As multilateral negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and international sanctions continue in Vienna, it is important to remember that, for Iran, this is not about nuclear weapons, but rather the domestic production and control over nuclear energy.*
Iran has officially forsworn any interest in nuclear weapons - constantly and consistently - since it restarted its nuclear program in the early 1980s.1 Iran's desire for the indigenous mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and control over its own supply chain was never a secret. It's eventual purchase of nuclear technology on the black market and decision to enrich uranium domestically was a last resort, born of a deliberate American policy to deny Iran the very nuclear infrastructure acknowledged as an "inalienable right" and international cooperation guaranteed in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Article IV of the NPT clearly states that all signatories to the agreement "undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy" and that nuclear superpowers such as the United States, are obligated to help "non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty," such as Iran, to acquire and utilize nuclear energy through direct cooperation or multinational consortia, "with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world."
The American effort to deny Iran of nuclear technology, long couched as an effort to stop potential nuclear weapons programs, thus placed illegal restrictions on Iran's technological and scientific development. This has been public knowledge since at least 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department admitted to having "no evidence Iran has repudiated or violated its pledge under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to place its nuclear activities under international safeguards to prevent their use in the production of bombs," the Reagan administration (which was actively aiding Iranian exiles intent on overthrowing Khomeini's government and providing military and intelligence support for Saddam Hussein) imposed an embargo on nuclear-related trade with Iran. Citing its mistrust of Iranian intentions, the State Department declared in a press release that "the United States will not consent to the transfer of U.S. nuclear technology to Iran. In addition, we have asked other nuclear suppliers not to engage in nuclear co-operation with Iran, especially while the Iran-Iraq war continues."
Still, the release noted that Iran's nascent nuclear program posed no immediate danger. After all, it said, "light-water reactors are not particularly suitable for a weapons program" and "there is no evidence of construction [in Iran] of facilities needed to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel."
Years later, Reagan's successor followed suit. In early 1991, The Los Angeles Times reported that the "[George H.W.] Bush Administration and its allies are quietly launching a new international effort aimed at making it more difficult for such countries as Iraq and Iran to buy the high-tech items needed to develop nuclear weapons," which purposefully affected trade in "so-called 'dual-use' goods--items that, while they have other legitimate uses, are also important components for a program to develop nuclear weapons."
That same year, however, Hans Blix, then-Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made it clear that there was "no cause for concern" regarding Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear technology.
The following year, in 1992, IAEA inspections in Iran found no evidence of illegal nuclear activity. After visiting numerous nuclear sites, chief inspector Jon Jennekens announced that "everything that we have seen is for the peaceful application of nuclear energy and ionizing radiation." He told the press, "We visited without any restriction everything we had asked to see. All nuclear activities in Iran are solely for peaceful purpose."
Nevertheless, in Senate testimony delivered early that year, then-CIA director Robert Gates (who later served as Defense Secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), claimed that Iran "has not abandoned the goal of one day leading the Islamic world and reversing the global dominance of Western culture and technology." Gates admitted, however, that "most of these technologies are so-called dual use technologies—that is, they have legitimate civilian applications. This makes it difficult to restrict trade in them because we would be limiting the ability of developing nations to modernize."
The American policy of denial has long been met with Iranian accusations of hypocrisy and monopoly. As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told CNN's Christiane Amanpour only a month after his first inauguration:
We're against "nuclear apartheid," which means some have the right to possess it, use the fuel, and then sell it to another country for 10 times its value. We're against that. We say clean energy is the right of all countries. But also it is the duty and the responsibility of all countries, including ours, to set up frameworks to stop the proliferation of [nuclear weapons].Years later, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, condemned as "unacceptable" the "monopolization of technology and science and nuclear apartheid," which he said "is in stark contrast to the undeniable rights of countries based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the agency's Articles of Association."
This frustration is shared across political lines. At a May 2014 meeting of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, President Hassan Rouhani declared, "We are after our national interests, and we will not accept nuclear or scientific apartheid," adding, "In the direction of science, knowledge and progress, the Atomic Energy Organization had no choice but to stand on its own feet for its scientific goals and technological achievements."
Yet critics of diplomacy with Iran and those whose interests lie with promoting Netanyahu-inspired fear-mongering often ask why Iran - a country with reportedly the planet's fourth largest oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves (if not more) - should be so intent on developing a nuclear sector.
