George W. Strangelove and the Triumph of Nuclear Faith

The silver-spooned cowboy in the Oval Office just presented a fine new saddle to the nuclear horseman of the apocalypse.

It was a gift worthy of hell. "President Bush agreed yesterday to share civilian nuclear technology with India, reversing decades of U.S. policies designed to discourage countries from developing nuclear weapons," the Washington Post reported Tuesday. The lead was more understated in the New York Times: "President Bush, bringing India a step closer to acceptance in the club of nuclear-weapons states, reached an agreement on Monday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to let India secure international help for its civilian nuclear reactors while retaining its nuclear arms."

No matter how the story was spun, it could only be read in the world’s capitals as further proof that U.S. nuclear policies are grimly laughable – thanks to policymakers in Washington who simultaneously decry and promote nuclear proliferation. And nowhere will the hypocrisy-laced ironies be more appreciated than in Tehran.

More than 50 years after the U.S. government launched its "atoms for peace" program, faith in the peaceful atom is alive and well – in Iran. While a large proportion of the American public distrusts nuclear power, Iranians routinely echo the positive themes that the industry and its supporters have labored to promote ever since President Dwight Eisenhower pledged "to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma" by showing that "the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."

Touting the use of nuclear fission to generate electricity, American presidents have strived to make sharp rhetorical distinctions between atomic power and nuclear weapons technologies, despite their extensive overlap. Such reassuring distinctions now have wide credibility in Iran, as I found last month during conversations with Iranian political campaigners, clerics, bazaar merchants, shoppers, teachers, and students. Almost all gave notably similar responses when asked whether their country should acquire nuclear energy.

The replies – often tinged with indignation that the atomic prerogative would even be questioned – reflected why nuclear development was a non-issue in Iran’s latest presidential campaign. The Iranian public appears to believe what nuclear-power boosters loudly proclaimed to the world for several decades – that nuclear energy can be safe and distinct from the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

If nuclear power plants are good enough for the United States, the prevailing logic goes, then Iran is certainly good enough for nuclear power plants. Present-day Iran, with its eagerness to use nuclear reactors to generate electricity, is a success story for generations of pro-nuclear politicians in Washington.

A civil atomic pact, signed in 1957, initiated nuclear assistance from the United States to Iran. In 1972, President Richard Nixon urged the Shah to build nuclear power plants. The Shah fell in 1979, but after many delays the Islamic Republic resumed work on the nuclear plant near Bushehr, a project that is currently being denounced in Washington.

In Tehran, no one I talked with seemed to have any doubt that such projects should continue. At the city’s bazaar – where I could not find any expression of support for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons – there appeared to be something close to a consensus for building nuclear power plants.

"It should be done," said a 26-year-old owner of a carpet shop who gave his name as Nahdi. "If it’s going to be dangerous, it’s dangerous for everyone in the world, not just for the Iranian people. How come they all have access to that kind of energy and just talking about Iran and Iranians?" In a baby supply shop, the man behind the counter said: "It is Iran’s right, like other countries."

Cleric Hassan Khomeini – the most prominent grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founding leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran – responded to my question in much the same way. He pointed back at the country now pointing the finger at Iran: "The same thing happened in the United States. You’ve got access to lots of oil and gas resources, and what happened? The United States is producing nuclear energy."

In a mid-June interview, shortly before the first round of the presidential elections, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told me that nuclear weapons are antithetical to Islamic law and that Iran should never try to acquire any. Yet, like every one of his opponents, Rafsanjani (then seen as the frontrunner) expressed strong support for nuclear power in Iran.

Given its vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas, Iran’s claim of needing nuclear-generated electricity might seem farfetched. But arguments about whether Iran really "needs" nuclear power may be beside the point. For the Iranian government, the issue is a matter of national sovereignty and basic prerogatives. In a region where Israel, Pakistan, and India have atomic bombs (made possible by nuclear technology exported from the West), Iran appears to want to keep its nuclear options open.

Unwilling to forsake the myth of the peaceful atom, the United States continues to proselytize for nuclear power while practicing what it preaches. As long as that continues, Washington is in no position to convincingly question the merits of nuclear fundamentalism in Iran or anywhere else.