I got chills even though it was warm in the bus. Not far outside of Qom, a very holy city in central Iran, one of our group leaders pointed out a barren landscape to the west as the underground site of Fordow, an uranium enrichment facility needed to make a nuclear bomb. No wonder I had chills. I reached for my camera to take a snapshot of this supposedly secret site but our Iranian guide said with a sense of urgency, “no pictures allowed.” We all immediately complied. Although the Iranian leaders say that want a nuclear program for nuclear energy, I have a hard time accepting this assertion. I think it is for a bomb.
This took place in 2007 when I visited Iran with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-making group that sponsors delegations to Iran. Their purpose is to have Americans meet activist groups and the Iranian people in order for us to have a broader sense of the nation than what is portrayed in the U.S. media. But Fordow and Iran have entered the international discussion yet again in the fall of 2013. The often belligerent dialogue, especially between the U.S. and Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, has now eased a bit, especially with the overwhelming vote for a new president, Hassan Rouhani, in a democratic election. In June 2013, he defeated the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a bellicose provocateur intent on inflaming anti-American sentiment.
In fact, Rouhani charmed the delegates at the United Nations meeting in September in New York. He even exchanged a few casual text messages with President Obama. But the question still remains: should the international community agree to permit Iran to develop an uranium enrichment program? My simple response is an emphatic NO. The idealist in me says no nation should have nuclear weapons, including my own country. But I don’t want to use this blog space to argue about whether Iran should have a nuclear weapon.
We established the Center for Global Awareness to offer educators and students different perspectives on global topics and history. So, I would like to examine Iran’s desire to have a nuclear program from a different point of view than you might readily find in the media. Why is Iran focused on a uranium enrichment program? Is their intent to develop a bomb? Do the Iranian people even want a bomb? This does not mean that I want Iran to have a bomb, but I think it is important that we attempt to understand why they are so insistent on developing a nuclear program.
First, Iran borders what they consider some unsavory neighbors. They share a border with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. One of these countries – Pakistan – has the bomb, while their close neighbors – Israel, India, and Russia – also have bombs. Some in Iran feel, with good reason, that there is a culture of the strongest survives in the region, and they need the bomb to project an image of strength.
Second, Iran considers their arch-enemies to be Israel and the United States, who they have called the “Great Satan.” It seems to me as if Iran loves to have an enemy, someone to blame. Culturally and historically, they have seen themselves as the victim. Once again the debate about the bomb plays into Iran’s perception of needing to protect themselves against unjust persecution. They perceive the international community as “ganging up” on them to prevent their legitimate right to make a bomb. Focusing on the need to protect their nation against enemies removes the international focus on the undemocratic control that Iran exerts over its people.
Third, Iran has a glorious history, from the Persian Empire onward. I make the case that Iranians think they are exceptional. As their reasoning goes, they would have been great in the 20th century but for the meddling of the Russians, British, and Americans. One way to project their greatness is to have a bomb and to be accepted by the nuclear powers of the world as an equal. One student commented to me while visiting the country that Iran has a more glorious history than the U.S. but the U.S. has the technological advantage. But, as he said, “that will not be for long. We will catch up.”
I would imagine that negotiators will be looking at the Iranian needs as talks continue in Geneva about their nuclear program and the possibility of admitting them back into the international community. They have been isolated for too long. When I visited Iran I met many warm, generous and hospitable people, eager to join the international community. These people deserve better than the economic stagnation resulting from the U.S.-led sanctions and the confrontational stance of their leaders. It looks as though the new Iranian leaders realize the wishes of the Iranian people and are out to start a new and more peaceful chapter in American-Iranian relations.