Sunday, February 19, 2006 | 02/19/2006 | No easy way out of dangerous face-off: Iran decided long ago on nucler future | 02/19/2006 | No easy way out of dangerous face-off: Iran decided long ago on nucler future
Sun, Feb. 19, 2006, page 1P (Perspective)

No easy way out of dangerous face-off: Iran decided long ago on nucler future

By William O. Beeman
Despite the Bush administration's apparent success in reporting the question of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, few believe that this action alone will deter Iran from continuing its pursuit of nuclear development.
Military options against Iran, meanwhile, may not be ``off the table'' but are proving increasingly impractical, in part, because our troops are bogged down in Iraq. So the Bush administration appears to be trying a new tack: If force won't work, perhaps persuasion will.
The administration's idea appears to be to convince the Iranian people that their nation would be better off without a nuclear program, peaceful or not. Iranian citizens would presumably persuade their leaders that international good will is more important than nuclear development, or better yet from a Washington perspective, change their leadership altogether.
Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked the Senate to allocate tens of millions of dollars to help promote political change inside Iran by subsidizing dissident groups and reformers who the administration surely hopes would be more easily convinced to drop their country's nuclear program.
Here's the rub. Many Iranians view their nuclear program -- which they believe to be for peaceful energy purposes -- as a source of great national pride and of future economic growth.
Behind American concern about Iran's nuclear program is the belief that Iran is developing nuclear weapons to attack Israel. Pronouncements by Iran's newly elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have added to these concerns.
Ahmadinejad's calls for the elimination of the ``Zionist regime,'' and his declarations that European powers should have been responsible for rectifying the Holocaust rather than ``making Palestinians pay the price'' for that cataclysm, have sounded alarms throughout the world. His inflammatory rhetoric no doubt helped persuade France, Germany and Britain to finally agree with the longtime U.S. request to report Iran's case to the United Nations even as Russia continues to try to work out a compromise.
Rhetorical excesses
Iranians are still in the process of assessing their new president. Their principal concerns have to do with his rhetorical excesses, which thoughtful Iranians see as having damaged Iran's international reputation.
However, they are quite clear in what they think about his support for their nation's nuclear program. Although there is no accurate polling data, my interviews with Iranian citizens of all economic and social strata over two decades verify that they think the program is good for their country -- a feeling that is echoed in numerous recent international press reports from Iran.
In fact, Iranian public support for the nuclear energy program goes beyond merely thinking it is a good idea; the program has deep symbolic significance for them. Iranians view the development of nuclear energy as a hallmark of modernization and national pride. It is the latest development in a long history of industrialization efforts starting in the 19th century designed to demonstrate to the world that Iran is a progressive and capable society, able to keep pace with the most advanced nations on earth.
Iranians point out that nuclear energy makes profound economic sense for their nation. The nuclear energy program aims to use the nation's own uranium resources.
More important, nuclear energy development would allow Iran to husband its natural gas resources that are currently being exhausted for electricity generation, but that could much more profitably be exported to growing industrial markets such as China and India.
Indeed, the United States supported Iran's switching over to nuclear energy under our ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in good part so that Iran's oil and natural gas would be preserved.
Iranians, annoyed that that history is being ignored, correctly note that ``nuclear technology transfer'' was encouraged by both American government and American industry in the 1970s. President Gerald Ford offered Iran a full nuclear fuel cycle in 1976, and American nuclear plant manufacturers touted their wares at exhibitions and trade fares in Tehran.
The Iranian people also look with a jaundiced eye at the United States' motivations for pressing the world community to curtail Iran's nuclear energy development at this time and believe it to be the Bush administration's excuse to continue its promotion of ``regime change'' in the Middle East.
U.S. officials' opposition to Iran's nuclear development is seen by Iranians as a convenient pretext designed to frighten the world into a pre-emptive attack against the Islamic Republic.
Of all the reasons for pressing on with a nuclear program, the importance of the development of nuclear energy as an emanation of national pride and strength is the most powerful for the Iranian population.
Engineering and medicine are the premier professions in Iran. The best and brightest of Iranian youth dream of studying at the superb technological universities in the country.
And the development of nuclear energy would arguably be the premier accomplishment of Iranian engineers. It would prove that they can function, without help, on an international scale in advancing their country's technological and industrial base.
Along with the desire to achieve technological excellence, Iranians are also seething with ambition to achieve technological independence from the Western world. The industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries brought about Western dominance of the Middle East.
