To fete the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gleefully announced his nation will enrich uranium to 20%.
The fiery Ahmadinejad seems to delight in provoking howls of outrage from the West. They were not long in coming. Western media and politicians loudly denounced Iran's latest nuclear effort, claiming it would put Tehran within striking distance of achieving the 85-90% enrichment needed for nuclear weapons.
In fact, Iran will only enrich 40 kilos of low-grade uranium to 20% to fuel a small research reactor in Tehran to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and imaging. Iran insists it has no plans to produce nuclear weapons.
Tehran has offered to swap its low-enriched uranium for fuel rods from Europe and Russia. But Iran says the swap must be simultaneous, while the U.S.-led western powers demand Iran hand over its uranium first, then get the fuel rods at some later date - if it behaves.
This latest tempest in a teacup comes as Iran slowly develops a nuclear power industry to produce what it maintains will be electricity. Iran's oil is being depleted. Forty other nations are at similar or more advanced stages of nuclear power generation. This is all quite legal under UN nuclear agency rules.
Both UN nuclear inspectors and U.S. intelligence say there is no evidence Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Documents claiming the contrary have been debunked as fakes. But nuclear-armed Israel and its partisans warn Iran is developing nuclear weapons and demand sanctions or war.
Why does Iran keep provoking western anger, defying the Security Council, inviting sanctions and risking devastating Israeli attack when it could simply buy fuel rods from Europe that cannot be used for nuclear weapons?
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Thirty-one years ago, Iranians overthrew the hated, U.S.-backed monarchy of Reza Shah Pahlavi. The revolution was led by an exiled Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and an old university friend of mine, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. This historic uprising was ignited by Iranians' anger at being misruled by a western-installed despot who mocked Islam, allowed his thieving family to loot the nation and spent billions on U.S. and British arms when his people went hungry and illiterate.
The dreaded U.S. and Israeli-trained secret police, Savak, kept the Shah in power through a reign of terror and torture. Iranians later blamed the U.S. and Britain for engineering and financing Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran which cost one million Iranian casualties.
In the 1970s, Washington offered to sell the Shah's regime 31 nuclear reactors. Israel reportedly offered to swap medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads for oil. But after the revolution, Iran was declared a "terrorist regime" when Khomeini demanded Mideast oil money go to its people rather than U.S.-supported monarchies, and championed the Palestinian cause.
Nuclear power has become Iran's key national issue. Ali Khamenei, Iran's current spiritual guide, claims Britain and the U.S. are determined to deny the Muslim world modern technology in order to keep it backwards, weak and forced to buy western arms and exports. Imperial Britain did the same to India, keeping its colony economically backwards for two centuries.
For most Iranians, developing nuclear power means breaking out of their western-imposed technological ghetto and modernization. It's a matter of profound national pride and defiance: Iran was repeatedly invaded by Britain and Russia, its governments were overthrown by western powers and its oil exploited. Nuclear technology offers independence and weapons for self-defence, if Tehran so chooses.
To western dismay, most of the current Iranian protest movement's leaders back its nuclear program. If Ahmadinejad were replaced, Iran's nuclear efforts would continue unless the U.S. and Britain managed to achieve their strategy of imposing a new, compliant royalist regime in Tehran.
In the Iranian view, if France and Britain, and neighbours Russia, Israel, Pakistan and India (now with U.S. help), can have nuclear arms, why can't Iran at least boil water for tea using nuclear energy?