The answer to the question of why an oil-rich nation would want nuclear energy, however, is simple: in order to compete on an international stage, Iran must vastly diversify its energy policy. With a growing population and a developing economy, energy demands are rapidly increasing. Oil and gas, Iran's leading natural resources (and which are finite), must be available for export to foreign markets, not merely used for energy domestically, in order to fuel Iran's economy. Therefore, for domestic use, Iran has long sought different energy sources, from nuclear to solar to wind.
The Iranian government has long made this very argument. On November 18, 2005, a full-page message was published in the New York Times, outlining Iran's position with regard to its nuclear program. "Although it is true that Iran is rich in oil and gas, these resources are finite and, given the pace of Iran's economic development, they will be depleted within two to five decades," the message said. With a growing population, "Iran has no choice but to seek access to more diversified and secure sources of energy," it read, adding that "the youthfulness of the Iranian population, with around 70% under 30, doesn't allow complacency when it comes to energy policy. To satisfy such growing demands, Iran can't rely exclusively on fossil energy. Since Iranian national economy is still dependent on oil revenue, it can't allow the ever increasing domestic demand affect the oil revenues from the oil export."
After leaving his post as Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif (now Iran's foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator), published a paper entitled, "Tackling the Iran-U.S. Crisis: The Need for a Paradigm Shift," in the Spring/Summer issue of the Journal of International Affairs in 2007. In it, he wrote at length about the need for a diversified energy policy in Iran:
A review of objective facts would establish Iran's need for alternative sources of energy, including nuclear energy. According to a recently released study by the National Academy of Science, "Iran's energy demand growth has exceeded its supply growth," and therefore, "Iran's oil export will decline," or even "could go to zero within 12-19 years." The study acknowledges that Iran's need for nuclear power is "genuine, because Iran relies on...proceeds from oil exports for most revenues, and could become politically vulnerable if exports decline." Nuclear reactors, the report adds, "will substitute for the power now generated by petroleum, thus, freeing petroleum for export." Many other U.S. and western experts have reached the same conclusions. In fact, Iran's current plans to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity by 2020 may save Iran 190 million barrels of crude oil every year or nearly $14 billion annually.
From an environmental perspective, more Western utilities are looking to nuclear power "because of the prospect of controls on fossil-fuel generated power, while possible climate-change legislation wouldn't affect nuclear power, which doesn't generate the same pollutants.""Therefore," Zarif continued, "Iran's nuclear program is neither ambitious nor economically unjustifiable. Diversification—including the development of nuclear energy—is the only sound and responsible energy strategy for Iran. Moreover, Iran's energy diversification strategy is not concentrated solely on nuclear energy, but encompasses various other alternative and renewable sources."
This was, and remains, true.
In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that "Iran has the largest installed renewable-energy capacity in the Middle East." The Iranian government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting clean energy projects. "The government sees renewables as a way to alleviate pollution, a common problem in congested cities such as Tehran. It also sees an opportunity for Iran to reduce its oil dependency," wrote the Journal.
Iran has an official Renewable Energy Organization (SUNA), is an exporter of wind energy, and already has dozens of hydroelectric power plants and a number of operational solar power plants around the country, including one near Shiraz and another near Yazd, which is reportedly the world's first combined cycle plant that uses both natural gas and solar energy.
In 2011, Iranian media reported that Iran's largest solar plant had opened near Mashhad which was said to "produce enough electricity to power Khorassan province's Regional Electric Company building" and was "expected to generate 72,000 kilowatt hours of electrical power each year." A small wind-solar hybrid power plant is also said to have been installed on the Persian Gulf island Kharg.
The same year, Iran's Energy Minister Majid Namjou said that, by 2015, Iran planned to generate more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable energy resources. Plus, if a joint American and Iranian workshop back in 2010 is any indication, it appears that Iran is very receptive to increasing their solar energy capacity.
Indeed, independent analysts agree with the Iranian assessment of its energy needs - including nuclear power.
"[W]hy should Iran deplete its nonrenewable oil and gas sources when it can, much like the energy-rich United States and Russia, resort to renewable nuclear energy?" asked a New York Times oped on October 14, 2003. "Nuclear reactors have their problems, and they will not resolve Iran's chronic shortage of electricity. Yet they represent an important first step in diversifying Iran's sources for energy." The authors lamented, "Sadly, with their fear of an Iranian bomb, the United States and some of its Western allies have failed to acknowledge Iran's legitimate quest for nuclear energy."
