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Jonathan Power: There Are Many Irans

Let’s exaggerate. Iran has been singled out for persecution over its alleged nuclear bomb making program because in 1979 its Revolutionary Guards took the staff of the U.S. embassy hostage, causing outrage in America with even the esteemed Walter Cronkite ratcheting up the tension, putting up on the screen, as he read the nightly news, the number of days they had been incarcerated. The sitting president, Jimmy Carter, was deposed, tarred with the brush of utter failure. Something of an exaggeration that this was the sole or even the most important factor in building a pro bomb lobby in Iran. Still it has a grain of truth: Iran has been singled out unfairly. The West and Russia are engaged in discriminating against it. Brazil has had a nuclear enrichment program for decades (including a large ultracentrifuge enrichment plant, several laboratory-scale facilities, a reprocessing facility to make plutonium, and a missile program). In the 1980s it built two nuclear devices. Three years ago I asked the chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Brasilia if Washington was worried about Brazil. “Not at all,” he replied. “In the early 1990s Brazil dismantled its nuclear weapons program, and Argentina, its supposed enemy, has done the same.” “But,” I insisted, “Brazil still has its enrichment program and a reprocessing facility”. “We have no worries about Brazil,” he answered. “We see eye to eye.” However, Brazil still resists, in part, the probing eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog. In 1979 the attitude of the Carter administration toward Pakistan, then attempting to build its own bomb, was almost as harsh as is the attitude of the United States toward Iran today. All American military aid was suspended, even though the Taliban were a lurking potential threat. However, when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December of that year, Carter persuaded Congress to restart a large-scale arms program. For the next decade, in return for Pakistan’s help building up the anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan (who later went to work for Osama bin Laden), Washington turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s effort to build nuclear weapons. Only in 1990, with the Soviets driven out of Afghanistan, did President George Bush (Senior) decide to cut off military assistance. This was reversed under his son, George W. Bush, as Washington wooed Islamabad for help in defeating the Taliban and hunting down Al Qaeda members. Not only was the bomb tolerated, not much fuss was made when the U.S. discovered that Pakistan was acquiring nuclear knowledge and missiles from North Korea. Likewise, Washington has long refused to acknowledge what it has always known, but pretended to ignore—that Israel in the early 1960s built a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev desert. Israel has never lacked an adequate conventional force. But its unnecessary nuclear weapons have been a constant provocation to both the Arab states and Iran. Even when the West has only offered to select nations some peaceful nuclear assistance for nuclear power development, sometimes the recipient has used that as a base to develop a nuclear weapons’ program. South Africa is a good example. During apartheid days American aid included the construction of a nuclear research reactor, the supply of highly enriched uranium and the training of nuclear scientists. Providing these skills gave key scientists tremendous political influence. In 1968 South Africa convinced the Untied States to fund the construction of a pilot enrichment plant, then persuaded the Americans to allow them to develop nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union did the same with North Korea, training nuclear scientists and completing construction of the Yongbyon research reactor in 1965. Later Pyongyang used this facility to produce plutonium, which was finally used to explode a nuclear bomb three years ago. Something similar happened with India. In 1955 India built its first research reactor using British-supplied designs. A year later, Canada supplied India with a research reactor. Next, the United States provided a key ingredient, heavy water, and trained over a thousand Indian nuclear scientists. In 1961 India began construction of a reprocessing plant designed to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Pakistan began to develop its bomb after Munir Ahmad Kahn, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and other top scientists were trained in the United States, while Canada and West European countries helped construct and operate enrichment centers. The West and Russia need to rethink more than what the Obama Administration thus far is proposing. They should offer all the civilian nuclear cooperation Iran can swallow in return for open books and regular intrusive inspections of all facilities old and new. And they should offer to end all political and economic estrangement. There is no good reason why, if the West plays its cards well, it couldn’t help Iran become another Turkey—democratic, pro-Western and bomb free. But first, the West and Russia must lower the curtain on their past (and in Brazil’s case, a present) filled with hypocrisy and irresponsibility. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007). For more on Iran's nuclear program, read "Iran's Nuclear Consensus" by Kayhan Barzegar in the Fall issue of World Policy Journal.

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