Why Washington Fears Iran

“Tehran has developed technical expertise in a number of areas – including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles – from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” reads Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper’s April 2013 report to the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

Then comes the statement usually ignored by mass media: “We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

The fact that Iran is not producing a nuclear bomb – nay, hasn’t even decided if it wants to – has not deterred the US government from slapping the Islamic Republic with the most punishing unilateral sanctions in history.

While the Iranian economy struggles to adjust to periodic US sanctions “upgrades,” a significantly devalued currency and restrictions in global financial transactions have suddenly challenged even Iran’s famed adaptability to these kinds of externally-imposed pressures.

But something is awry. There is no implosion in Iran. How is that possible with off-the-chart hikes in the price of basic goods, unaffordable housing in congested urban areas, increased youth unemployment? Instead, Iranians who love nothing better than to complain about government and economy, have grumpily rallied against these foreign efforts to pit population against state.

According to results of a Gallup poll in February, 85 percent of Iranians claim sanctions have hurt their livelihood either “a great deal” or “somewhat.” But 70 percent of those polled blame external parties (the US, western European countries, Israel, and the UN) for this suffering; remarkably, only 10 percent blame their government and their leaders. Instead of sanctions forcing a change in Iran’s calculation about pursuing nuclear enrichment – which is a stated US goal – 65 percent of Iranians favor a continuation of the country’s nuclear power capabilities.

As former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed El Baradei astutely observed before leaving his 11-year post: “The line was, ‘Iran will buckle under pressure.’ But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride. They talk about their nuclear program as if they had gone to the moon.”

Instead of changing tack and identifying novel ways to gain favor with Iran’s population while pressuring their leaders, the US administration went off the rails last week and upped the sanctions ante – targeting for the first time Iran’s rial currency and its auto industry, a large source of domestic jobs.

No – there can no longer be any mistake about what that means. Washington isn’t trying to change Iran’s “calculations” about “its nuclear program.” It is trying to break Iran’s back.

“Let Them Try”

“US power and reach is in decline,” says Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Majlis’ (parliament) foreign affairs and national security committees, and cheerily expects to out-maneuver, out-last, and out-smart the Americans.

As with all decision makers in Iran, any discussion of US sanctions gets you a slow smile and a political lesson.

“The new realities in Iran don’t seem to be apparent to the US after 33 years. They’re still focused on regime change, sanctions, cyber war, military operations. The result of this strategy has been to the US detriment (financially draining) and to our advantage,” explains Boroujerdi.

In this period, “Iran gained incredible technology. The US didn’t want us to have nuclear capability – and we have done so from the basics to where we are now in a peaceful nuclear program. They tried to restrict our knowledge and our development. In these three decades we obtained advanced technologies ourselves – building and launching satellites, developing nanotechnology from scratch, developing a domestic arsenal of weapons,” he continued.

“We used Iranian brainpower, our youth; we have attained the unattainable – we changed the process. How many other countries could have done this?”

That’s the crux of it. David vs Goliath. The nimble, determined developing nation upstart facing down the global bully and a crumbling Empire. That image can inspire passion here in Iran – which may explain some of those earlier Gallup numbers and the upward tick in polling data for presidential candidates who talk tough on negotiations with the US.

In short, many Iranians feel the US and other Western nations want to stunt their independence, development, and scientific progress – keeping the country “backward and needy;” a dumping ground for stale Western products and services in exchange for the petrodollars of a one-commodity economy.

“Nuclear” Saves Lives in Iran

I visit a University of Tehran campus that houses the first nuclear medicine center in the country. This is the teaching nexus from which most of the nation’s nuclear medicine specialists graduate. It is a relatively new specialty – a few decades old – but already there are 130 nuclear medicine centers around Iran and an equal number of specialized doctors.

“Nuclear medicine is a real peaceful use of nuclear energy,” explains Dr. Mohsen Saghari who heads the center and is also the president of the Iranian Society of Nuclear Medicine. “We basically use radioactive materials for diagnostics and therapeutic purposes – we do all the treatments and scans (bone, heart, liver, spleen, renal, breast, thyroid, lungs) at this facility.”

As I quickly learned, nuclear medicine is several things: For the purpose of diagnostics, when administered into the body these radiopharmaceuticals can “image” disease at the cellular level, thereby detecting illness earlier than via x-ray, CT-Scans or MRIs, for instance, which rely on the visible manifestation of disease for detection to be possible.

It is like radiology from the inside – instead of the external radiation passing through your body to capture an image from an x-ray, in nuclear medicine, external cameras capture images from the radiation emitted by a radiopharmaceutical administered into a patient.

