A doctor friend expressed concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Sixty years ago, some 250,000 people died when US atomic bombs fell over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You needn’t become a scientist to understand that radioactivity from nuclear bombs or malfunctioning power plants, like those at Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) and Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, 1979), can contaminate the environment for a very long time.
Nevertheless, since the devastating 1945 Japanese blasts and with full knowledge of what nuclear weapons produce, Washington continues to allocate $27 billion a year to maintain them and create new ones. The United Sates, Russia and England have more than 11,000 nuclear weapons. India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea have some 400 more.
No wonder my doctor friend and other informed people share nuclear concerns. In addition to the big nuclear states, terrorists controlled by fanatics might also detonate a dirty bomb. Al-Qaeda or whatever the fiends who did 9/11 call themselves could potentially radiate urban areas and spread panic.
What an array of dicey issues! The North Korean nuclear weapons program apparently proceeds as negotiations proceed – or don’t. A nuclear proliferation scandal dances along in Pakistan because A. Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, made extra cash by selling nuclear know-how to Iran, Libya, and who knows who else.
Reports abound that despite denials, Iran’s new hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to resume uranium conversion. Bush’s national security gang responding in panic has, according to reliable leaks, suggested an invasion of Iran, an air strike against its nuclear facilities, a Special Forces operation to take out the nuclear capability or some combination of the above. French President Jacques Chirac apparently offered to play front man for Washington and threatened Iran with UN Security Council sanctions if it resumed work on its plutonium processing (NY Times, Aug. 30).
Such stories provoke the question: how could Iran have obtained nuclear capabilities? Surely, those irresponsible former Soviet scientists must have sold them the technology, a colleague guessed. “Those people would sell anything after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Not quite! It was US policy, not anti-American Moslem fanaticism that led Iran directly into the nuclear age. In the late 1960s, Iran stood out as a model ally of the United States. After all, the ruling Shah owed the CIA after the Agency’s operatives ousted elected Premier Mossadegh’s government in 1953. CIA action followed Mossadegh’s declaration that he would nationalize foreign oil holdings. The Shah understood loyalty to those who reinstalled his “royal family” to dictatorial power.
His servility won him nuclear access. “The US and her allies were in fact the driving force behind the birth of Iran’s nuclear program in the late 1960s and early 1970s” (Mohammad Sahimi, Iran’s Nuclear Program. Part I: Its History October 2003). By 1974, the Shah, after consulting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, boasted that nuclear power plants in Iran would soon produce more than 20,000 megawatts of energy.
In the mid-1970s, led by Kissinger who saw in Iran a “platform state” to fight communism in the region, Washington proposed that The Shah expand his nuclear capacity by acquiring as many as twenty three nuclear reactors. According to Mohammad Sahimi, the work on the reactors began in 1974 with the help of MIT engineers who contracted to train Iranian nuclear technicians.
Sahimi cites a speech by Sydney Sober, a State Department official who in October 1977, “declared that the Shah’s government was going to purchase eight nuclear reactors from the US for generating electricity. On July 10, 1978, only seven months before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the final draft of the US-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed.
The agreement was supposed to facilitate cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and to govern the export and transfer of equipment and material to Iran’s nuclear energy program. Iran was also to receive American technology and help in searching for uranium deposits.”
Why, asked critics, should a nation with huge oil and gas reserves invest in nuclear technology? Why not? Both General Electric and Westinghouse sold Iran reactors. These manufacturers of nuclear energy plants for the third world and their media acolytes regaled The Shah for his “westernizing policies,” his far-sightedness in seeing beyond the age of oil.
Although his own people had a less flattering view of him, who could Washington trust more? The prestigious Stanford Research Institute “experts” had projected that Iran’s nuclear initiation would serve both world peace and US interests. Not only would US companies build nuclear reactors, but the Pentagon would continue to sell weapons and torture equipment to the Shah’s army and police and the United States could even recoup some of what it spent buying oil from Iran.
In the mid 1970s, Iran also signed nuclear power construction contracts with France and Germany. The Shah said that these undertakings would generate electricity and desalinate water. But only the naÃ¯¿½ve would not also suspect that Iranian would also experiment for military purposes. Hey, when good friends get curious, we shouldn’t dampen their creativity!
In 1976, President Gerald Ford even authorized the Shah to buy and operate a plutonium-extracting and processing facility – a big step toward converting energy processing to weapons making (David Isenberg, Asia Times, August 24).
It all seemed so ideal! Then, in 1979, a very angry Iranian public made its voice heard. Massive demonstrations brought down The Shah’s regime and the new government took US embassy officials hostage. By 1980, an orthodox Moslem regime headed by the Ayatollah Khomeni had replaced the pro-Western monarchy with a very backward looking ideology – or at least theology.
Labeling the United States “The Great Satan,” the Ayatollah turned his attention to reversing the Shah’s westernizing tendencies. Also, tied down with a bloody war against Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program went inert. Indeed, it took several rocket and bombing hits that disabled some of the facilities. By the late 1980s, however, Iran’s new leaders resumed interest in things nuclear. Teheran offered Washington and Western Europe reentry possibilities for building nuclear reactors. But this time, the West behaved much more cautiously, albeit seemingly oblivious to the short-sightedness of its past policies and the contradictions that it built into them.
The United Sates, England, France, Russia and China all signed onto the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and agreed to work towards nuclear disarmament. The contract called for non-nuclear states to forego nuclear weapons and open their facilities to UN inspection. In return, they could receive nuclear energy technology. But the nuclear giants, while making some strategic reductions, have not taken serious steps toward ridding themselves of their massive stockpiles. They have, however, insisted that the non-nuclear nations abstain.
Instead, “the US and Britain are upgrading: the Bush administration is developing nuclear “bunker busters” that can strike deep underground, while Britain has ordered a new generation of Trident missiles” (Anne Penketh, Independent August 5, 2005).
Iran now claims implicitly the right to pursue its nuclear power ambitions. After all, neighboring India and Pakistan barged into the elite nuclear club in 1998. In addition, Israel, a formidable Iranian enemy, has a considerable nuclear arsenal. And, in 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor with impunity.
In 2003, the United States would not have invaded Iraq if Saddam had possessed a nuclear deterrent. North Korea, another member of Bush’s axis of evil, took note and has used its nuclear weapons supply – if it really has them – to forestall a possible US invasion.
Nuclear strategy is inherently insane, my doctor friend concluded. Nukes can’t defend our country. Would we drop them on Texas if Mexico invaded? But the big nuclear weapons powers, he continued, “could annihilate the world umpteen times. Who knows how many other countries will obtain them?”
His concerns have escaped the agendas of recent presidential candidates, except Ronald Reagan, who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons — almost as much as he wanted to destroy the Sandinista revolution. In 1987, as Reagan’s Contra terrorists continued to mine Nicaraguan harbors, he regally concluded at the Iceland Summit that “A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” Reagan’s zany commitment to Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative), however, became an impediment that caused Soviet Premier Gorbachev to back away from a nuclear disarmament agreement.
Bush, however, disregards The Gipper’s advice. He has used the “n” word – even though he can’t pronounce it – as a threat that worked to provoke nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, two of the three states he lumped into his “axis of evil.” Will it take someone who has made his reputation as a religious nut, like the vicarious assassin and evangelical geezer Reverend Pat Robertson to convince Bush to use his bully pulpit to do something good for the world: spend his remaining years as president getting rid of nuclear weapons?
Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His films are available through Cinema Guild in New York City.