December 16, 2011

Always assuming the worst with Iran

Today we awoke to an AFP report that Iran had been caught red-handed trying to smuggle “nuclear material” out of Russia.  According the report, in response to this illegal act “a criminal enquiry has been launched.”  The report seemed to confirm many people’s beliefs about Iran’s willingness to use any means at its disposal, illicit or otherwise, in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Iran hawks have long been trying to compile evidence ranging from IAEA reports to “laptops of death” to support such assertions.  And no doubt today’s report about a furtive attempt to smuggle nuclear material into Iran must surely be one more piece of evidence demonstrating Iran’s efforts and intentions to pursue nuclear weapons. Right?
Wrong.  As more information emerged it turned out that the nuclear material was not weapons grade uranium or anything of the sort that could be used for any military purpose, but a rather innocuous radioactive isotope.  According to an ABC report:

On closer examination the isotope was identified as Na22, which is used in medicine.  It is commonly used to trace sodium in the body. It cannot be used in the production nuclear weapons.

While it is sometimes overlooked, there are very legitimate usages for nuclear material that range from civilian energy production to treating cancer.  In fact, Russia has an agreement in place with Iran to supply medical isotopes, such as Na22.   Such an agreement could mean that today’s “smuggling” of nuclear material is connected to a legitimate and recognized purpose, and not some nefarious militarized nuclear program.
Today’s revelations regarding this incident should illustrate two points.

First, while there is ample reason to be concerned about Iran’s intentions regarding its nuclear enrichment program, it is not necessarily the case that their only interests here are related to a weapons program.  In fact, if one recalls Ahmadinejad recently extended an offer, which he may or may not currently have the authority to follow through on, to end Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to sell Iran nuclear material for it medical research reactor.   Perhaps the U.S. would be well advised to revisit such a deal that would prevent Iran from producing additional highly enriched uranium that can be used in a military program, in exchange for nuclear material that is only suitable for medical purposes.
Second, the U.S. must be careful to not be so quick to jump to conclusions regarding Iran and its nuclear ambitions.  If today’s incident tells us anything it is that things are not always as they appear at first glance, and that by always assuming the worst about Iran we run risk of making incorrect judgments.  As such, we must always be on guard against such hastiness.  Lest, with tensions already so high, one county’s precipitous rush to action leads to the type of miscalculation that then Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen warned about.  All things considered, perhaps we should just be glad that Perry, Romney, Cheney, et al didn’t call in a military strike to destroy/seize the materials before we figured out it was medicine.

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