Thursday, November 19, 2009

The American impulse to misunderstand things continues unabated

Steve Benen, who actually is a smart yankee, writes:
Offered a very good deal, Iran nevertheless continues to be uncooperative.
Except that the deal Iran is being offered isn't very good at all. Following the link, we get a NY Times article which says:
CAIRO — Iran’s foreign minister said this week that his government would not ship its stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country, making him the highest ranking official so far to declare that Iran would renege on a deal aimed at defusing a confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

“We will definitely not send our 3.5-percent-enriched uranium out of the country,” Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency in remarks reported Wednesday.
One of the things that is missing here is the fact that, under all relevant international laws, Iran has the unquestioned right to uranium enrichment. It is, quite literally, as firmly rooted in international treaties as the right to vote. (This is a political science joke, sort of.) As far as international law is concerned, asking Iran to give up the right to enrich uranium is like asking America to give up the right to vote. This was put in print decades ago as part of the 1950s "Atoms for Peace" plan put forward by the US government of the time. Say it with me one more time: Iran has the right to Uranium enrichment. This fact is well known in Iran, and the Iranian opposition -- remember, the "good guys" from the protests earlier this year -- are actually quite fond of their country's nuclear program:
But in Tehran, where officials insist their nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, the deal was attacked from across the political spectrum. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to suggest it was acceptable, he was criticized from all sides, even by the reformists he long called too soft on the West.
The point of "Atoms for Peace" was to take some of the scary edge off of nuclear technology, and spread "peaceful" nuclear technology throughout the developing world, because there was no possible way that could go wrong. But an inherent part of that was to allow countries that were recovering from World War II -- and those recovering from colonialism -- to enrich natural Uranium to the point where it would be useful for power production. In standard reactors, this is somewhere less than 20% U235, but the important point is that the technology that allows a nation to enrich Uranium to power-producing quality (protected by international treaty!) is the same technology that allows them to make weapons-grade material. This is why Japan is both entirely within the legal limits of nuclear technology and never more than 18 months away from having a bomb in hand. (The above is grossly simplified because it's late and this is a blog.)

Moreover, if we're going to have a global trade in nuclear power, Iran has to have a right to uranium enrichment. Otherwise, we're just proving countries like Iran and India correct when they say that non-proliferation is just a thin cover for keeping advanced technology as the exclusive preserve for white countries.

The other alternative would be for us to get rid of nuclear power altogether, because the enrichment needed for nuclear power is not fundamentally different from that needed for nuclear weapons. But that's probably too radical a step: we're so much fonder of treating symptoms than causes.

1 comment:

Brad F said...

Did you just seriously suggest that getting rid of nuclear energy would be a good way to get rid of nuclear weapons? That's a bit of fuzzy thinking.

If you look to the root causes of nuclear weapons proliferation, there is a common thread that links all nuclear weapons states, both declared and suspected. They all felt the need to develop nuclear weapons because they felt threatened. The Soviet Union in response to the US, the UK, France and China in response to the USSR, India in response to China, Pakistan in response to India, and South Africa in response to, well, everybody. If a country feels threatened enough, they will develop nuclear weapons.

Canada has never felt particularly threatened, with the US at our back, so we passed on our post-WWII opportunity to go down the nuclear weapon road.

But the genie is out of the bottle. The technology of nuclear weapons is well-known, although it takes the resources of a nation-state to complete a weapon. You cannot make information go away, especially in today's world, so nuclear weapons technology would persist even in the absence of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy is not the cause of nuclear weapons proliferation, insecurity is.