As the possibility of a UN-backed plan aimed at limiting Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons has been given a glimmer of hope—in not being rejected outright by the Iranian government—it is worth considering why Iran is being singled out so acutely and unfairly over its nuclear policy.
Clearly, the west and Russia are engaged in discriminating against it. Brazil has had a nuclear-enrichment programme for decades (including a large ultracentrifuge enrichment plant, several laboratory-scale facilities, a reprocessing facility to make plutonium, and a missile programme). In the 1980s it built two nuclear devices.
Three years ago I asked the chief of mission at the US embassy in Brasilia if Washington was worried about Brazil. “Not at all,” he replied. “In the early 1990s Brazil dismantled its nuclear weapons’ programme, and Argentina, its supposed enemy, has done the same.” “But,” I insisted, “Brazil still has its enrichment programme and a reprocessing facility.” His answer: “We have no worries about Brazil. 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 towards Pakistan—then attempting to build its own bomb—was almost as harsh as towards Iran today. It suspended all military aid, 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 programme. For the next decade, in return for Pakistan’s help in building up the anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan (who would later 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—a decision reversed under his son, as Washington wooed Islamabad for help in defeating the Taliban and hunting down al Qaeda members. Not only was the bomb tolerated, but little fuss was made when the US discovered that Pakistan was acquiring nuclear knowledge and missiles from North Korea.
Likewise, there has been Washington’s long refusal to acknowledge what it has always known, but pretended not to; that in the early 1960s Israel 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 peaceful nuclear assistance meant for nuclear power development, sometimes the recipient has used that as a base to go on to a nuclear weapons’ program. South Africa is a good example. During apartheid days US 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 they convinced the government to fund the construction of a pilot enrichment plant. In 1968 they persuaded it 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 then 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 US provided a key ingredient—heavy water—and trained over a 1000 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 US. Canada and west European countries helped construct and operate enrichment centres.
The west and Russia need to rethink more than the Obama administration have done so far. They should offer all the civilian nuclear cooperation Iran can swallow, and in return offer open books and regular intrusive inspections of all their 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 raise the curtain on their past hypocrisy and irresponsibility.