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The World and the ‘Imminent’ Iranian Bomb | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Technicians of the IAEA inspecting the site of the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, central Iran, on 3 February 2007. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

[inset_left]Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State
David Patrikarakos
IB Tauris, London
30 August 2012[/inset_left]

With talks about Iran’s nuclear program postponed until the end of June, opinion remains divided on whether or not the Islamic Republic is trying to a build a bomb. In the past six months, this reviewer has received a dozen books on the subject, their authors divided between those who insist that Iran is pursuing a clandestine scheme and those who assert that the Islamic Republic is victim of “American and Zionist” propaganda.

The author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, British scholar and journalist David Patrikarakos, seeks a median position. As the title of his book shows, he believes that Iran is an “atomic state” already.
Having looked into a mountain of documents, he writes: “No serious observer can believe that Iran’s nuclear-related activities are solely for the purpose of building and maintaining nuclear power plants for civilian uses. There are just too many unanswered questions with military connotations.”

In other words Iran is either close to or has already reached the so-called “threshold” stage at which it has “all the technological obstacles to a bomb without actually proceeding to the final stages of weaponization, which could be achieved quickly if the need arose.”

Leaving aside the author’s conclusion, the book is worth reading if only because it offers a rapid narrative of the history of nuclear pursuits in Iran. Such pursuits started in the 1950s with no clear vision as to why Iran might need a nuclear capability.

The Shah believed that Iran, trying to regain part of its ancient prestige, could not script itself out of the then global fascination with “the atom.” The United States encouraged the Shah and presented Iran with its first nuclear reactor while offerings scholarship to Iranian students to study nuclear physics at American universities.

Between 1956 and 1979, before the mullahs seized power, Iran developed a budding nuclear industry, signed accords with the US, Canada, Germany and France, invested in an international consortium with France and Spain to produce uranium and unveiled plans for building 22 nuclear power stations by the year 2000.

The Shah never stated whether or not the nuclear program might have a military dimension. The mullahs who succeeded him had no such qualms over public perception of the program.

The first Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini states in his book Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist that one of the duties of such a government is “to provide all the instruments needed for the defense of the Islamic state, including nuclear arms.”

His successors Ayatollah Ali Khamenei echoed the sentiment by suggesting that “a nuclear arsenal would serve as Iran’s deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.”

One important feature of this book is the author’s interviews with some of those involved in the Iranian nuclear quest from the time of the Shah to present day. Sometimes, those interviews muddy the waters, often in the service of personal agendas. For example, almost a fifth of the book is based on interviews with Akbar Etemad, the man who headed the Iranian nuclear project under the Shah for a few years.

Exploiting Patrikarakos’ unfamiliarity with how things worked under the Shah, Etemad builds up his own importance to comical proportions. He claims that he lectured the Shah on nuclear sciences for months, with the “King of Kings” taking notes like a good pupil.

Etemad also promotes himself to Deputy Prime Minister whereas his actual title was Assistant to the Prime Minister for nuclear affairs. (The prime minister had 11 other assistants for a range of other things including the environment, the religious endowments, tourism etc.)

In one particularly comical scene we see Etemad castigating the visiting French President Giscard d’Estaing at a banquet given by the Shah in Tehran for allegedly trying to deny Iran the right to “full nuclear knowledge.” Anybody familiar with the strict protocol of those days would know that such a scene was impossible. No Iranian official dared speak in the presence of the Shah without permission, let alone criticize a visiting foreign head of state.

In contrast to Etemad’s self-aggrandizing enterprise we learn much of substance from interviews with some other officials including Reza Amrollahi and Reza Khazaneh.

Khazaneh’s sober, learned and non-political testimony is particularly interesting because he was involved with the nuclear project both before and after the revolution.

Perhaps to convince us that he has no beef against the mullahs, Patrikarakos is anxious to show that he doesn’t like the Shah. Thus, when the Shah launches the nuclear project he is accused by the author of “hubris”. The Shah’s palace is labelled as “lavish” whereas those who actually saw it remember it as a larger than usual villa in need of a new coat of paint and working washrooms. Patrikarakos has the Shah summoning the American ambassador to Sa’dabad Palace in the 1970s. However, the Shah never lived there and stopped using it even as an office in 1969. The Shah’s ski chalet in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was far from “palatial”. Patrikarakos can’t be serious when he gives an account of the Shah’s “mahogany desk cluttered with gold pens and bejeweled letter-openers.” And the Shah would certainly not go shopping in Champs Elysees in Paris. At the very least he would rather shop in Rue de Faubourg St. Honore where the exclusive boutiques are located.

Another person that Patrikarakos doesn’t like is Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh who headed the nuclear project during part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Aghazadeh is labelled “a Khamenei appointee” and a dimwit. However, those familiar with the project know that, good or bad, it was Aghazadeh who put the programme in high gear. To suggest that Aghazadeh was “pro-Russian” is too ridiculous to merit rebuttal.

More rigorous editing would have spared the book many errors. For example, Dhofar, where the Shah sent troops to crush a Communist uprising, is in Oman not Somalia. Iran did not join CENTO in 1955 because it did not exist at the time. Jean- Bernard Raimond was never France’s Finance Minister. President Carter did not send National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to meet Khomeini’s Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan “several times”. They met only once, in Algiers for 22 minutes. Michel Poniatowski was Interior Minister of France, not Foreign Minister. Iran was not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement under the Shah. The Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard was Mohsen Rezai, not Muhammad. Obama’s decision to talk to Iran was not the first US attempt in 30 years. All US administrations from Carter onwards did talk to Iran.

Such errors might merely provoke a smile. One error that does not is Patrikarakos’ claim that Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) without knowing what was in it.

In fact, Iranian diplomats, among them Manuchehr Zelli, Manuchehr Fartash, Sadeq Sadrieh and Jaafar Nadim were involved in drafting the treaty from the very start. Ardeshir Zahedi, then ambassador to London, initialed the draft to indicate Iran’s willingness to join. But the process of approving it took a further 18 months during which the treaty was examined at the foreign ministry, debated by the Cabinet, widely commented upon in the media, and eventually passed by the two houses of the parliament. It was in its position as one of the founders of the NPT that Iran was given the chairmanship of the United Nations’ disarmament committee for eight years. In 1971, when Iran launched its proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, it did that on the strength of its “leading role in creating the NPT.”

Despite its faults, Patrikarakos’ book succeeds in fixing the contours of the subject with some objectivity. And that, on an issue that arouses partisan passions, is no mean feat.