Iran needs nuclear energy, not weapons
Le Monde diplomatique Nov 2005
After recent provocative statements from Tehran, the International
Atomic Energy Agency will discuss Iran's nuclear programme again this
month, and could decide to report the country to the UN Security
Council. But is US pressure on Iran about suspected weapons programmes,
or is it really about securing a western monopoly on nuclear energy?
By Cyrus Safdari
English version: http://mondediplo.com/2005/11/02iran
Farsi version: http://ir.mondediplo.com/article769.html
IF YOU read the media coverage of the presentation given to the United
Nations General Assembly on 17 September by the Iranian president,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you could be forgiven for picturing him pounding
his shoe on the podium, old Soviet-style, and yelling "We will bury
you!" Press reports on this speech in the United States described him
as "threatening", "aggressive" and "unyielding". Dafna
Linzer of the Washington Post went so far as to claim that he had said
that Americans "brought the devastation of Hurricane Katrina upon
Why was his speech presented in this way? The usual pundits who
dominate US newspaper column inches and television talk shows would
reply that Iran is not to be trusted because it ran a clandestine
nuclear enrichment programme, dramatically exposed in 2002. Like
previous assertions on Iraqi weapons, this claim has been conveniently
stripped of significant nuances, and has assumed fact status through
mindless repetition. It deserves more careful scrutiny.
First, we should note the technical details of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Uranium is sold all over the world as yellowcake, which typically
contains 70%-90% uranium oxide. It is then purified to obtain uranium
hexafluoride. Iran already carries out these transformations under the
supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The final
stage is known as enrichment, a process that generates a sufficient
amount (3%) of one isotope, uranium 235, to produce nuclear power. To
be used in a weapon, the proportion has to reach 90% U-235. Article IV
of the Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (better known
as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT) guarantees the "inalienable
right of all the parties to the treaty to develop research, production
and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes". Signatory countries
have the right to enrich uranium.
A review of nuclear industry literature shows that if Iran's uranium
enrichment programme was ever clandestine, it was a poorly guarded
secret. Tehran's intentions to obtain the full nuclear cycle date
from the 1970s, when its nuclear energy programme was set up in
cooperation with the US and some European governments. In 1974 the Ford
administration offered to contribute directly (2), and Iran continued
to work on the fuel cycle until the 1979 revolution. In 1981 the new
government decided to continue Iran's nuclear energy projects, and in
1982 Iranian officials announced that they planned to build a reactor
powered by their own uranium at the Isfahan nuclear technology centre.
The IAEA inspected that and other facilities in Iran in 1983, and
planned to assist Iran in converting yellowcake into reactor fuel. The
IAEA report stated clearly that its aim was to "contribute to the
formation of local expertise and manpower needed to sustain an
ambitious programme in the field of nuclear power reactor technology
and fuel cycle technology". But the agency's assistance programme
was terminated under US pressure (3).
In 1984 Iranian radio announced that negotiations with Niger on the
purchase of uranium were nearing conclusion, and in 1985 another
broadcast openly discussed the discovery of uranium deposits in Iran
with the director of Iran's atomic energy organisation (4). An IAEA
spokesman, Melissa Flemming, confirmed in 1992 that its inspectors had
visited the mines and Iran had announced plans to develop the full
nuclear fuel cycle (5).
Tehran had openly entered into negotiations with several nations,
including Brazil, Russia, India, Argentina, Germany, Ukraine and Spain,
for the purchase of nuclear energy facilities and components. Almost
all of these deals ultimately fell through after pressure from
Washington. The Chinese informed the IAEA of plans to build a uranium
enrichment facility in Iran in 1996, and when they too pulled out under
US pressure, the Iranians informed the IAEA that they would continue
the project none the less. Iran's nuclear efforts were not entirely
After Tehran agreed to implement the NPT's additional protocol (which
allows the IAEA to carry out more intrusive inspections), an IAEA
report did find that Iran had failed in the past to report "nuclear
material, its processing and use, as well as the declaration of
facilities where such material had been processed and stored". But
subsequent IAEA reports stated that Iran had taken "corrective
actions" about many of the failures, and that "good progress has
been made in Iran's correction of breaches". The remaining
unresolved issues would be "followed up as a routine safeguard
implementation matter". The Iranians blame US obstructionism for
making them resort to secrecy in obtaining technology to which they
were entitled under the NPT (6).
