Anatomy of the Current Conflict over Iran’s Nuclear Program


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“Iran’s nuclear program has a complex history. It began in the 1950s with President Eisenhower’s offer of training and technologies as part of his Atoms for Peace program, when it was widely believed that nuclear power could produce electricity “too cheap to meter.” In 1974, the Shah of Iran stated his belief that Iran’s oil reserves would eventually be depleted, and with German help initiated plans for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor…..”

Author: Joseph Gerson, American Friends Service Committee in New England
Published in: Oregon Herald (Internet)
Date: September 28, 2008

For the full article:
Anatomy of the Current Conflict over Iran’s Nuclear Program
(843 words)
by Joseph Gerson
Iran’s nuclear program has a complex history. It began in the 1950s with President Eisenhower’s offer of training and technologies as part of his Atoms for Peace program, when it was widely believed that nuclear power could produce electricity “too cheap to meter.” In 1974, the Shah of Iran stated his belief that Iran’s oil reserves would eventually be depleted, and with German help initiated plans for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor.

Building on the Nixon Doctrine, in which Iran became an enforcer of U.S. interests in the Middle East, in 1974 President Ford offered to build a nuclear reprocessing plant capable of producing plutonium at Bushehr. At the time, Dick Cheney was President Ford’s Chief of Staff, and Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense. Following Iran’s “Islamic Revolution”, the U.S. and several European nations ceased nuclear cooperation with Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s government suspended the nuclear program as an unnecessary continuation of the Shah’s policies.

Today, Iran’s nuclear program includes numerous research sites, a reactor at Natanz and an estimated 4,000 centrifuges that are enriching uranium to 4% to 5%, sufficient for nuclear power generation. Enrichment to more than 90% is required to make an atomic bomb.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which went into effect in 1972, was one of the most important international agreements of the 20th century. In exchange for the non-nuclear nations foreswearing ever becoming nuclear powers, the nuclear powers made treaty commitments to negotiate the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals (Article IV) and guaranteed all signatories – including Iran – “the inalienable right…to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…” Nations which have signed the NPT have the right to “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” (Article IV.)

Suspicions that Iran’s nuclear program might be designed to develop nuclear weapons in addition to being used for peaceful power generation began when, in 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported irregularities in its nuclear activities and that its had failed to fully cooperate with the IAEA. These, it reported, constituted violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. These concerns were compounded by the news that Iran had purchased centrifuges to enrich, by unconfirmed reports that the “father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb” had provided Iran’s government with an incomplete bomb design, and by Iran’s refusal to provide the IAEA with complete documentation of the history of its nuclear program.

In 2006, the United States, which has an arsenal of more than 9,000 nuclear weapons and which during wars and international crises has prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war at least forty times since the A-bombing of Nagasaki, convinced the United Nations Security Council to adopt Resolution 1696 demanding that Iran cease all enrichment and reprocessing activities. This was followed by U.N. sanctions, prohibiting the sales of nuclear fuel and equipment to Iran. These were over and above U.S. sanctions on trade and economic relations with Iran imposed following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Soon after the 2006 sanctions were adopted, the IAEA reported that Iran was not engaged in reprocessing. In the course of subsequent negotiations with European powers, Russia and China, Iran temporarily halted uranium enrichment, but as negotiations stalled, enrichment activities were resumed. And, despite the U.N. sanctions, Russia is providing Iran with equipment to help complete the construction of the Bushehr reactor.

The Iranian government has repeatedly rejected the condition that it halt uranium enrichment, insisting that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty accords it the “inalienable right” to low level enrichment necessary to create fuel for nuclear power generation and that it has no intention of developing highly enriched uranium. Iran’s Supreme Leader has repeatedly and publicly stated that possession and use of nuclear weapons violates Islamic teachings, and that Iran will never become a nuclear power.

To reinforce its demands that Iran halt its enrichment program, President Bush and Senators McCain and Obama have reiterated that “all options” which would include nuclear attack “must be on the table”, and the Bush Administration has reinforced this threat by deploying a nuclear capable fleet to the Persian Gulf. The Israeli government, which has an estimated arsenal of between 200 and 400 nuclear weapons, has also repeatedly threatened Iran with attack to ensure that it cannot become a nuclear power.

The United States has not pursued all of its diplomatic options. Despite calls by figures as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama that the U.S. engage unconditionally in negotiations with Iran, the Bush Administration has continued to insist that before it will negotiate with Iran about anything more than security in Iraq, it must first halt all uranium enrichment. It should also be recalled that the break through in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program came in the wake of U.S. assurances that it would not attack North Korea. Such an offer could have been conveyed via the European diplomats who have continued to negotiate with Tehran, but the U.S. refused to take such a step to reassure the Iranian government.

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England.