and the “modernizing” of our existing bombs.
It is not Iran that poses an immediate, palpable nuclear threat. The greatest imminent danger resides is the powerful coterie of five nuclear-armed superpowers — China, France, Russia, the UK and the US — and four nuclear-rogue states operating outside the bounds of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Three of these nations happen to be US allies — India, Israel and Pakistan.
It is the fourth rogue state, North Korea, that has upped the Apocalyptic ante with recent threats to level US targets from Guam to Chicago. Faced with nuclear saber rattling from North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, President Obama seems to have rediscovered his inner nuclear abolitionist. Obama has grandly called for the North to surrender its atomic arsenal as the first step toward creating a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
But, as the head of the superpower with the world’s largest inventory of nuclear weapons (and the missiles, submarines and bombers needed to deliver then), the president should lead by example. As a first step, he should also insist on a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East (Iran has already proposed this), a nuclear-weapons-free Europe and, ultimately, a nuclear-weapons-free planet.