The US assertion that the programme was intended for weapons production
is flimsy. In 1995 Thomas Graham, Washington's chief negotiator for
the extension of the NPT, had to admit that the US had seen no actual
evidence of an existing weapons programme in Iran (7). Ten years later
that is still the case. In March 2005 the New York Times reported that
an intelligence review commission report to President Bush had
described US intelligence on Iran as "inadequate to allow firm
judgments about Iran's weapons programs" (8). Despite almost three
years of intensive inspections under the additional protocol, the IAEA
has yet to find any evidence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iran.
According to Article 19 of Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA,
the agency may refer Iran to the UN Security Council if it is "unable
to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material required
to be safeguarded under this agreement, to nuclear weapons or other
nuclear explosive devices". The IAEA has reported that all declared
fissile material in Iran has been accounted for, and none has been
diverted. So why, in September 2005, did it state that there was an
"absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively
for peaceful purposes"?
Why does the IAEA claim that it is not in a position to guarantee that
there are no "undeclared facilities" in Iran after all these
Students of rhetoric are familiar with this pattern. Others may
recognise it from its application to Iraq. The US used the dramatic and
over-hyped exposure of Iran's nuclear enrichment programme to
transfer the burden of proof: it is now up to Tehran to refute the
charge of secretly building nuclear weapons. Through a campaign of
innuendo and fallacious argument in the US media, the Bush
administration has changed the accusation, making it almost impossible
for Iran to refute the charge.
Iran struggled to meet the challenge by implementing the additional
protocol, permitting expanded inspections and suspending uranium
enrichment. But at each step the finishing line was moved farther away.
Iran is now in the position of having to prove the impossible: that it
does not have secret weapons facilities magically immune to years of
IAEA inspections, and that it could not use legitimate nuclear
technology to make weapons in the indefinite future. In this manner,
accompanied by the exercise of political strongarm tactics over the
members of the IAEA board of governors, the Bush administration almost
managed to have Tehran referred to the UN Security Council.
According to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the
foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany (known as the EU-3 in
their negotiations with Tehran on this subject), Iran is to be denied
enrichment capacity regardless of whether IAEA inspectors have found
actual evidence of a weapons programme in Iran. Why? Because the
technology could be used to make bombs. In this form the accusation
against Iran is almost irrefutable: practically any advanced technology
could be used in a nuclear programme. Iran has allegedly been just five
years away from building nukes for the past 25 years.
To claim that Iran should not obtain technology which could be used for
nuclear weapons is contrary to the NPT, which encourages "the fullest
possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and
technological information". It also undermines the IAEA's
inspection regime, since the IAEA cannot be expected to predict what
technology will or will not be used for in future years.
The political nature of the IAEA's decision about Iran is clear when
compared with the treatment accorded to South Korea and Egypt, two
allies of the US. Both were caught red-handed conducting secret nuclear
experiments over several years. They got no more than a slap on the
wrist from the IAEA (9). Speculation that either could one day build
bombs or had "undeclared facilities" did not get them stripped of
their NPT rights.
The real Bush target
All this suggests that the emphasis on weapons proliferation is
exaggerated. The real targets of the Bush administration's nuclear
shenanigans are the economies of developing countries. The late 20th
century was an amazing period of growth and human achievement, much of
it fuelled by cheap oil from the Middle East, where it was directly or
indirectly monopolised by the imperial powers. Analysts agree that the
oil will not last forever, indeed, we may already have reached the
point of peak oil. The developing world will bear the brunt of the
imminent energy crunch. European countries already rely on nuclear
power for a third to a half of their electricity needs, and both France
and the US have invested in new enrichment plants. South Korea, China,
Britain and the US have all recently announced plans for dramatic
expansion of their nuclear power industries. Even Rice has conceded
that developing countries will have to turn to nuclear energy (10).
Iran is no exception. Despite its large oil and gas reserves, it
already had a clear case for diversifying its energy resources into
nuclear power by the 1970s. Since then its population has tripled,
while its oil production has almost halved, and it now consumes about
40% of its oil domestically. So when Bush jovially quips "Some of us
are wondering why they need civilian nuclear power anyway. They are
awash with hydrocarbons" (11), he is being disingenuous.
Iran has a legitimate economic case for using nuclear power, and the
means to manufacture the necessary fuel domestically. It also has the
legal right to do so. But the US and the European Union demand that
Iran and other countries abandon any indigenous capabilities and rely
solely on western fuel suppliers to power their economy. This is like
Iran demanding that Britain drop all exploitation of North Sea oil and
rely solely on the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries for
its energy needs. Under the guise of non-proliferation, the EU and the
US are not only undermining the grand bargain between nuclear-armed and
non-nuclear armed states that is the NPT; they also want to create an
underclass of nuclear energy have-nots, concentrating what could become
the world's sole major source of energy in the hands of the few
nations that have granted themselves the right to it.