In the 20th century, the two great world wars combined with internal political strife to cripple the Iranian government at crucial junctures, throwing the nation even further into dependency on the West.
The reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi brought enormous, though short-lived, prosperity to the nation, but that prosperity was based on the sale of oil to the industrialized world and was superficial. The shah's government was profoundly unsuccessful in using that money to create other sources of wealth needed to transform Iran into the great world power desired by its people.
One of the reasons for this failure was the flawed partnership between the shah's government and the West. European and American industry was happy to cooperate with Iran in industrialization schemes, but these programs never provided Iran with the capacity for basic manufacturing. Industrial operations were largely turnkey assembly facilities designed to supply goods for internal Iranian consumption, with no possibility for export.
For this reason, Tehran's leaders began working with the Soviet Union and Japan in the 1970s to develop the basic industries they felt Iran needed to be a successful state. They developed a steel mill with the Soviet Union in Isfahan at enormous public cost and a petroleum refinery with Mitsui.
That history helps explain why Tehran is resisting a plan, suggested by Britain, Germany and France, that would allow Iran to have nuclear plants if Russia conducts the process to provide the enriched uranium to run the reactors and then repossesses the spent fuel rods.
That would alleviate outside fears that Iran would misuse its energy program to create nuclear weapons, but it smacks of the neo-colonial ``assembly industry'' so despised by the revolutionary forces in 1978-79.
Moreover, the insistence on the part of the West that Iran abandon full control of the fuel process is seen as a reneging on promises made by the United States and Europe to Iran's pre-revolutionary leaders.
Although Americans may see Iran as a different place after the revolution, Iranians see their civilization as a continuum. Pre-revolution or post-revolution, nuclear energy is seen as a matter of both pride and of benefit for the Iranian people.
The one nuclear power plant likely to be in operation soon is a tribute to this pride. The facility at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf Coast was developed with the Soviet Union, and later, with Russia.
It was conceived and started in the 1970s with the blessing of the United States. It was specifically designed to produce energy only, with no practical possibility for the production of weapons-grade nuclear material.
The plutonium isotope plutonium-239 is required for nuclear weapons manufacturing. A ``light water'' reactor, the Bushehr plant produces the isotopes plutonium-240, plutonium-241 and plutonium-242. Although these isotopes could theoretically be weaponized, the process is complicated, and more important, untried.
Behind nuclear fears
What worries nuclear experts more than a nuclear power plant itself is Iran's ability to make weapons-grade materials if it has full control over a nuclear power program.
There are two ways for Iran to get that material:
• One is to have what appears to be a peaceful uranium-enrichment program to make fuel for reactors, but that same program can be used to produce highly enriched uranium which is weapons-grade material.
• The second way is to build reactors that, unlike the one at Bushehr, produce a byproduct in fuel rods which, if processed, becomes weapons-grade plutonium.
Although some International Atomic Energy Agency evidence appears to indicate Iran is intent on using its nuclear program to make bombs, experts disagree about how definitive that evidence is.
That lack of clarity and Iran's history should give U.S. and European policy makers pause as they consider options to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, if that is truly the country's intent despite its statements to the contrary.
Economic sanctions against Iran, which could be imposed by the United Nations, would almost surely strengthen Iranian resolve to move forward with the nuclear program. And a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities -- a plan that both the United States and Israel have considered -- is unlikely to make the world safer.
Attacking the Bushehr plant would do nothing to prevent nuclear weapons development, since the plant is unlikely to produce weapons fuel. And U.S. military experts agree that an attack on Iran's other facilities would have little prospect of completely destroying Iran's nuclear bomb-making potential. While the world knows where some of Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities are, the fear is that integral parts of the program have been hidden.
The most certain outcome of an American or Israeli attack against Iran will be the white-hot fury of the Iranian people -- a fury that will be echoed throughout the region.
Iranians have a keen sense of honor, gheirat, and when national honor and pride are attacked, particularly when they believe the attack is unjustified, an explosive, angry reaction is culturally required.
Americans have seen angry Iranians before, to the detriment of the United States; but they have not seen anything as vitriolic as the probable Iranian reaction to an American assault on their soil.
WILLIAM O. BEEMAN is professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University. He is author of ``The `Great Satan' vs. the `Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.'' He wrote this article for Perspective.

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