July 2, 2008

Reflections from Nuclear Tourists

Ever heard of a couple choosing to vacation at nuclear energy sites? Your answer is probably no but that is exactly what husband and wife, Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, decided to do when writing their book A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry. In addition to visiting sites in America and Russia, they traveled to Iran in 2007 after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s 2006 invitation when he welcomed students, tourists and other visitors to see Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to display his country’s peaceful intentions.

The couple, both of who are defense analysts – Hodge writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly and Weinberger writes for Wired’s national security blog, Danger Room spoke about their trip to the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility at an event hosted by the Center for National Policy last Thursday.

When they considered traveling to Iran Weinberger and Hodge knew they would not be given free reign. Weinberger recognized that Iranian officials would “show you the things they want you to see…(and) point out the things they want to point out.” However, they wanted to view nuclear facilities in states perceived by the West as national security threats; the level of access they could gain in Iran was greater than was available in India or Pakistan.

In Iran they were taken on a two-day tour of Esfahan. They travelled in a group, the majority of which was diplomats from other Middle Eastern countries. They spent one day at the Esfahan Conversion Facility and the second touring the city. Weinberger and Hodge said Esfahan was rich in culture and the tour served to display what would be destroyed if the US decided to bomb the area.

It was clear to them that on an official state level “there were people who most definitely didn’t want us to be there.” However, this attitude was not present on the ground. They felt there was “a great deal of happiness” shown by Iranian civilians when they saw Americans. Weinberger said that she sensed a “frustration (amongst Iranians) with their own government for being cut off from the rest of the world.”

Whilst in Tehran the couple wanted to visit the US Embassy, the site of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. Upon hearing this, Iranian people tried to dissuade them. This was not due to anti-Americanism but because Iranians felt ashamed of what had happened. Weinberger said that the American Embassy evoked “embarrassment for a great deal of – especially educated – Iranians.”

In addition to visiting Esfahan they met various Iranian politicians and representatives from non-profit organizations. As Americans, they were constantly asked about potential airstrikes on Iran. It was emphasized that Iran would not give into US demands to stop enrichment and that an airstrike would result in a deterioration of oil transportation, regional instability and an Iranian withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The abandonment of the NPT would end IAEA oversight and Hodge argued this would, “only lead to a worsening of the situation.”

Such observations are extremely pertinent given recent reports expressing the likelihood of Israeli airstrikes on Iran between the upcoming US election and January, when the new President will be sworn in.

The couple seemed pessimistic about the chances of stemming Iran’s nuclear development. On a popular level they recognized that the government had “drummed up a lot of public support” for nuclear energy and banners in the streets read “Nuclear Energy is a Right.” They also commented there was a strong feeling that the Iranian government “has the right…to develop their own indigenous capability,” because it is provided for in the NPT.

However, they expressed doubt about how receptive the Iranian public would be to a nuclear weapons program, as opposed to the development of nuclear energy. Weinberger said, “there is probably not a lot of public support for a nuclear program” after people fell victim to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). She indicated this sentiment might change if there were airstrikes on Iran.

They also saw the costs of Iran’s economic isolation from the West. Hodge said, “sanctions certainly are effective in slowing down Iran’s nuclear program” but he did not see them as successfully discouraging Iran’s progress in this field. He noted that uranium enrichment has become “too important an issue of national pride for the Iranian government to give up.” Weinberger added that the nuclear program also provides a useful way for the government to distract attention from its own economic mismanagement and corruption.

Addressing what America’s next move should be in relation to Iran, the nuclear tourists said that “destroying Iran’s nuclear capability is impossible.” Its nuclear facilities are spread throughout the country and Iranian officials told them that airstrikes would only set them back a couple of years. Therefore, Weinberger argued, unless the US wants to bomb Iran every few years a bombing strategy is not the best way forward and America must “think of the long term consequences.”

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