Iran presents a convenient opportunity to set a precedent to be used
against other aspirants for nuclear power in the developing world. That
is why Ahmadinejad was denounced as an uncompromising hardliner in the
coverage of his UN presentation. But he did in fact suggest a
compromise deal. While defending Iran's sovereign right to produce
nuclear power using indigenously enriched uranium, and enumerating the
reasons why Iran cannot rely on promises of foreign-supplied reactor
fuel to power its economy, he proposed to operate Iran's enrichment
programme as joint ventures with private and public sector firms from
other countries, to ensure that the programme remained transparent and
could not be secretly diverted for military purposes. This was no small
offer. It closely resembled a proposal previously put to the IAEA by a
committee of experts looking into the risk that nuclear technology
developed for peaceful purposes might be diverted to non-peaceful uses
Instead of discussing this proposal, or looking for any workable
solution, US, Israeli and EU officials continue to insist that the only
acceptable objective guarantee of non-proliferation is to close what
they describe as the loophole in Article IV of the treaty. These
countries want to see the article re-interpreted to deny developing
nations the right to indigenous nuclear enrichment technology. There
has been a flurry of activity by US-based analysts and thinktanks
seeking to legitimise this approach by characterising Article IV as too
vaguely worded to be taken seriously. The EU's foreign affairs
spokesman, Robert Cooper, opts for outright denial: "There is no such
This is a problematic interpretation of the treaty. If the right to
enrich uranium is either non-existent or too vaguely stated in the NPT,
then by what right do signatory nations such as Japan enrich uranium?
For US pundits, the answer to this is: "Iran is not Japan. Japan
recognises all its neighbours; Iran does not accept the existence of
Israel" (14). Since when was the exercise of an inalienable right
conditional on the recognition of Israel? The suggestion is ironic:
Israel is a nuclear-armed non-signatory to the NPT, and regularly
threatens to bomb Iran's civilian nuclear sites.
Former US president Jimmy Carter once famously dismissed reminders of
the US's CIA-engineered 1953 coup in Iran, which ousted the
democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, after he
decided to nationalise Iran's oil resources, as "ancient
history". But it is not ancient history to Iranians, who still
harbour a deep sense of betrayal. Iran is a proud nation with a long
history, and it is a history of deep resentment against foreign powers
that tried to control Iran. Iranians, from pro-western liberals to
fundamentalists, have come to view the nuclear technology issue as a
matter of national pride. Even if there were regime change in Iran, the
future regime would be just as likely to pursue a nuclear programme as
the current one is (and the previous one was). By insisting on
humiliating Iran and depriving it of its nuclear technology
achievements, the US can only undermine its own interests.
(1) "Iran's president does what US diplomacy could not",
Washington Post, 19 September 2005. This is what President Ahmadinejad
actually said: "If global trends continue to serve the interests of
small influential groups, even the interests of the citizens of
powerful countries will be jeopardised, as was seen in the recent
crises and even natural disasters such as the recent tragic
hurricane". However, the problem has been compounded by his recent
much-publicised call for Israel to be wiped from the map.
(2) Shahid-ur-Rehman Khan, "US under Ford offered Iran closed fuel
cycle capabilities", Nucleonics Week, vol 45, No 45, 4 November 2004.
(3) Mark Hibbs, "US in 1983 stopped IAEA from helping Iran make UF6",
Nuclear Fuel, 4 August 2003.
(4) "Uranium find", BBC Monitoring Service: Middle East, 22 January
(5) Associated Press, 10 February 2003 and "Front End nuclear
capability being developed", Nuclear Engineering International, 31
(6) "NPT blamed for secrecy", Nuclear Engineering International, 29
(7) Mark Hibbs, "Iran has 'no programme to produce fissile
material' ", Nucleonics Week, 2 February 1995.
(8) New York Times, 9 March 2005.
(9) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, January-February 2005, vol 61, no
(10) Financial Times, London, 19 September 2005.
(11) At a White House press conference, 13 September 2005.
(12) Bruno Pellaud, "Nuclear fuel cycle: which way forward for
multilateral approaches?", IAEA Bulletin Online, vol 46, no 2, 2004.
(13) Financial Times, Asia Edition, Hong Kong, 7 September 2005.
(14) George Perkovich, "For Tehran, nuclear program is a matter of
national pride", Yale Global, 21 March 2005.