Nuclear medicine is also used for the purpose of therapeutic treatment. These are specialized drugs that emit short distances of radiation thereby reducing undesirable side effects.

At the center that day, I saw maybe 20 patients and family members in a seating area awaiting a scan or outpatient treatment, mostly for thyroid cancers and hyperthyroidism, according to the medical professional who took me on a tour.

“Most of the procedures we do here are complementary, but in a few cases, they are the only procedures and nothing else can substitute them,” says Saghari. “But because of sanctions we have problems. If we want radioactive materials or equipment, they won’t sell them to us.”

So Iran decided to make its own.

Most of his center’s radioactive materials are produced by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which fuels up those nuclear reactors that make people in Washington and Tel Aviv all wobbly-kneed and shrill.

Saghari showed me a sealed vial – or “cold kit” – that contained a few pinches of a powdered substance. Iran makes that part of the drug too because the newer US (unilateral) sanctions have made it hard for Iranians to trade in Western currencies and transact through most banks. The vial remains sealed until radioactive material is injected into it – which then makes it an active radiopharmaceutical used in diagnostics and treatment.

As my notes recall, 90 percent of these diagnostic procedures require a synthetically-produced chemical element called Technetium, which is produced at Iran’s nuclear plants via a process using 20 percent enriched uranium and then extracted from the nuclear rod fuels to create the necessary medical isotopes.

Says Saghari, “Even in the black market, the importation of chemotherapies and high-tech medications have largely stopped with the latest rounds of sanctions.”

So Iran relies on its own nuclear power plants to fill in – and eventually altogether replace – imports. “Sometimes we get shortages, at the present time they can produce.”

Not a lot of countries produce radiopharmeceuticals. Saghari named just Canada, the US, England, France, Russia and China. Like others leading the charge toward self-sufficiency in Iran, he anticipates that one day Iran will be producing competitive, lower-cost radiopharmeceuticals for export.

“Each week we see 20 to 24 new thyroid cancer patients – last month I had 94 inpatients, 876 diagnostic scans performed and 700 outpatients for thyroid illnesses,” he says, flicking through some administrative papers to try to give me an accurate count. “Every year in Iran about one million people get referred for diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.”

“So of course we are going to make it ourselves,” insists Saghari.

Baa, Baa, Cloned Sheep

A 2010 Canadian report on the “geo-political shift in knowledge creation” claims scientific output has grown 11 times faster in Iran than the global average – faster than in any other country in the world. I recall reading this tidbit three years ago and wondering how that could be right. In previous trips to Iran, I couldn’t say that I ever noted visible signs of ‘unusual progress.’

I don’t think most Iranians think much about this either. Discussing my interviews with friends and acquaintances during my visit, most seemed surprised, even shocked that this much development was going on under their noses. The Iranian government, good or bad, suffers acutely from an inability to communicate its value propositions to the wider population. Which really, quite frankly, cripples it when faced with the well-oiled spin-machines of hostile Western and Arab states seeking to vilify the Islamic Republic.

Every Iranian has an opinion on the country’s nuclear energy program for the simple reason that this is the one ‘development project’ they all know about…so rarely is it out of the international headlines.

This kind of hyper-scientific growth is essential, says Dr. Hamid Gourabi, president of the Royan Institute, a leader in stem cell and reproductive biomedicine in Iran: “Scientific progress can make countries independent – and apply pressure on others.”

If you think his message has political undertones, you are right. It is something I hear in all my meetings. “After the revolution, we decided instead of being dependent on oil, we should diversify into sciences and other areas.”

Royan, a quasi-governmental institute, was established to solve a basic problem: young Iranian couples with fertility problems were having to travel outside the country and spend large sums of money to conceive. The organization started with very basic fertility treatments in 1991 and two years later the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) child was born in Tehran. With a 40 percent success rate, the institute now does more than 4,000 cycles every year – in Europe there are less than ten clinics that perform more than 1,000.

Royan was playing catch-up with some of its early endeavors. In 2006 it cloned its first sheep, followed by two transgenic kid goats called Shangool and Mangool (named after popular children’s characters in Iran), and then by calves – each using slightly different biotechnologies.

Gourabi’s institute is not ultimately interested in replicating other’s successes though – it wants to forge its own way. He tells me about some important thinking that went on in Iran during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997-2005: “We wanted to expand in sciences, technologies – Khatami didn’t think Iran could advance ‘car-making’ for example – we wanted to go into areas where Iran can bring leadership.” But, he says, ultimately, “the scientific community is the main impetus behind this – they push the government.” Then he adds with a twinkle that Iran’s Supreme Leader “Khamenei has a huge interest in science.”