In 2004, even the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of Britain's parliament said that based on a study it commissioned: "It is clear... that the arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side." A 2006 Energy Tribune article argued that, "given Iran's ongoing energy struggles, it makes sense, both economically and from an energy point of view, for the country to be pursuing nuclear power." A 2007 essay published in the journal Atoms For Peace noted, "Rapid growth in Iran's domestic energy demand and its dependence on oil exports for revenue has forced it to consider alternative future energy solutions."
A 2009 Foreign Policy article by Christopher de Bellaigue, for instance, concurs with these conclusions when directly challenging the claim that "Iran Has No Use for Nuclear Power." De Bellaigue writes that this is "False," and goes on to explain:
Iran is the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves. But its energy needs are rising faster than its ability to meet them. Driven by a young population and high oil revenues, Iran's power consumption is growing by around 7 percent annually, and its capacity must nearly triple over the next 15 years to meet projected demand.
Where will the electricity come from? Not from the oil sector. It is retarded by U.S. sanctions, as well as inefficiency, corruption, and Iran's institutionalized distrust of Western investors. Since 1995, when the sector was opened to a handful of foreign companies, Iran has added 600,000 barrels per day to its crude production, enough to offset depletion in aging fields, but not enough to boost output, which has stagnated at around 3.7 million barrels per day since the late 1990s. Almost 40 percent of Iran's crude oil is consumed locally. If this figure were to rise, oil revenues would fall, spelling the end of the strong economic growth the country has enjoyed since 1999. Plugging the gap with natural gas is not possible — yet. Iran's gigantic gas reserves are only just being tapped, so Iran remains a net importer.Beyond mere population metrics and potential energy needs, the national mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle is seen by Iran's government as vital for scientific progress and sustainability. In a September 9, 2004 interview with the Financial Times, Iran's then-representative to the IAEA Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT-educated physicist, made this clear:
Nuclear technology, of you are able to master it, opens the way to other technologies, because you are dealing with the highest limits of engineering – the highest pressures, highest temperatures, the highest material properties. This know-how can be used in other industries.
With technology you cannot have big jumps. You can't suddenly expect an underdeveloped country to send a rocket to the moon.
Nuclear technology would give us the base for future technology in fusion, which is the ultimate answer to unlimited supply of energy for human beings. If you do not, [and] fusion comes in 20 to 30 years, you will be totally ignorant.But there's something else.
A decade ago, Dick Cheney himself voiced the age-old line about Iran, a hydrocarbon-rich country, not needing alternative sources of energy. "They're already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas," he said. "Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy." Henry Kissinger echoed this sentiment in an oped, writing that "that "for a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources."
But here's the rub: in the mid-1970s, the Ford administration (in which Kissinger, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz themselves held high-level positions) was heavily in favor of Iran's decision - under the Shah - to pursue nuclear energy. A 2005 Washington Post article by Dafna Linzer tells the tale.
Ford's team commended Iran's decision to build a massive nuclear energy industry, noting in a declassified 1975 strategy paper that Tehran needed to "prepare against the time -- about 15 years in the future -- when Iranian oil production is expected to decline sharply."
Estimates of Iran's oil reserves were smaller then than they are now, but energy experts and U.S. intelligence estimates continue to project that Iran will need an alternative energy source in the coming decades. Iran's population has more than doubled since the 1970s, and its energy demands have increased even more.
The Ford administration -- in which Cheney succeeded Rumsfeld as chief of staff and Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation issues at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency -- continued intense efforts to supply Iran with U.S. nuclear technology until President Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford in 1977.
In 1975, as secretary of state, Kissinger signed and circulated National Security Decision Memorandum 292, titled "U.S.-Iran Nuclear Cooperation," which laid out the administration's negotiating strategy for the sale of nuclear energy equipment projected to bring U.S. corporations more than $6 billion in revenue. At the time, Iran was pumping as much as 6 million barrels of oil a day, compared with an average of about 4 million barrels daily today.
The shah, who referred to oil as "noble fuel," said it was too valuable to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the "introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."Of course, because the Shah was a good friend to the US government at the time, the issue of nuclear proliferation never even came up.
In early 2012, Michael Hayden, George W. Bush's CIA and NSA chief, confirmed that opposition to Iran's domestic nuclear program has nothing to do with proliferation fears or international law, but rather regional hegemony, impunity and regime change.
