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Iran Breakthrough a Triumph for Pragmatists and a Defeat for the Warmongers

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Posted on Jan 22, 2014

By Juan Cole

(Page 2)

Some Iranian hawks and engineers appear to have decided that even though they would never get permission to construct a weapon from the supreme theocrat (who is named by the Iranian constitution as commander in chief of the armed forces and of the security agencies), a nuclear program would still be useful. They appear to have believed that Iran would benefit from what has been called “the Japan option” or “nuclear latency” or “a breakout capacity.” This is the condition of being able to construct a nuclear weapon without actually doing so. Producing a nuclear weapon could make a country a pariah, as happened to North Korea, unless it had the firm backing of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which could veto sanctions (thus the U.S. holds Israel harmless, and Russia protected India after its 1974 test). Iran was too much of a maverick to hope for such a superpower patron. But just getting close enough to being able to make a bomb to deter an invasion or attempts at regime change was unlikely to provoke the same degree of isolation.

In addition, Iran was in danger of using so much of its own petroleum at home as to lose the income from exporting it. Unlike in the U.S., electricity in Iran is often generated by petroleum. As Iran industrializes, urbanizes and people begin driving more, all of Iran’s oil could end up being consumed domestically (as had already happened to Indonesia, formerly an exporter). Constructing nuclear plants to generate electricity, the route France, Japan and South Korea took, would ensure Iran’s energy independence and thus its political independence.

The nuclear program thus had two benefits, of fending off an invasion and of keeping Iran flush with oil profits. Given that Israel had promptly bombed Iraq’s French-built Osirak nuclear power plant in 1981 before it could go live, the Iranians involved in early enrichment activities before 2003 kept their program secret, which was technically a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran (unlike Israel, India or Pakistan) had signed. Regime opponents allied with Israel, probably the Mojahedin-e Khalq (The People’s Jihadis or MEK), infiltrated the nuclear program and blew the whistle on it late in 2002. Then-President Mohammad Khatami promptly acknowledged that Iran had some gas centrifuges for enriching uranium and had been experimenting with them toward making reactor fuel (uranium enriched to 5 percent or so). He also welcomed U.N. inspectors, who have been regularly scrutinizing the complex at Natanz ever since.

The apparent hopes of Iran’s pro-nuclear officials that they could get away with enrichment as long as they did not actually move toward a weapons program were misplaced. The Israeli leadership and its allies in the U.S. were determined to use the political support they had in Congress and in Western European governments to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Iran in hopes of getting it to drop the enrichment program (as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa had mothballed theirs). They were determined that Israel remain the only nuclear power in the Near East, and thus hegemonic in the region. Behind the scenes, and from a different angle, Saudi Arabia also pressured the Bush administration to stop the Iranian nuclear program, afraid that its success would make Tehran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, which Riyadh calls the Arab Gulf. One State Department cable released by WikiLeaks even maintained that the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., urged a military strike on Natanz.

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In response to ever-increasing sanctions, the quirky government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (president 2005-2013) upped the ante by enriching to 19.25 percent. This level was required for the small medical reactor given to Iran by the U.S. in 1969, which produced isotopes for treating cancer. But Ahmadinejad produced larger stockpiles of the 19.25 percent LEU (low enriched uranium, i.e., below 20 percent) than were required by the medical reactor, apparently as a bargaining chip. Those fearful of Iran’s weapons capacity were dismayed, since they reasoned that using gas centrifuges to get 19.25 percent enriched uranium to the 95 percent ideal for a bomb was easier than getting the 5 percent enriched stock to the same level. This reasoning may not be correct (nuclear enrichment is a complex subject that few politicians or journalists have really mastered), but the expressed anxiety level in Tel Aviv and Washington certainly increased.


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