Iran's Nuclear Program Whistling in the Dark

As Iran becomes a nuclear power, and the IAEA admits it may have underestimated Tehran's progress toward a bomb, no one -- at least in Germany -- seems to care. Why?

By Henryk M. Broder

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends a celebration of "National Nuclear Day" in Natanz on April 9.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends a celebration of "National Nuclear Day" in Natanz on April 9.

Next to "kindergarten," "kaffeeklatsch" and "weltanschauung," "angst" may the most well known of German words. Fear and anxiety aren't seen as signs of weakness in Germany, but as evidence of rationality.

At the moment two major fears are rampant across the land: fear of global destruction and fear of a personal slide into poverty. About 60 percent of young Germans under 29 years of age are worried about their own social decline. But Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel likens the threat of global warming to the nuclear arms race between East and West in the days of the Cold War. Carbon dioxide emissions, in other words, are the modern-day version of the mid-range nuclear warheads that were once lined up on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Exaggerated as it may be, this comparison reflects the current mood in Germany fairly well. The "nuclear holocaust," which many westerners tried to escape once upon a time in the "nuclear-free zones" of their own kitchens, has lost its horror. It's been replaced by the notion that Germany might drown after the ice caps melt. Fear of global climate catastrophe is so great that hardly any German would be surprised to see crocodiles climb out of Rhine.

But no one here seems to notice the one danger that has been developing systematically for years -- that of an Iranian nuclear bomb. This oversight is all the more peculiar because Germans hardly ever miss their chance to feel and articulate Angst. What's stopping them now? Why the serenity and composure in the face of Iran's burgeoning nuclear program?

A longer story on the current status of uranium enrichment in Iran appeared in the New York Times on May 15. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after paying an unannounced visit to the facility at Natanz, concluded that "Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before." The report also quotes Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, as saying: "We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich. From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact."

The New York Times report was picked up by all major news agencies. On May 16, Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote, on page 9, that "Iran is making progress," while a report on page 6 of Berlin's Tagesspiegel informed us that "Iran is further along than expected in uranium enrichment. The paper taz smirked, in the lower right-hand corner of page 9: "IAEA: Iran's uranium constantly growing." The only German newspaper that quoted the New York Times story on its front page was the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, but even then only briefly and at the end of a story about EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's efforts to engage the Iranians in talks.

In an opinion piece on page 12, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungexpressed surprise over the IAEA having been surprised by their discoveries at Natanz. Judging by the amount of restraint they exercised, the German papers were apparently hesitant to demand too much of their readers or even frighten them unnecessarily. Of course, there also happened to be another topic that was drawing everyone's attention: the upcoming G-8 summit in Heiligendamm and the protests of opponents of globalization. The headline of Tagesspiegel's cover story read: "Pop Stars Warn G-8 About Violence," and it was accompanied by a four-column photo of musicians Herbert Grönemeyer, Bono, and Bob Geldof, who were demanding "more money" for Africa.

Like a Man Playing With Trains

It may not have been anything new -- indeed, Grönemeyer, Geldof and Bono issued the same demand two years ago, during the G-8 summit in Scotland -- but it was still the day's top story, one with which no horror reports from Iran's nuclear laboratory could possibly compete. The public has apparently become accustomed to the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cultivates the sort of relationship with his nuclear plants other men might have with model railroads.

In early October 2006, Ahmadinejad announced that the Iranian nuclear plants would be opened to foreign tourists to show "that the nuclear program serves peaceful purposes." But the president was less accommodating to IAEA inspectors in January 2007, when the IAEA reported that its employees were obstructed and Iran refused to allow them to install effective monitoring devices in the nuclear facilities. It was also disclosed that ElBaradei, the IAEA director, had "covered up evidence of possible concealment and had not allowed it to be published."

Only four weeks later, in February 2007, Ahmadinejad surprised the world with an "offer," in which he declared himself willing to shut down his nuclear program if the West would set an example by taking the same step first. "Justice demands that those who want to hold talks with us shut down their nuclear fuel cycle program too. Then we can hold dialogue under a fair atmosphere," he said. At the time of this statement, the deadline the UN Security Council had set for Iraq in December 2006 to stop uranium enrichment had just expired. Ahmadinejad continued what he was doing, and so did the UN Security Council, when it promised additional "sanctions."

Ahmadinejad reacted by declaring that Iran is a "train without brakes and rear gear," insisting that he had no intention of shutting down his country's nuclear program. Exactly two months later, in April 2007, the IAEA confirmed that uranium enrichment had begun in the underground facility at Natanz.

According to the IAEA report, the Iranians had already started up about 1,300 centrifuges at the site, a "giant factory hall" with enough space for about 50,000 centrifuges. At the same time, Iran refused to grant the IAEA inspectors access to a heavy water reactor under construction. The IAEA, in return, called upon Iran to rethink its action and not to exclude the inspectors.

A Constant State of Alarm

While Die Welt and other papers voiced "outrage over Iran's new nuclear plans," experts wondered whether Iran was actually capable of producing weapons-grade uranium -- and how long it might take before the country could manufacture nuclear bombs. An IAEA spokeswoman said it might be "four to six years," adding that "there is still plenty of time to negotiate," especially since there was still no "visible evidence" that Iran wanted to build a nuclear bomb.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked on TV in early May about the "obligation" to stop uranium enrichment in countries like Iran -- naturally declining to offer any technical details.

The overall situation shows that Iran can determine the pace and direction of the dispute while the rest of the world can show nothing but a growing sense of helplessness. The public's interest in Iran's nuclear program has declined to the level of minor press reports. The crisis is like a fire alarm no one hears anymore because it's been tripped so often. Not even the May 15 New York Timesstory or ElBaradei's statement that the Iranians had already achieved a breakthrough was sufficient to revive public interest.

Still, the question remains as to why right-thinking people who will buy electricity from expensive renewable energy sources, eschewing cheap nuclear power, and even give up long-distance flights for the sake of the climate seem so unconcerned about Iran's nuclear program. One can only speculate over the answer. Do they believe Ahmadinejad is a responsible politician and not a pyromaniac? Do they believe his promise to use nuclear energy only for "peaceful purposes"? Or do they agree that Iran needs the Bomb to be recognized as an "equal partner"?

Maybe the Fallout Will Just Miss Germany

Udo Steinbach, director of the German Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg, recently described a rather different scenario. In an interview with an online magazine he said Europe should not feel threatened by Iran. "Europe," he said, "would certainly be the last target Iran would think of if it did in fact pursue aggressive intentions."

"Iran as a nuclear power," he continued, would only be a threat to "its neighbors, such as a secular Turkey and, of course, Israel."

The blithe sangfroid with which Steinbach describes the possible target coordinates of Iranian nuclear bombs is only surpassed by his naiveté concerning the consequences of such action. He seems to think that nuclear fallout, in a worst-case scenario, will make a wide berth around him and his institute. This mindset could also explain Germany's general apparent lack of concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, the planting of genetically manipulated corn triggers hysterical reactions.

While leaders in Iran say what is on their mind, and do precisely as they say, Germans comfort themselves with the idea that Iranian missiles will fall into their neighbors' gardens, if at all. If such missiles were to hit "secular Turkey" and "of course Israel," there would certainly be many dead, but not the usual innocent victims.

Fear is rampant in Germany. So is ignorance.


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