A Briefing on Iran's Nuclear Program From the discovery of atom power, to the nuclear dilemma, its solution, and Iran

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Fire. The wheel. Gunpowder. The printing press. The steam engine. Antibiotics. The Internet. Looking back one gains a sort of fearful and solemn appreciation for those pivotal moments in the history of mankind when some grand new scientific discovery gasps its first breath and a new reality is born. A new paradigm. A game changer. How exactly may never be fully grasped, but the world is forever changed. The cheers and boos accompanying its birth fall on deaf ears, and its insensitive indifference to the worlds reception leave the onlooker with little recourse except to seek solace in an anxious hope that it will grow up to be a gentleman and not a monster.

And so it is with the discovery of the energy hidden within the atom… the immense amounts of energy accessible by splitting atoms in two: nuclear fission. "Through the release of atomic energy, our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire." Einstein said, "the release of atom power has changed everything." Joseph Rotblat, a physicist involved in applying nuclear fission to the making of the atomic bomb (though later quitting in protest) warned early that the dream could quickly become a nightmare: "I have to bring to your notice a terrifying reality: with the development of nuclear weapons man has acquired, for the first time in history, the technical means to destroy the whole of civilization in a single act."

In 1914 the science fiction writer H.G. Wells published a book called The World Set Free that imagined humanity discovered massive energy within the atom and, in the face of the problems accompanying this discovery, was forced to adopt world government as the only solution — or face annihilation. As if history was being guided by this prescient script, in 1938 nuclear fission was born and escaped from Pandora's Box, haunting humanity with nightmares of its potential, its threats gaining credibility in 1945 with Truman's announcement of the first use of nuclear weapons for the bombing of Hiroshima:

"The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima… We won the race of discovery against the Germans… Having found the bomb we have used it…. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war… I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb… it is an awful responsibility which has come to us… we thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that he may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes."

And so the world, terrified at the potential of this destructive new science "too dangerous to be loose in a lawless world," joined together to create a supranational governmental body, the United Nations, with its first act being "the establishment of a commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy."

"Everything will be different tomorrow" the drunken husband promises his battered wife… and somewhere between the Stockholm Syndrome and the disbelieving lump in her throat she finds hope in his empty promise, a brief refuge from facing the otherwise cold reality. And maybe it was in this spirit that the world listened to President Eisenhower deliver his "Atoms for Peace" speech before the newly formed United Nations… a speech that captures the possibly naive, but nonetheless widespread hope that this monster could be born again, regenerated, and turned into a gentleman.

"My country wants to be constructive, not destructive. So my country's purpose is to help us move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light, out of fear and into peace. To hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people. The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here — now — today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world's scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage? It could be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind, to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities… to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.

Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength, but also the desire and the hope for peace. The United States pledges before the world — its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma — to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."

And so began the "Atoms for Peace" initiative. Out of this program came the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the NPT), which consists of three main points: everyone with nuclear weapons would disarm, everyone would agree not to proliferate any more nuclear weapons, and everyone would have the explicit right to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA) was created to monitor member state compliance and to help them develop peaceful nuclear programs, and the United Nations Security Council was designated as the enforcement arm of the treaty.

So despite its monstrous beginnings, the promised redemption was at hand. Nuclear fission, (through the NPT and the "Atoms for Peace" program) would be born again, regenerated, and harnessed for the good of all mankind. A new wave of optimism ushered in the atomic age with great fanfare. The nuclear power plant was destined to be declared the "great cathedral of the 20th century" able to "transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, provide the power needed to desalinate water for the thirsty, irrigate the deserts for the hungry, fuel interstellar travel deep into outer space, and make the whole earth one smiling Garden of Eden."

But the romantic and messianic dreams of the atomic age were rudely interrupted by annoying duck and cover drills, and the haunting cries of the Hibakusha. By the Cold War, the Nuclear Arms Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Three-Mile Island, and Chernobyl. The dreamers sometimes had nightmares, and the ambivalence about the atom's power left humanity vacillating between the promise of progress and utopia on the one hand, utter destruction and annihilation on the other. Between ubiquitous energy — too cheap to meter, and the electromagnetic pulse. Between the futuristic nuclear powered Jetson's World, and the dank coldness of the fallout shelter. Even sixty years after the announcement of the plan to turn nuclear fission into a force for good, the world today stands on the brink of war over this very issue, only this time — in Iran.

