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April 13 2006
By Joan McAlpine
Be very afraid. It was revealed this week that a country which has played a major part in destabilising the Middle East has embarked on a testing programme for nuclear warheads. The country, already embroiled in a bloody war, has invested £300m in a top-secret nuclear weapons facility. It is recruiting 1000 scientists and technicians to work on weapons of mass destruction, which should be fully operational within 15 years.
There is particular concern that the programme is being pushed by the country's supreme leader, a man of deep religious convictions, who says "God will judge" his military adventurism. You have probably guessed by now that the country is not Iran. Regular Herald readers will know it is our own dear, democratic United Kingdom.
This paper's defence correspondent, Ian Bruce, reported that a British plutonium trigger for a warhead was test-detonated beneath the Nevada desert this month in a secret experiment called Operation Krakatau. It is believed to be part of a programme which intends to develop a new generation of warheads to replace, among others, the UK's Trident system. The prime minister, Tony Blair, a man who openly discusses his close relationship with an invisible deity, wants to replace Trident with a shiny new clutch of WMDs fit for the 21st-century. British scientists are working closely with their American counterparts to this end.
This disturbing story was somehow eclipsed by news on Tuesday of a far more modest development in the area of nuclear physics: Iran's announcement that it had successfully enriched a small amount of uranium. The material is only suitable for industrial use and Iran publicly insists it has no interest in making a bomb. But the reaction in the west suggests something more dangerous and significant is afoot.
Condoleezza Rice urged the United Nations to take "strong steps" in response. Jack Straw is "seriously concerned". The hype surrounding the announcement did not help. If this was but a small step towards electrifying Iranian homes with clean, renewable energy, why did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declare God is Great and announce a week of national celebration?
His country is proud to have joined the world's exclusive "nuclear club", not through borrowing the enriched uranium from a powerful, officially sanctioned, neighbour, but through its own technical expertise. Iran, like many other countries in the developing world, looks at countries with nuclear weapons - America, Britain, France, China, Russia - and sees the nations who pull the global strings. It notes, as do many in Africa and Asia, that these countries have allowed their allies to break international rules to build their own bombs.
Indeed, it was recently revealed that France gave Israel access to nuclear material as long ago as the 1950s, in return for its support in the Suez crisis. No wonder Iran wishes to join the club. We have taught the world a wicked lesson: it pays to have weapons of mass destruction.
The whole history of this issue is riddled with duplicity and hypocrisy. Washington was not always so hostile to the idea of Iran having a nuclear programme. Indeed, the US was midwife to the programme's birth back in the cold-war days of the 1950s. In 1957, the two countries signed a co-operation pact under the wonderfully named Atoms for Peace initiative. America had only recently installed the Shah as ruler of Persia after a CIA-backed coup overthrew the previous government in 1953.
By the 1960s, there was a Tehran Nuclear Research Centre equipped with an American-supplied reactor. Despite the Shah's appalling human-rights record, the US continued to help him achieve his nuclear goal. President Gerald Ford in the 1970s even offered to sell him equipment which would allow Iran to extract plutonium from reactor fuel. No concerns about proliferation then. But, like Israel, the old Iran was an ally.
Imagine how such events look to the average Middle Eastern Muslim. Iran under the autocratic Shah is lavished with western assistance, but under an Islamic government, with some element of (albeit curtailed) democracy, it becomes a pariah, not to be trusted with the most modest civilian programme. Meanwhile, Israel has the bomb in defiance of international rules, yet retains the support of America despite the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians, or even western peace activists.
The last time I wrote about the hypocrisy surrounding this issue, I found myself vilified on various strange, neo-conservative websites. The authors edited out all my concerns about Iran's human-rights record in order to portray me as an apologist for the mad mullahs.
But this week's news - about the Trident replacement as well as Iranian developments - simply legitimises the points I made six months ago about western double standards. Of course it is a concern that a country whose leader denies the Holocaust and talks about obliterating Israel could have access to such destructive technology. But until we insist on a completely nuclear-free Middle East, until we curtail our own proliferation of WMD, Mr Ahmadinejad will be able to portray himself as a fearless Muslim David taking on America's nuclear Goliath.
The most glaring aspect of our hypocrisy came this week with the revelations by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker magazine. Just who is the threat to world peace? Iran, a country without nuclear weapons or America, a country which, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, has 9960 nuclear warheads. A country which, along with Britain, started the ghastly Iraq war and refuses to rule out a selective strike against Natanz, the location of Iran's uranium-enrichment facility.
The consequences of such a scenario have already been studied carefully and the results are chilling. The Oxford Research Group, which specialises in arms control and non-proliferation issues, warns that a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites "either by the US or Israel, is not an option that should be considered under any circumstances", because it would would kill thousands of people, including nuclear-programme staff and civilians.
This week's New Yorker allegations would lead to an even more sickening outcome. The nuclear missiles which America could use for such a strike would explode near the surface of the ground, blasting contaminated rock and dust across a vast area. It would trigger another lengthy war in the region - something you'd imagine bitter experience would teach us to avoid.
The Oxford report, by Professor Paul Rogers, says Britain could be drawn into the conflict if we allow American B52 bombers to use our bases here, and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Where does all this leave us? According to the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, Iran will have enough fissile nuclear material to make a bomb within three years.
Let us say this is on track, despite the country's insistence that it's programme is peaceful. That means we either strike it and risk an escalation of violence worse than currently seen in Iraq. Or we begin to tackle the real nuclear proliferation which Iran wants to emulate.
Neither option is easy. But I know which one I prefer.
Copyright © 2006 Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited
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