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November 7, 2013 11:08 am

Iran’s Point of No Return

avatar by David Patrikarakos


The Arak IR-40 heavy water reactor in Iran. Photo: Nanking2012/Wikimedia Commons.

Iran’s nuclear bomb is “entering its final stages,” according to an article in the respected defence magazine Jane’s Weekly. Written in 1984. A claim that, to be fair, was only 29 years premature and counting.

Alarmist predictions of Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been in circulation for almost thirty years; I have lost count of the number of times Israel has told us that Iran’s nuclear programme is on the brink of the point of no return. Each time a deadline passes, they simply set a new one.

For instance, in 1992 Israel warned that Iran would have a nuclear bomb by 1999. In 1999, Israel claimed that Iran would be nuclear-armed by 2004. In 2009, Israel said Iran would pass the point of no return in 2011. Then, in 2012, Israel stated Iran was six months from a nuclear bomb. On and on it goes. (For an extensive list of such announcements, see here.)

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Why has this been such an obsession for the last 30 years? Well, first of all, 30 years tells its own story. This is pretty much the time the Islamic Republic has been in existence (it was founded in 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power after he helped to overthrow Iran’s Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi).

During the Shah’s rule, the USA was content to be a partner in Iran’s nuclear programme – though it was always adamant that the Shah steer clear of nuclear weapons and objected to selling Iran technologies that might be used to proliferate. Despite what is often said, Washington has been consistent on this issue from the very beginning.

But the coming of the Islamic Republic – and more specifically, the 1979-1980 hostage crisis, a disgraceful act where a group of Iranian students stormed the US. .Embassy and took those inside hostage for 444 days – convinced Washington that the Mullahs could not be trusted with nuclear technology. This change in Iranian leadership fuelled fears that Iran was driving toward a bomb that have never abated.

These fears are at the centre of overarching attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear programme, and drive much of what is written about it, especially the deluge of erroneous predictions about Iranian nuclear capability. Consider first that until 2002 (when an Iranian opposition group revealed the extent of Iran’s nuclear activities to the world), it was hard to say just how much progress Iran had made on its programme. For most of the 1980s, the country was at war with Iraq and employed a covert, underground nuclear programme. In the absence of certainty, many in Jerusalem and Washington preferred to assume an Iranian bomb was nearer rather than farther away; it seemed the safe thing to do.

Then there is the political reason for such claims. Israeli intelligence has had a pretty clear of idea of where Iran is technologically for at least the last 15 years, but the goal is to keep the pressure on the USA and nothing suits this better than repeatedly claiming that Iran is only a few years away from a bomb. Even if they know it’s not true, the message is clear: time is of the essence – act now!

The problem of course is that you can only cry wolf so many times. But it is a problem that comes wrapped in an irony because guess what? Iran is now, finally, at the stage where it could conceivably build a bomb in just a few years…

Follow David on Twitter. Read more about his book, Nuclear Iran: UK readers here, US readers here. Read his latest essay, a cover story in a recent issue of New Statesman, here.

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