Iran's Time Bomb

Pro-Israel, anti-Iran protesters demonstrate near the Israeli embassy on September 27, 2012 in New York City (SOURCE: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Pro-Israel, anti-Iran protesters demonstrate near the Israeli embassy on September 27, 2012 in New York City (SOURCE: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

[inset_left]Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State

By David Patrikarakos

IB Tauris, 2012


With the reelection of President Obama and hints in the international media that diplomatic wrangling over Iran’s nuclear program is set to resume in early 2013, the question of Iranian intentions in pursuing nuclear technology is more pressing than ever. Unfortunately, few issues in the Middle East (or international politics more generally) are as fraught with demonization, recrimination, controversy, and accusations of bad faith.

David Patrikarakos’s book, however, is an illuminating ray of light at this troubled issue, and for the most part avoids the spin, hyperbole, and hysterical rhetoric that has plagued discussions of Iran and its nuclear program. As such, it is a valuable tool for anyone seeking to get beyond the headlines to the truth of the matter. A journalist and writer based in London, his time in Iran studying Farsi (a surreal experience he discusses in his introduction to the book) was well spent: it seems to have gestated a fascination with Iran and its troubled relationship with its own history and the rest of the world (particularly the US) that informs his analysis throughout.

Patrikarakos skillfully brings out some of the important aspects of the issue that are often overlooked in the blizzard of media coverage swirling around the diplomatic maneuverings of Iran and its interlocutors in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. The title for the first part of the book, “A Surge into Modernity,” makes the central argument of the book clear: that the nuclear program has always reflected the means and the mindset behind the attempts of Iran’s leaders, past and present, to guide Iran’s development and modernization and define its place in the modern world.

Patrikarakos makes a consistent and convincing case for this hypothesis. Delving into the history of modern Iran, he argues that the shah was focused on a process of Westernization, with the pursuit of nuclear power a symbol that Iran had arrived as a major world power: modern, developed countries, especially in the West, had nuclear power, so Iran must too. In the age of the Islamic Republic, this was replaced by the opposite but oddly similar view that Iran had to master nuclear energy because it symbolized Iranian defiance of international obstacles and Western disapproval: the Islamic Republic of Iran was determined to be a modern, advanced, and influential state—but on its own terms. In both cases, Patrikarakos contends that Iran’s nuclear program represents Iranian national pride, and the determination to regain Iran’s autonomy and dignity after decades of interference in Iranian affairs by foreigners. This is a welcome corrective to the drumbeat of belligerent rhetoric about Iran’s dangerous tendencies.

Perhaps equally valuable is the author’s exploration of the murkier aspects of Iran’s nuclear development. While his claims that nuclear development has been a touchstone of national sovereignty for Iran undermines the idea that Iran’s sole desire is for a weapon, his account of Iran’s periodic use of half-truths, omissions, and selective reporting to international inspectors is a useful and timely corrective to the idea that it is entirely innocent. He is also careful to point out the ways in which the program is structured that are inconsistent with Iran’s claims that it is entirely peaceful. Indeed, Patrikarakos contends that the economic case for nuclear power–that oil is too valuable as an exportable commodity to be used to meet Iran’s domestic energy needs—has always been secondary.

This book is therefore unlikely to go down well with those on the extremes of both sides of the debate on Iran, those who insist it is a belligerent, anti-Semitic ‘rogue state’ intent on developing a nuclear bomb on the one side, and those who claim that Iran is the innocent victim of superpower bullying and international double standards on the other.

Throughout, Patrikarakos strikes a careful balance between offering too much technical detail on the development of nuclear technology and too little, and never makes it too difficult to grasp the scientific and political significance of the technical milestones of Iran’s nuclear development. Given the nature of the material involved, this is a real achievement. The intricacies of the nuclear fuel cycle are, as he notes, complex, and in some ways ambiguous. Uranium ‘enriched’ to the level where it contains 20 percent of the Uranium-235 isotope used for research reactors is only a short step away from the 90-percent-plus preferred for the construction of bombs, but the same process is used for both, making Iranian intentions difficult to predict, as he readily concedes.

Given the atmosphere of suspicion and the stark polarizations surrounding the issue of Iran and its nuclear program, Patrikarakos is bound to be judged by many on the conclusions he comes to, regardless of the road he takes to reach them. In the final equation, he comes down somewhere between those who see Iran as an evil mastermind and those who see it as a victim. Based on his analysis of Iranian behavior and the composition of its program, he believes that Iran’s leadership is seeking the “Japan option,” having most of the infrastructure of a weapon—missiles, uranium that can be quickly enriched enough to make a warhead, and so on—in place without putting it all together. In other words: remaining within the letter of the law of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but simultaneously attempting to gain as much of the perceived benefits of a nuclear deterrent as possible without actually possessing one.

Ultimately, Patrikarakos is unlikely to change the minds of those who already hold strong beliefs about Iran’s intentions in developing nuclear technology, at great cost to itself in terms of continuing international isolation as well as the financial burden it represents. Such people will only judge this work based on their existing beliefs, and will take the parts of his analysis that reinforce their opinions while discarding the rest. In Patrikarakos’s own words, the nuclear program has become “a battle of competing narratives formed by each side’s respective view of the other: murderous, irrational Iran versus the perfidious and imperialistic West.”

For everyone else, he has done a valuable service in writing this book. It is a readable, well-researched, and comprehensive analysis that is a valuable tool for those who are willing to weigh up the evidence and make up their own minds.

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