The Birth of a Bomb A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Part 2: Pinpricks with Little Impact on Berlin
In 2010, nothing has been higher on the agenda of international diplomacy than the prospect of a secret Iranian nuclear program and the fear that Tehran's leaders could obtain nuclear weapons to threaten their sworn enemy Israel and American troops in the Persian Gulf. And nothing underscored the dramatic impact of the events as effectively as the secret IAEA meeting in 2008.
The Iranian regime's refusal to abandon its uranium enrichment program, or at least suspend it once again, prompted the UN Security Council to tighten its sanctions for a third time last Wednesday. The new sanctions will isolate Iranian companies even further, hamper weapons imports, limit the Revolutionary Guard's room for maneuver and facilitate inspections of Iranian ships. US President Barack Obama called them the "toughest sanctions ever faced by Iran," while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fumed that the UN resolution was nothing but "worthless paper." In truth, the new rules are merely pinpricks with little impact on Tehran, partly because Russia and, most of all, China opposed restrictions to the oil trade.
The global public is divided. Brazil and Turkey voted against the UN draft resolution, as watered-down as it already was. No one wants an Iranian bomb. The deliberately false, or at least exaggerated, reports by Western intelligence agencies on Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction," which were even used as justification for going to war, are still a source of indignation today. The CIA, Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, and Britain's MI6 have had a credibility problem ever since, particularly when sounding the alarm on the subject of the ultimate weapon. And hanging over everything like a sword of Damocles is the threat by Israeli politicians to launch a military strike to stop Holocaust-denier Ahmadinejad, who said recently that the Israeli attack on a flotilla bound for Gaza sounded "the death knell of the Zionist regime."
Iran and the bomb: A tale of errors and entanglements, complete with deceptive maneuvers on all sides. It is a powerful drama being presented on a stage that extends to every corner of the world, with a cast of royalist politicians and religious warriors, pseudo-democrats and scheming generals, corruptible Russian scientists and seemingly upright Swiss business people. The settings are places like Vienna and Washington, Tehran and Tel Aviv, Pyongyang and Berlin.
Act 1: Why the Shah Is Pursued Weapons -- and the Ayatollahs Are Following Suit
There are few places in the world where one feels pride in humanity. Persepolis, in the south of present-day Iran, is one of them.
Darius the Great built his capital here in the 6th century B.C., and the ruins of that city, still impressive today, bear witness to a superior civilization. And even though the Macedonians, the Arabs and the Mongols conquered the country, and it later came to be dominated by British oil companies and American generals, no one has ever deprived the Persians of the proud sense, bordering on arrogance, of being part of a superior culture, and of the conviction that they are the natural dominant power in a region of "backward" Arabs.
The Shah only manages to preserve his power through a CIA-backed coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister and member of the National Front Party. He imposes a radical shift toward Western modernity on his people. With his "White Revolution," he seeks to bring progress to the country by force and buys state-of-the-art weapons in the West to beef up his military arsenal. In 1957, the Shah signs a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, and a decade later the first research reactor is built in Tehran. But Iran's ruler has even greater ambitions. In 1976, US President Gerald Ford signs a directive under which he not only pledges to provide Iran with several nuclear power plants, but also a reprocessing plant to recover nuclear fuel.
A 'Suspicious Western Innovation'
But the Shah is never able to realize his dream of acquiring nuclear weapons, and not even the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, a project under German leadership, is completed. In 1979, the Shah is driven out of office in the Islamic Revolution, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini triumphantly assumes power in Iran. The purity of Shiite faith is at the center of his theocracy, while the purity of uranium is seen as irrelevant. Khomeini dismisses the nuclear program as a "suspicious Western innovation" that has no business in his Islamic Republic. Besides, weapons of mass destruction are haram, or forbidden, according to the teachings of Allah.
Khomeini's position is astonishing. By this time, Israel is already a nuclear power, after having built a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert and functioning nuclear weapons. In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir presumably confessed to US President Richard Nixon about the existence of the bombs. In the fall of 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein feels emboldened by the US government to attack his Iranian neighbors. The war will rage for eight years, claiming half a million lives. Bushehr is one of the bombing targets, and Iran's nuclear reactor there, still unfinished, is largely destroyed.
In a dramatic letter to the revolutionary leader, Mohsen Rezai, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard (and a critic of Ahmadinejad today), requests his permission for the development of nuclear weapons. He argues that this is the only way Iran can defend itself and deter its enemies. Prime Minister Hossein Mousavi (the leader of the popular resistance movement today) writes a personal appeal to support Rezai's argument in favor of the bomb.
In July 1988, Khomeini, with a heavy heart, agrees to a ceasefire with the Iraqis. The move, he says, is "more bitter than poison." At this point, he apparently begins to rethink his position on nuclear weapons. When faced with an existential threat, the Shiite can avail himself of the takiya, or sanctioned lying to serve the greater good. If Khomeini reinterprets this principle, he can preserve his own principles, and at the same time tell his people that they can move forward with their efforts to build the atom bomb.
In 1988, Iran conducts its first serious negotiations with neighboring Pakistan. In the 1970s, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had said: "Even if we have to eat grass, we will make nuclear bombs." And indeed, Pakistan developed into a nuclear power. But its Sunni government is deeply distrustful of the Shiites and tells its politicians to stall the Iranian negotiators.
But the men in Tehran have a Plan B: direct negotiations with the "father of Pakistan's atomic bomb," Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan is more than willing to pass on his knowledge to his fellow Muslims in Iran, provided such a deal translates into sufficient compensation for him. Khan sees no contradiction in being both a wannabe jihadist and an aspiring millionaire.
- Part 1: A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
- Part 2: Pinpricks with Little Impact on Berlin
- Part 3: How the World's Nuclear Dealer Got His Start
- Part 4: 'Arming to Threaten the Peace of the World'
- Part 5: 'A Very Dangerous Man'
- Part 6: Growing Suspicions of a Weapon Program
- Part 7: Israel Secretly Prepares for a Military Strike