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Iran and nuclear weapons. A personal reflection.

by Gunnar Westberg


In the nineteen sixties there were many who believed that there was a military threat from China against  Europe. “Optimists learn Russian, pessimists learn Chinese” was a common joke. “Whatever you say, China is hell on earth” I heard a respected politician say in 1965. So I went there to see for myself, together with about thirty other young persons, travelling the transsiberian railway. When after five weeks of travel in China I left Beijing, I cried. I cried because I thought I would never see this marvelous city again. I would be destroyed by a nuclear attack.

When recently I stood on the great square in Isfahan in Iran, one of the most beautiful places in any city anywhere in the world, I felt a similar sorrow. If USA or Israel attacks the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, not far from Isfahan, also this square, this masterpiece, this wonderful old city, would be destroyed.

What happened to me during these travels was that I saw the world from the perspective of The Other. Man has an ability to feel what another human being feels. Travels can have this outcome.

A conference was held in Tehran April 17 and 18 2010 with the theme Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for no one. Shortly before there had been a conference in the USA against nuclear proliferation. I was invited to participate in place of a member of Pugwash in Denmark, who could not take part for health reasons. The Iran Foreign Office paid my travel and hotel.

Of course you run the risk of being used by a totalitarian regime. We have experience of this problem in IPPNW. Our organization was founded as a bridge between East and West, USA and USSR. Attempts were certainly made from the Soviet Union to support the standpoints of that country. Maybe they succeeded occasionally, but more often we could get our ideas into Soviet media. I remember how surprised we were that so many people had been impressed by what Bernard Lown, one of the founders of IPPNW, has said on his appearances on Soviet TV.

At the Tehran conference there were official representatives from about 40 countries, most of them members of what in the UN is called The Non-Aligned Movement. Russia and China were also represented, but not EU or the USA. Very few NGOs participated, and few western journalists. Four US academics with great expertise on Iran were present.

At the opening ceremony both the Supreme Leader Ayatolla Khamenei, the highest leader in Iran, and President Ahmadinejad gave statements. The President attacked the injustice that Iran was not allowed to develop its peaceful nuclear energy program, while the nuclear weapons of Israel were not discussed in the UN Security Council

The last sentence in the statement by Ayatolla Khamenei was important: “We regard the use of such weapons as Haraam (against the will of God) and it is the duty of everybody to secure mankind against this great catastrophe”. This statement was later explained and discussed by six mullahs in a panel.

I see this statement – and several similar that have been made at earlier occasions – as important. During the war between Iran and Iraq in the eighties Iraq used chemical weapons against both military and civilian targets. Iran had access to these weapons but refrained from using them because they were Haraam.

The most important discussion took place during coffee breaks and other social occasions. During these breaks I was approached by scores of journalists from newspaper, radio and TV. I also participated in four longer TV programs.

The most common question from journalists was: What can Iran do to convince the world that we do not intend to acquire nuclear weapons? My response was, with variations: Ratify the nuclear test ban treaty, CTBT!; Cooperate fully with the IAEA and accept the Additional Protocol; Your President should also repeatedly and clearly state that Iran will not attack Israel!

This last point caused opposition. The President has never said that we will attack Israel, but Israel has said they will attack Iran. I said that this may well be true, but in the West many believe that Iran is going to destroy Israel. This your President must clearly declare is not the case.

Well, does Iran intend to build nuclear weapons? I am inclined to say that I do not believe so. I believe there are leaders who consider rationally the interest of Iran. They realize that if the country acquires a handful nuclear weapons – which will take several years – they run a high risk of being attacked by the USA or by Israel, maybe with nuclear weapons.

It has been proposed that Iran wants a “virtual nuclear weapon”. They would like to be able to say that we have all the pieces; we can assemble the bomb in two months. I am beginning to doubt this. It is very difficult for the Iranian leaders to know where ”the red line” runs. Israel is unpredictable, partly because of its domestic political situation. The USA builds a picture of Iran as the Great Danger and seems to want most of all a regime change in Iran. And the US government does not understand Iran. Thus Iran has to be careful not to thread too close to this “red line”

There are several centers of power in Iran, influencing foreign policy. Competition between these can increase the risk of escalation of tension with USA and thus increase the risk of war.

But the great danger is an attack by Israel, a country of Fear even more than the USA. Fear of the development in Iran, Hizbollah’s attacks and the feeling of isolation in Israel increase the risk that Israel attacks nuclear installations in Iran. Israel sees the attack on the nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 as a success, and Israel recently bombed a presumed nuclear site in Syria, with impunity. Why not attack Iranian nuclear installations, before it is too late?

The immediate military cost to Israel would be relatively small. Israel could attack a few nuclear and military installations from the air. The USA would then feel obliged to” clean up” to prevent Iranian revenge and in order to show USA support for Israel. The US attack would have to be directed against many targets in Iran, in order to incapacitate for a longtime the Iranian ability to retaliate. Such a scenario has been described recently by the US AF Colonel Sam Gardiner (“The Israeli Threat”) (see also the Swedish Defense Research Institute).

The political cost for the USA would be enormous and long lasting. If Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz the economic consequences for the whole world would be disastrous.

An attack on Iran by Israel or by USA, or an attack by Iran on Israel would of course be not only illegal but also irrational. However, wars often start without reason or premeditated intention as a consequence of increasing tension, misunderstandings and escalating threats.


Learn about Nuclear Weapons

Learn About Nuclear Weapons is a web-based educational material from the Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons for those who want to learn more about nuclear weapons: