Juan Cole Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Juan Cole, Professor of History, University of Michigan; October 20, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Iran and Nuclear Technology

Is there any way that this discussion can help us get a handle on the nuclear project of Iran? Because it seems to me that in the end what you're suggesting is that even a religiously conservative regime in Iran will be going after what has been a modern technological solution to the problem of ensuring state security when threatened by, say, global superpowers from outside. So, it's not so surprising then that like every other state that feels threatened, it would aspire to acquire nuclear weapons.

Well, it's worse, because the United States actively encouraged countries in the Middle East to develop nuclear power, not nuclear weapons but nuclear power, back in the fifties when the nuclear energy industry was led by the United States, and there were hopes that U.S. companies could make money abroad. There was something called "Atoms for Peace" that was encouraged by the Eisenhower administration. Pressure was put on governments in Teheran and Baghdad to have nuclear generators, and it's the origin of a lot of these nuclear programs. The Shah developed three light-water reactors at Bushehr, and the Shah's ideology -- this is the absolute monarch of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s -- was a very modernizing ideology. He would tear down the old bazaars and insist that they put in strip malls instead. I think he had a rather philistine view of what modernity was, but the nuclear power plants were certainly symbols for him of Iran's modernity. He once said that in twenty years Iran would be like France. That was his hope for the country.

When Khomeini came to power in 1979, he actually closed down the nuclear energy program. Khomeini as a Shi'ite Muslim theologian felt that nuclear power was evil and certainly nuclear bombs were evil. It's forbidden in Islam to murder innocents, and it's certainly forbidden in Islam to kill large numbers of civilians in the course of warfare. In medieval Muslim ethical thought about the "just war" you have to be chivalrous, you have to tell the enemy you're coming three days before you arrive, you have to give them an opportunity to back down, or if they're not Muslims, to convert to Islam. When you fight them, you may not kill women and children who are noncombatants, and so forth. So, from a Muslim point of view, from the point of view of Muslim jurisprudence, dropping bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was clearly evil, and Khomeini said so. And so, he tried to close down the nuclear program.

But there were people around him, like Akbar Rafsanjani, who, although they were clerics, had a more ambitious point of view on things and who felt that Iran would need the nuclear program, and after Khomeini's death in 1989, they quickly resurrected it. They checked around, they tried to get Russian help with the generators, and so forth. It is not entirely clear that the Iranian regime is working full speed ahead on a nuclear bomb. They certainly are working on nuclear energy, but even if they are trying to get a bomb, the national intelligence estimate that's recently been released suggests that they're a good ten years away.

One could understand if they were trying to get a bomb. After all, Russia has them and Russia is nearby and has been a traditional imperial power in Iran. Northern Iran has very frequently been dominated by Russia. Pakistan has them, which is just next door; India has them not so far away; Israel has them, and the Iranian regime views Israel as an enemy. The United States has them on nuclear submarines all around the world, and again, is an enemy of Iran. I think the way the Bush administration has approached these matters would, if anything, impel Iran to try to get a nuclear weapon, because there were three members of the "axis of evil" that David Frum put into Bush's mouth, and they are North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. We saw what happened to Iraq, which didn't, in fact, have nuclear weapons and didn't, in fact, have a nuclear weapons program, though the Americans in Washington seemed to have thought that they did. But nothing has happened in North Korea, and it is widely thought that North Korea already has at least some small bombs. So, if you were an Iranian politician what lesson do you draw from this experience?

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