Tuesday, 14 July’s diplomatic victory in Vienna is cause for celebration as it will allow Iran to re-enter the current Concert of Nations. But, even though, the purely peaceful nature of Iran’s ambitions have now become universally recognized and accepted, will this deal nevertheless lead to a dangerous situation in the medium- to long-term?
The nuclear stand-off between the West and the Islamic Republic of Iran has finally come to an end with the formalization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Tuesday, 14 July 2015. The intention to realize this potential goal was announced by the EU as long ago as January 2014: “On 24 November  in Geneva, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, together with the Foreign Ministers of the E3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), successfully concluded a meeting at which an agreement (known as the Joint Plan of Action) was reached with Iran on a first step towards a comprehensive and verifiable diplomatic solution to concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme”. In fact, this whole tortuous diplomatic debâcle has its roots in the previous century, given that the Israeli leadership has been exaggerating the dangers posed by Iran and its Ayatollahs since 1992. At that time, first George H. W. Bush and then Bill Clinton were in charge of the White House, the invasion of Iraq an as-yet unrealized pipedream, and the “reformist” Mohammad Khatami President of Iran. Back in mid-November 1997, the BBC reported that the “Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, has said that Iran could pose a bigger danger than Iraq. He said the situation could develop where Iran had nuclear weapons aimed at Britain and the United States”.
Then, just like now, Benyamin Netanyahu (aka Bibi) did not mince his words, clearly disclosing to the world the extent of his paranoid delusions: “Iran, unseen, unperturbed and undisturbed is building a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles, actually ICBM’s [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] . . . Stage One would reach our area, Stage Two it would reach Britain and Stage Three, believe it or not, they actually plan to reach the eastern seaboard of the United States, Manhattan”. And in years to come, the world led by the United States (under Israeli tutelage) would implement policies and impose sanctions aimed at dissuading the Islamic Republic from ever attempting to possess nuclear capability or even build a nuclear weapon. In reality, the Islamic Republic was merely acting in continuation of plans and programmes developed by none other than the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (ruled 16 September 1941 –11 February 1979). Pahlavi decided that oil-rich Iran needed a nuclear programme, a programme that would see Iran develop the technology to split the atom in order to boil some water and generate electricity. The American activist, blogger and author David Swanson reminds us that “Iran [only] has a nuclear energy program because the U.S. and European governments wanted Iran to have a nuclear energy program. The U.S. nuclear industry took out full-page ads in U.S. publications bragging about Iran’s support for such an enlightened and progressive energy source. The U.S. was pushing for major expansion of Iran’s nuclear program just before the Iranian revolution of 1979”.
The Islamic Revolution put a stop to all that, and rather than seeing Iran as a potential client for expensive nuclear technology, the United States proceeded to demonize and isolate the Islamic Republic. Still, “Tehran [has been nothing but] public about its quest to acquire peaceful nuclear energy to serve a population that has doubled since the 1979 revolution”, as expressed by Dr. Shahram Chubin, an affiliate of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (or GCSP). On a purely theoretical and even theological level, Iran is all but opposed to the mere idea of nuclear weapons. Swanson put is like this: “Iran is committed to not using or possessing [chemical, biological, and nuclear] weapons of mass destruction. The results of inspections bear that out. Iran’s willingness to put restrictions on its legal nuclear energy program — a willingness present both before and after sanctions — bears that out”. In the aftermath of the 2012 elections, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made the following statement: “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous”. Still, even before the JCPOA was announced, everybody’s favourite scaremonger Bibi tweeted on 8 July that “Iran’s aggression is more dangerous than that of ISIS, and the true goal of this aggression in the end is to take over the world”, hinting at an imminent nuclear holocaust in case of an amicable agreement and a concordant easing of the sanctions’ regime. On a basic level, the West is suspicious of the Islamic Republic of Iran because it is a theocratic democracy — oftentimes portrayed in the mainstream media as a “fundamentalist regime” that poses a clear and present danger. The Iranian system as a theocratic democracy is such that the Supreme Leader has the ultimate power and the nation’s President “is more like a vice president . . . than a real executive”, in the words of the eminent Middle East specialist Professor Juan Cole. The Supreme Leader is the commander in chief of the armed forces and the one who ultimately decides on nuclear and other national policy.
The celebrated JCPOA was concluded to “ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful”, marking the start of a new era, a new era of understanding and cooperation between the West and Iran. The E3/EU+3 “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”. Furthermore, the “JCPOA will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy”. And already on Monday, 13 July 2015, the Iranian newspaper Jahan-e Sanat announced on its front page that 8 Iranian banks had re-joined the SWIFT transaction system, which facilitates worldwide bank transfers. In fact, preliminary talks over restoration of financial transactions with Iranian banks had been underway since last April.
Now the world has woken up to another day, a new day that sees the Islamic Republic of Iran becoming part of the international community again. This whole nuclear diplomatic debâcle has been nothing but a Manufactured Crisis, to quote the title of Gareth Porter’s recent book on the issue. As a result, it would seem that the nuclear issue was nothing but a diplomatic device skilfully employed to ostracize the Islamic Republic and turn the potentially powerful regional player into an effective pariah state. Nevertheless, in the end an agreement was reached and now, as stated by the document itself, “[s]uccessful implementation of this JCPOA will enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in line with its obligations therein, and the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any other non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT”. This means that in the not too faraway future, Iran will set up its own nuclear power plants, nuclear power plants which will produce electricity for local consumption, allowing the Islamic Republic to capitalize on the sale of its hydrocarbon assets, so coveted by the rest of the world. Iran won’t be the first regional player willing to capitalize on this alternative source of energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) indicates that at the outset of the 21st century about 13% of the world’s electricity is produced by nuclear power plants.