Iran's nuclear program began in 1957 with US help through the "Atoms for Peace" initiative. It signed the NPT and began building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, with plans to build some 20 more to meet the growing energy needs of its expanding population. Things seemed to be progressing alright until the Iranian Revolution in 1979 when Khomeini took power and, citing religious objections, ended the nuclear program. Shortly afterwards war broke out between Iran and Iraq and the program was resumed (with IAEA involvement) presumably due to the possible deterrent benefit a nuclear program could offer against the American backed Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When 9/11 happened Iran responded by offering to help the US with their effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, since Saddam and the Taliban were shared enemies of Iran and the USA. Iran's offers were ignored. Then came Bush's infamous announcement of Iran as a part of the Axis of Evil, setting an ominous tone for things to come with the already troubled relationship between the countries. Accusations that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program began to emerge, and in response Iran volunteered to temporarily suspend all uranium enrichment and to sign additional protocols allowing even closer monitoring (see the Paris Agreement). These voluntary confidence building measures were to continue for a proposed six month period till the IAEA could fully investigate the charges and the west could propose an agreement with objective ways Iran could satisfy the west that its program was purely peaceful. The IAEA's investigation did find some reporting discrepancies, yet they ultimately concluded there was no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. Six months then dragged into two years and the west never came up with ways Iran could prove its program was peaceful. Finally they just extended an offer that Iran would permanently cease enrichment, effectively giving up it's right under the NPT. Of course Iran refused this offer and, citing its inalienable right to do so, resumed enriching under the supervision of the IAEA. The matter was then referred to the UN Security Council who ordered Iran to cease all enrichment, Iran refused, and ever since then this standoff has been the central point of contention, with Iran refusing to give up its right under the NPT and the west escalating sanctions and threatening direct military action against Iran for "failing to meet its international obligations."

And what does the intelligence have to say about Iran's nuclear program? Since 2003 the IAEA has continuously reported that it has been able to "verify the non-diversion (to non-peaceful purposes) of declared nuclear material in Iran" and with continued intensive monitoring, has maintained that position to this day. Affirming the IAEA's reports are the National Intelligence Estimates, the most authoritative intelligence reports in the United States representing the consensus of all 16 of its intelligence agencies, who released reports in 2003, 2007, and 2010 affirming with a high level of confidence that Iran currently has no nuclear weapons program. In addition to the IAEA and NIE reports are the statements by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Ronald Burgess, President Barack Obama and his National Security Council, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and Military Intelligence Director Aviv Kochavi (to name a few), all affirming that Iran currently has no nuclear weapons program.

The intelligence seems to reflect the supreme leader of Iran Khamenei's explicit statements that "The Iranian nation will never pursue nuclear weapons…. [Iran] logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous." It was on these same grounds that Iran refused to retaliate with chemical weapons during the Iran/Iraq war even though they were being used against them with horrific consequence. Iran has also repeatedly made proposals for a nuclear weapons free zone in the middle east, but their proposals have been continually rejected by Iran's nuclear armed neighbors.

Sixty years after the Atoms for Peace program and the NPT were proposed as the solution to the colossal nuclear dilemma the Iran issue raises serious doubts as to whether it is a pragmatically viable solution after all. Iran is a nation whose nuclear program was started under the Atoms for Peace program, who immediately signed the NPT, who is under the direct 24/7 supervision of the IAEA, and who (according to the intelligence) has no nuclear weapons program… yet demands are being made that it completely give up its right to enrich or its nuclear facilities will be bombed. In the meantime it is being subjected to heavy sanctions (arguably worse than being nuked), its nuclear facilities are being sabotaged with computer viruses, its nuclear scientists are being assassinated, and it is frequently subjected to threats of direct military action, of even being nuked, all to prevent the possibility that one day its peaceful program might be turned into a nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile the only four nations in the world who are not signatories to the NPT (North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel) all have nuclear weapons and no IAEA oversight (though India allows inspections of it's civilian program). Despite this not only are they not subjected to the same treatment but some of them have received significant assistance from the United States with their nuclear programs in direct contravention of the NPT's non-proliferation clause. Add to that the failure of the nuclear armed states to actually disarm and all three points of the NPT have been disregarded. Disarmament? Nah, instead the US just spent several hundred billion updating its nukes. Non-proliferation? Nah, the US can proliferate to Israel, Pakistan, and India. Right to a peaceful program? Nah, not for Iran.

While the US brazenly disregards the NPT, it threatens to pre-emptively bomb Iran (a compliant NPT signatory) for exercising its right under the NPT. These actions completely undermine the NPT and if nothing else make plausible Iran's claims that the NPT is selectively applied and that the IAEA and UNSC have been politicized by the nuclear weapons states as a tool in the larger realpolitik struggle for power and hegemony. And that anything that passes for negotiations are simply attempts to give diplomatic cover to this strategy.

Dream or a nightmare? Gentleman or a monster? Redeemable or damned without hope? The NPT, the supposed panacea to the problems introduced by the discovery of nuclear fission, has been so embraced as the way to peace that the logo for nuclear disarmament has now become the internationally recognized peace symbol. Yet who would contest that this messiah has failed to deliver, that it is highly unlikely that nuclear weapons states will ever disarm, and that the nuclear dilemma remains one of the greatest problems facing the world today? Maybe it's time to reexamine the assumed solution. Maybe its time for another paradigm shift. And maybe you could make your mark in history by helping find it.

Kaleb Matson [send him mail] is the founder of InceptionHouse, a pro-liberty media production firm.

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