“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Just a year before he died, Einstein remarked to an old friend that the greatest mistake he had ever made was in persuading President Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project. He was horrified by the utter devastation the atom bomb wreaked on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in over 200,000 casualties, and denounced the use of nuclear fission as a weapon until his final breath.
For the last decade, the greatest threat that Einstein’s prediction would come true, has lain with Iran. All the tensions and troubles surrounding Iran, its neighbours, and its adversaries centre around this issue of nuclear warfare, one that is now also gaining alarming pace in North Korea. We first found out about Iran’s nuclear programme in 2002, and after several years of disagreement, deception, and procrastination, the EU imposed sanctions on Iranian oil exports, as well as their banking institutions. Essentially, we didn’t believe a single word that came out of Tehran, that the programme was ‘peaceful’, and demanded that they stop enriching their uranium. Naturally, they refused. The President at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not only characterised by his blatant indifference towards human rights and destructive economic intervention, but his support of the nuclear programme.
But why did Iran even want to cultivate its nuclear power programme in the first place? Well, as is the case with so many of today’s developing economies in both the Middle East and Africa, the answer lies with us: the British, Britain and the unrelenting imperialism that began with Queen Victoria. Our interests in the land which had once been Persia, one of the oldest civilisations in the world (beginning with the Elamite kingdom around 3000BC) were naturally to do with oil. For two millennia, Iran was passed through the hands of the Achaemenid Empire, the Parthian Empire, the Sasanian Empire, and the Rashidun Caliphate. But throughout the first half of the 20th century, Iran was actually moving towards democracy, struggling desperately to establish its first national parliament. However, the British occupation during WWI only served to exacerbate tensions and social unrest, and we didn’t actually withdraw fully until 1921. Their Prime Minister, Reza Khan, became the Shah, and the two-century old autocratic Qajar Dynasty ended. But then came another British occupation during WWII. We withdrew this time in 1946, and five years later the popular Mohammed Mosaddegh became Prime Minister.
Now this was important. The opportunity Iran had here would not come again for another 63 years, until June 2013 to be precise. Also an author and a lawyer, Mosaddegh was democratically elected and immediately introduced a plethora of progressive economic reforms, with the aim of reducing the absolute power of the Shah and leading Iran towards a full democracy. This could really have been the start of Iran’s political evolution, however, once again, Britain intervened.
Why? One word: oil.
Mosaddegh realised just how little Iran was actually gaining from its rich oil industry as the whole thing had been controlled by the British since 1908 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. To remedy this, he nationalised the entire industry and expelled all Western companies from the oil refineries in the city of Abadan in 1952, proclaiming, “With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people . . . by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.”
Naturally, the British could not tolerate the loss of their single most valuable asset. Instead of backing off and allowing the reforming country to regain control of its own land, Britain, along with President Eisenhower and the Americans, organised a coup, overthrowing Mosaddegh and establishing a military government. The CIA funded the entire affair, and the Shah retained absolute power for the next three decades.
Does that seem fair?
The significance of this selfish intervention was that it destroyed US-Iranian relations for the next six decades. And also, many people are unaware of the fact that Iran’s nuclear programme was launched at this time, way back in the 1950s, by the United States. Yes, it was originally part of the Atoms for Peace research programme, but it went off the radar when the US-backed Shah was ousted by the Iranian people in the revolution of 1979. This established the Islamic republic, and soon after Hezbollah emerged, the Shiite Islamic militant group. As you can imagine, this exacerbated the situation due to the US support of Israel, and the hostilities between Iran and Israel. In 2002, President Bush denounced Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as the ‘axis of evil’, and marked the lowest point in their relations. Then Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 and, if possible, made things even worse when he began claiming the Holocaust never happened and accusing the US government of planning 9/11.
So what about Iran’s current President, Hassan Rouhani? Why is he so eager to reform and improve US-Iranian relations? Well, last year he shared a phone call with President Obama, the first direct communication between US and Iranian heads of state in over thirty years. His campaign slogan last June was “moderation and wisdom”, and he called for extensive social, economic and political reform, emulating the wishes of Mosaddegh all those years before. Let’s just hope that this time the west doesn’t mess it up, or we’ll find ourselves waiting for another 63 years.
So what does this all mean for Iran? What does it mean for the world?
Well, if Iran sticks to the agreement it made last November with the UN Security Council, all enrichment of uranium (above 5%) will stop by June this year. To actually make a nuclear bomb, enrichment has to reach 90%, but only 5% is necessary for commercial reactors. And, very worryingly, until January this year, Iran had been enriching its uranium to 20%. In return for the suspension of their nuclear programme, the economic sanctions on goods such as oil and gold will be lifted. So it seems we are now on course towards a brighter future, but there is still a long road ahead. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the next few months…