Book Review,  Iran

The Iranian Nuclear Programme

Book Review:

David Patrikarakos, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, (I.B. Tauris, 2012) 368pp. £25.00. (£17.50 via Amazon)

The problem with the debate about Iran’s nuclear programme is that it is largely ideological, and, what is worse, Manichean: either bomb Iran, or, do anything but bomb Iran. The facts about of the Iranian nuclear programme are only relevant to the extent that they back up the case for either side.

The hawks cite Senator John McCain’s mantra from his 2008 Presidential election campaign: “there is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that… is a nuclear armed Iran.” This formulation has also been used by Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, in articles that appeared in that magazine in June 2007 (“The Case for Bombing Iran”) and February 2008 (“Stopping Iran: Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands.”) But the hawks have not been helped, as Patrikarakos notes, by repeatedly crying wolf on timescale. He cites a January 1995 estimate where, according to US and Israeli sources, Iran could have a nuclear weapon in “more or less five years.” (p.156). In his February 2008 article, Podhoretz cited an official Israeli estimate where 2009 was “the point of no return.” There was no bomb “more or less five years” after 1995 and 2009 came and went without a nuclear-armed Iran.

But it is not just the hawks with problems; the naysayers have a problem too: they can’t get round the fact that the President of Iran said Israel should be “wiped off the map.” (Patrikarakos translation, p239.) The best that they can do is suggest the 2005 quotation was a translation error and what he had really said was “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the arena of time.” How this alternative translation really changes things for the population of Israel is a mystery to me. In any event, with Iranian state sponsored demonstrations where the Israeli flag is burned, and banners read “Death to Israel” combined with President Ahmadinejad appearing on national television to refer to Israel as a “cancerous tumour,” the quibble about the exact translations should be irrelevant: the position of the Iranian regime is clear. There is also a further problem: if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will want one too and there could be substantial nuclear proliferation in a volatile region of the world.

Standing away from the polemicists and providing a magisterial study with a meticulous attention to detail is David Patrikarakos with his new book, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State: the culmination of six years of his research in which he travelled across several continents to speak to key players in Iran, the USA, Europe, the Arab world and Israel, and to make copious use of primary archival sources. The fruits of this research enabled Patrikarakos to piece together a complete history of the Iranian nuclear programme since its beginnings in the 1950s right up until the present day. The information is presented in an eminently readable fashion for non-specialists, but would no doubt be of interest to specialists, too.

Patrikarakos largely accepts the McCain formulation: “if the spectre of a possible attack on Iran is deeply troubling, the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran is worse,” he writes.  As far as he is concerned, a nuclear armed Iran “is a deeply undesirable outcome – one that must be avoided at all costs.” But he understands the nuances behind Iran’s nuclear programme, stressing that it is the country’s “attempt to deal with modernity.” (pp.xix-xx).

Much of the book deals with the history of the nuclear programme, and Patrikarakos examines Iran’s negative experiences with the modern world, citing the 1941 invasion of Iran by Britain and Russia, which was “only the latest” incursion into Iran by foreign powers and was “deeply shameful” to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. For the Shah, as Patrikarakos explains, nuclear power, and perhaps a bomb, was not just about security, but prestige: “If Iran was strong it would also be proud.” (p68). The nuclear programme was Iran’s, or The Empire of Iran’s – to use the country’s official name – equivalent of sending a “man to the moon.” (p.87) And it all perfectly suited a man whose ambition, according to the CIA, was “to make Iran a power to be reckoned with.” (p73).

After the Iranian revolution, Khomeini initially rejected the nuclear programme, denouncing it in 1980 as “harmful for the country from the economic, political and technical points of view” and “a cause of greater dependence on imperialist countries.”  (pp.98-99). But this policy was reversed and in 1982 work on the nuclear reactors at the Bushehr power plant recommenced. (p104).  All the twists and turns in Iran’s nuclear development combined with the reaction from the international community in the period right up to mid 2012 are laid out in a comprehensive fashion in this handy volume.

In his conclusion, Patrikarakos notes that “Iran has lied to the IAEA for over two decades” (p283) but adds that “there remains no ‘smoking gun’ for a weapons programme.”  (p283). He dismisses any claim that Iran’s nuclear activities are purely for civilian purposes (p286). But at the same time, he states that it cannot be known whether Iran has actually decided to build a bomb. His own view is that Iran wishes to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. He explains: “by which the state has surmounted 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.)” (P287).

If all one wants is a polemical argument for or against bombing Iran, there is no need to read this book, one can read, for example, one of the articles published this year in Foreign Affairs on both sides of this continuing debate. However, if someone has genuine interest in the topical subject of Iran and its nuclear programme, and desires an even-handed analysis, this book is a must read.

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