"It's not so much that we don't want Iran to have a nuclear capacity, it's that we don't want this Iran to have it," Hayden told a gathering of analysts, experts and journalists at the Center for the National Interest. "Slow it down long enough and maybe the character [of the Iranian government] changes."
Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said much the same at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. the following month. "When there is a secular and democratic Iran, let them have all the technologies in the world, whatever they like. Not this regime," he said.
Now, years later, regime change remains the ultimate goal of those opposed to a diplomatic solution to this decades-long impasse.
Such is the lie that is the "Iranian nuclear crisis," the bogus propaganda ploy to exert power over one of the only nations on the planet to, three and a half decades ago, successfully break its imperial chains and pursued its own path. It has nothing to do with Iranian proliferation or power generation and everything to do with American and Israeli power projection.
Let's hope this nonsense is soon behind us all.
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Updated to include more information regarding the Reagan administration's nuclear embargo on Iran.
* This should go without saying, but I find it necessary to point out that I am in no way an advocate of nuclear energy. Clearly, it is not the greatest or safest form of energy production in the world; but that's not the issue here. Nuclear power is very real and widely utilized, promoted and guaranteed via the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Arguing against nuclear power is probably a good idea, but until all nuclear power is done away with, Iran has just as much right to pursue it as any other sovereign nation. (Return to article)
1 UPDATE - July 16, 2015: As a note in the comments on this article points out, the Shah's nuclear program was mothballed by the nascent leadership of Iran shortly after the revolution in 1979. The Khomeini government derided the nuclear project as "imperialistic," namely due to its close association (and inception by) the United States. This was the primarily impetus for its being put on the back-burner. Indeed, by April 1979, the AEOI was virtually defunded and by July 1979, work on Bushehr ground to a halt when Iran's European partners reneged on their construction contracts. Much of Iran's nuclear program was effectively put on hold.
But not all of it.
Even in April 1979, Iranian media reported on the continuation of building an (albeit smaller scale) nuclear industry than what the Shah had envisioned. On April 9, 1979, an interview with Fereydoun Sahabi, Iran's Deputy Minister of Energy and Supervisor of AEOI, broadcast on national radio revealed that the organization would "be cut back on a wide scale." Nevertheless, work on Bushehr was at that time still expected to proceed and "the Atomic Energy Organization's activities regarding prospecting and extraction of uranium would continue."
Following constant electricity shortages that plagued Iran in the early years after the revolution, official Iranian policy began to change with regard to alternative sources of energy. What really revitalized government interest in the nuclear program was the "discovery of huge uranium deposits in four places in Iran" in late 1981. Far from being a boon to a nefarious and clandestine project, this discovery was also announced on national radio, with the new head of AEOI, Reza Amrollah, noting "that the organization is to follow up with a detailed programme for nuclear research and scientific study."
About three months later, Iranian state media outlet IRNA reported that, according to the head of the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTEC), "Iran was taking concrete measures for importing nuclear technology, while at the same time utilizing Iranian expertise in the field. He said the decision was made in the wake of discovery of uranium resources in the country and after Iran's capability for developing the industry had been established." The report even outlined ambitious Iranian plans for "developing nuclear capability" in short-term, mid-term, and long-term phases.
Shortly thereafter, as the United States became heavily involved in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. policy of denying Iran of nuclear technology and assistance was implemented, leading the the further deterioration of Iran's previous business relationships with European partners like Eurodif.
The next year, in 1983, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization invited the IAEA to visit ENTEC and the Tehran Nuclear Research Center and requested assistance from the IAEA in resuming its research in domestic uranium enrichment and possibly setting up a pilot enrichment plant. As soon as the U.S. government got wind of such potential cooperation, it "directly intervened," demanding the IAEA cease all assistance to Iran (in contravention of the basic tenets of the NPT). "We stopped that in its tracks," said a former U.S. official years later. Following American obstruction, "the IAEA dropped plans to help Iran on fuel production and uranium conversion."
Nevertheless, Iran pushed forward with its research, and in 1985 discovered even more uranium deposits near Yazd. Amrollah, according to the BBC at the time, "stressed" that "the availability of uranium will be a big help to the economic infrastructure of the country."
As I point out above, by the early 1990s, the IAEA was appraised of Iran's progress, had visited Iran's uranium mines, and found "no cause for concern."
Following Iran's declaration of its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz to the IAEA, and its announcement in February 2003 that it would begin domestically mining uranium at Saghand for an indigenous enrichment program, IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming told the press, "This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992."
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