The White House staff members who are trying to prevent Iran from developing its own nuclear-energy capacity, and who refuse to take military action against Iran "off the table," have conveniently forgotten that the United States was the midwife to the Iranian nuclear program 30 years ago.
Every aspect of Iran's current nuclear development was approved and encouraged by Washington in the 1970s. President Gerald Ford offered Iran a full nuclear cycle in 1976. Moreover, the only Iranian reactor currently about to become operative -- the reactor in Bushire (also known as Bushehr) -- was started before the Iranian revolution with U.S. approval, and cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The Bushire reactor, a "light-water" reactor, produces Pu240, Pu241, and Pu242. Although these isotopes could theoretically be weaponized, the process is extremely long and complicated, and untried. To date, no nuclear weapon has ever been produced with plutonium produced with the kind of reactor at Bushire.
Moreover, the plant must be completely shut down in order for the fuel rods to be extracted -- making the process immediately open to inspection and detection. Other possible reactors in Iran are far in the future.
The American push for Iran's nuclear development was carried out with great enthusiasm. Prof. Ahmad Sadri, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, in Illinois, was a young man in Iran when the United States was touting nuclear-power facilities to the government of the Shah, in the 1970s. He remembers seeing the American display at the Tehran International Exhibition, which was "dedicated to the single theme of extolling the virtues of atomic energy and the feasibility of its transfer to Iran."
Sadri also remembers an encounter with Octave J. Du Temple, executive director emeritus of the American Nuclear Society, who fondly reminisced about half a dozen trips to Tehran in the early '70s to participate in meetings on "transfer of nuclear technology."
Donald Weadon, an international lawyer active in Iran during that period, points out that after 1972, and the oil crisis, the United States was rabidly pursuing investment opportunities in Iran, including selling nuclear-power plants. He writes that "the Iranians were wooed hard with the prospect of nuclear power from trusted U.S.-backed suppliers, with the prospect of the reservation of significant revenues from oil exports for foreign and domestic investment."
American dissimulation on this point reveals some interesting motives on Washington's part. Iran under the Shah was as much of a threat to its neighbors -- including Iraq -- as it might be said to be today; its nuclear ambitions then could have been inflated and denigrated in exactly the same way that they are being inflated and denigrated today. But the United States was blissfully unconcerned. The big difference today is that Iran is now perceived to be a threat to Israel, and this fuels much of the threat of military action.
Even those who admit that the United States helped start Iran's nuclear development can produce only two factors that make a difference in how Iran should be treated today, as opposed to the '70s. The most recent factor is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely denounced remarks attacking Israel. The second, older factor is Iran's alleged concealment of nuclear-energy development in the past.
President Ahmadinejad's remarks have little or no connection with any probable action on Iran's part regarding Israel. His pronouncements were designed primarily to shore up support from extremist elements among his revolutionary supporters. Moreover, he has no control over Iran's foreign policy or its nuclear-energy program, and his views are not embraced by Iran's clerical leaders.
However, the second accusation -- that Iran has "regularly hidden information about its nuclear program" -- is equally specious. When the reports of the United Nations inspection team are examined, one realizes that much of what the United States has called "concealment" was never concealed at all.
Many of the charges about removing top soil and bulldozing material at some of the research sites describe actions that never took place. Moreover, even if one concedes that Iran did conceal some processes, this activity started 18 to 20 years ago, when the revolution was still young and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was still alive, under completely different political actors from those in power today.
Indeed, whatever Iran did or didn't do in the past, today it is in compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. There would in fact be no way to accuse Iran of anything if it were not so compliant.
Furthermore, the treaty grants all signatories the right to pursue nuclear research for peaceful purposes of precisely the kind in which Iran is currently engaged.
The mantra "Iran must not get nuclear weapons" has been repeated so often now that most people have come to believe that Iran has them, or is getting them. This implication is completely unproven. The tragedy would be that in the end the United States may goad Iran into a real nuclear-weapons program. The Iranians may reason that since they are being punished for the crime, they may as well commit it.
William O. Beeman, a Brown University professor of anthropology and Middle East Studies, is author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."
© 2006 The Providence Journal Co.