Where the buck stops

By Selim Can Sazak, December 6, 2012

In her second Roundtable essay, Maryam Javan Shahraki leveled some strong criticism against the ideas I expressed in my first essay. At the same time, she portrayed Iran's nuclear intentions as unambiguously peaceful. Her arguments, upon close examination, fail the test of reality.

Shahraki portrays me as inappropriately lumping together Iran and North Korea into "a single, demonized bundle of threats." While I do not subscribe to the axis-of-evil idea to which Shahraki tacitly alludes, I do believe that it is appropriate to place Iran in the category of nations that recklessly jeopardize regional stability and global security by possessing or pursuing nuclear weapons. If my colleague takes issue with this categorization, the fault is to be found not in my analysis but in Iran's own policies.

Shahraki goes on to fault me for failing to "distinguish between the legitimate fears that might be provoked whenever a nation proliferates, and the quite different anxieties that surround Iran's enrichment of uranium." From my perspective, it is difficult to see the difference, especially when Iran is enriching beyond the level necessary to fuel nuclear power plants and acting in a way that raises serious concerns about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program. Given the opacity of Iran's nuclear program, other nations are wise not to wait for a nuclear weapon ribbon-cutting ceremony before recognizing Iranian proliferation as a threat. As for Shahraki's assertion that I fail to explain "why Iran might provoke a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East," she provides part of the explanation herself by invoking nuclear weapons in Israel and South Asia. It can be argued that nuclear weapons in these countries have had a domino effect on Iran, and that, in any plausible proliferation scenario, Iran would continue the domino effect, leading to nuclear programs among Iran's immediate neighbors and political and religious rivals.

Finally, Shahraki portrays me as affirming an arms-race attitude that she denounces. But a proponent of such an arms-race attitude would also be expected to support US nuclear diplomacy, Israel's nuclear capabilities, and Turkey's planned arms purchases. I do not support any of these. In any case, refusing to grant Iran carte blanche for its nuclear transgressions is not warmongering. On the contrary, it is a candid attempt to apportion blame fairly.

Fear of scrutiny. At this point I should buttress the arguments made above with some facts about Iran's nuclear program.

In a November 2012 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that the number of centrifuges at Iran's Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities has been increasing. Production of low-enriched uranium at the Natanz facility is estimated to total more than 7,600 kilograms since cascades began operating there in 2007. This, in theory, is enough to fashion six or seven nuclear weapons if the fuel were enriched to weapons grade. Suggestions that Iran's nuclear program has a military dimension include the construction of a heavy water-moderated research reactor at Arak — which could produce plutonium and offer another route to the bomb. In the face of this potentially weapons-related activity — and recalling that Iran operated the Natanz and Arak facilities under the utmost secrecy until a dissident group exposed them — it is difficult to maintain confidence in Iran's nonproliferation bona fides.

Even if one gives Iran the benefit of the doubt, satellite images that suggest sanitization activities at the Parchin explosives-testing facility would need a full and compelling explanation, as would Tehran's refusal to grant the IAEA full access to several sites, including Parchin. And that is not to mention Iran's continued failure to implement the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as a provision known as the modified Code 3.1, which requires Iran to submit to the agency design information for new facilities at an early date. Why fear greater scrutiny if you have nothing to hide?

Facing facts can be difficult and unpleasant, especially when they reflect badly on one's own nation. In the academic domain, however, we cannot allow allegiances and emotions to cloud our judgment and limit our intellectual rigor.

President Harry Truman used to keep on his desk a sign that read, "The buck stops here." Scholars are also barred from passing the buck. As a scholar, I must conclude that, in Iran's case, the buck stops nowhere but at Tehran's doorstep.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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