But what happens inside a nuclear power plant and is it really a safe and sound way to produce energy? Even though the term “nuclear” conjures up all kinds of futuristic imagery and might give people the idea that “nuclear fission” is a power source in its own right, in truth the heat and energy generated by the splitting of atoms, or fission, is simply used to heat water and produce steam. As a result, a nuclear power plant is nothing but a thermal power station using nuclear energy as its heat source. In a nuclear reactor at the heart of a nuclear power plant, heat is generated by controlled nuclear fission which is then used to raise steam. This steam then runs through turbines powering electrical generators. This means that nuclear power plants are no different from other thermal power stations. The only real difference is that the heat source at the heart of the plant is nuclear fission, rather than coal or hydrocarbon assets. And hence, there are no emission of greenhouse gases involved.
But in spite if this clearly positive aspect, nuclear power plants pose other kinds of dangers. The World Nuclear Association might very well declare on its website that the “use of nuclear energy for electricity generation can be considered extremely safe. Every year several thousand people die in coal mines to provide this widely used fuel for electricity. There are also significant health and environmental effects arising from fossil fuel use”. In truth, nuclear power plants pose a great danger to the environment and human life. For starters, there are the health effects of radiation. As explained by Professor Bernard L. Cohen, this “radiation consists of subatomic particles traveling at or near the velocity of light—186,000 miles per second. They can penetrate deep inside the human body where they can damage biological cells and thereby initiate a cancer. If they strike sex cells, they can cause genetic diseases in progeny”. An even greater source of danger is posed by the radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuels. These waste products also emit radioactivity which diminishes over time, but the time frames in question range from 10,000 to millions of years.
According to the World Nuclear Association, a pro-nuclear international organization, at present about 45 countries are “actively considering embarking” upon nuclear power programmes. The organization’s website posted about a month ago that the “front runners after Iran are [the] UAE, Turkey, Vietnam, Belarus, Poland and possibly Jordan”. In fact, Iran’s north-eastern neighbour Turkey is close to initiating two nuclear power plants on the Anatolian peninsula — a first one near the southern city of Akkuyu in the Mediterranean province of Mersin, and a second one located near the north-western city of Sinop on the Black Sea. This first Turkish nuclear power plant will be located in the vicinity of the East Anatolian Fault and thus very likely to experience an earthquake at some stage. The second one will operate in the vicinity of the North Anatolian Fault – a faultline has often been in the news because of earthquakes and minor tremors. It is a 1,500-kilometer-long east-west trending fault that runs across most of Turkey. Since 1939, a progression of deadly earthquakes has been marching westward across the fault – westward towards Istanbul. Turkey’s largest city was struck by a major earthquake in 1999 and has been waiting for the next big tremor to hit ever since.
It seems particularly ironic that the Sinop nuclear power plant is being built by a Japanese firm, as reported by the Turkish news agency Anadolu Ajansı (AA): “Turkey and Japan on Friday [, 24 December 2010] signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish a nuclear power plant in a northern Turkish city”. In 2012, then still Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (currently, President of the Republic or the Prez) declared that “[w]hat happened at Fukushima upset all of us. But these things can happen. Life goes on. Successful steps are being taken now with the use of improved technology”. In spite of these optimistic and reassuring words, opposition against the construction of these nuclear power plants in Turkey remains vocal and active, particularly in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that led to a number of nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. And, it does bear repeating at this stage that the Iranian plateau is also a region prone to earthquakes and all kinds of types of tectonic activity. In this century alone more than ten major earthquakes have hit Iran so far. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that “[a]ctive faults have not been mapped and trenched in Iran to the degree that they have in more developed countries”, as related by the geologists Manuel Berberian and Robert S. Yeats All in all, the fact that a number of projected nuclear power plants in the neighbours Turkey and Iran now seem to be in the works is anything but reassuring. And in this context, it seems worthwhile to take a few steps back and reconsider the disaster that occurred in Japan in March 2011. While it is true that the Fukushima nuclear disaster has all but left the current news cycles, this does not necessarily mean that all is well in Japan.
As recently as last month, AP’s Tokyo-based reported Mari Yamaguchi wrote an in-depth piece on Fukushima and her words are far from reassuring indeed, starting off that “the road ahead remains riddled with unknowns”. She next puts forward that “[e]xperts have yet to pinpoint the exact location of the melted fuel inside the three reactors and study it, and still need to develop robots capable of working safely in such highly radioactive conditions”, and as an afterthought adds, “[a]nd then there’s the question of what to do with the [nuclear] waste”. Yamaguchi goes on to list “[s]ome of the uncertainties and questions”, starting with the issue of the “fuel rods”, then mentioning the “melted fuel”, which she calls the “the hardest part of the decommissioning”, then moving on to the issue of the “contaminated water” that is seeping into the underground and possibly into the Pacific Ocean as well. And last by not least, Mari Yamaguchi refers to the matter of the “radioactive waste”. She elaborates on the issue by saying that “Japan currently has no plan for the waste that comes out of the plant”, adding that “[w]aste management is an extremely difficult task that requires developing technology to compact and reduce the toxicity of the waste, while finding a waste storage site is practically impossible considering public sentiment”. As such, the words written by AP’s Yamaguchi should manage to stir the public and awaken a greater awareness of the dangers inherent in the construction of nuclear power plants, particularly in regions which are earthquake-prone, such as Japan, Turkey, and Iran.
As a result, one could put forward that even Iran’s pursuit of a “nuclear programme” that is “exclusively peaceful” in nature might very well prove dangerous and pose a dire threat to the region and beyond. But it seems that the Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to exercise its newly gained rights and will, together with Turkey (and the UAE) proceed to construct extremely dangerous technological marvels to boil water in the Middle East.