Since then Royan has branched out in all sorts of directions. Stem cell research is today the most advanced part of what the group does, and Iran, according to Gourabi, is now only the 8th nation in the world to produce scientific output on stem cells.

He also confirms that “sanctions have been a key motivator” for the rush to development. “One of the products we need cost us a million dollars to import. Now we produce it ourselves, it costs us very little. Iran sells biotech to other countries – we offer a lower cost than most companies.”

Gourabi, whose institute has been denied laser technology-based products by the US’ restrictive sanctions regime, says with some confidence: “We will end up producing these drugs for ourselves, so pirating and patent-busting becomes prolific. And they (the West) lose a good market for their products.”

He’s not worried about isolation either: “Sanctions do affect our work – time is important in science and sanctions cause delays – but we are contributing in a big way to the global scientific community now, and this collaboration helps us.”

Nanotechnology 101

A decade ago, Iranian decision makers and scientists were trying to solve a large problem: “In less than 100 years, we will run out of all these oil resources. How do we have an economy then?”

The prevalent thinking was that Iran needed to develop sectors that would help it create a “knowledge-based economy” where it could establish itself as a global leader. The country had underperformed on IT and biotech, so it took its time in studying the potential of nanotechnology. Three years later it decided to plunge in.

“Our mission was to be among the top 15 countries in the world in all rings of the ‘value chain’ – all the way from developing the human resources to commercialization and wealth creation,” say Dr. Seyed Mehdi Rezayat and Dr. Ali Beitollahi, senior officials at The Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council (INIC).

“Today, more than 14,000 are engaged in Iran’s nanotech industry – a decade ago you couldn’t count the number of people on two hands who understood what it meant,” laughs Beitollahi.

The data starts flowing. In the past five years, Iran has registered 95 patents for nanotechnology products and processes. Dozens of Iranian universities have been corralled into creating graduate and doctoral programs in advanced nanotech. Because of sanctions and embargos, Iranians are making sophisticated machinery that they otherwise would have bought. Twenty five Iranian companies have now commercialized nano equipment because nobody would sell it to them.

In a short time, the Islamic Republic has become one of only six nations involved in nanotech standardization – all others are Western countries (US, UK, Canada, Germany) with the exception of Japan.

The applications in nanotech are broad. From eco-efficiencies like coating glass that keeps heat out, to strengthening building materials in earthquake prone areas, to creating cancer drugs to water filtration and desalinization.

“In high-tech you can get much more advanced benefit than from commercial technologies,” says Rezaiat. “Every kilogram of cement is just a few cents. The main cost of things is knowledge and technology, so why should a country like Iran stick to cement?”

“We learned a lot of lessons from our previous lack of achievement,” he reflects, adding, “We used to buy turnkey projects and we didn’t even know what was inside.” Now, says Rezaiat, “Nano has become a model for the country. We started from scratch – we will look, learn about everything.”

Why Washington Fears Iran?

A rigorous report published last week on Iran sanctions by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says the following:

“There is a growing body of opinion and Iranian assertions that indicates that Iran, through actions of the government and the private sector, is mitigating the economic effect of sanctions. Some argue that Iran might even benefit from sanctions over the long term by being compelled to diversify its economy and reduce dependence on oil revenues. Iran’s 2013-2014 budget relies far less on oil exports than have previous budgets, and its exports of minerals, cement, urea fertilizer, and other agricultural and basic industrial goods are increasing substantially.”

A year ago I wrote an article titled “How Iran Changed the World.” In it I warn that continued economic pressures on Iran will produce the unintended consequence of undermining Western hegemony very decisively.

The US, after all, is aggressively challenging the Islamic Republic at a time when the entire Western financial and economic order is teetering on the brink of collapse, with no apparent safety net in sight.

Iran is an extremely resourceful country of 78 million people, a huge export market for many nation keen to bolster its treasuries, and has major strategically valuable commodities – oil and gas – that people are keen to buy.

The tighter the sanctions, the more likely that Iran and its trading partners will seek innovative ways around them. In effect, by putting the screws on this important country (Iran is today the head of the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement and increasingly protected by the emerging BRICS economies), the US is encouraging the development of alternative financial and economic practices that will fundamentally undermine – perhaps even destroy – its own global order.

Every global power throughout history has ended its reign at the hands of an adversary, whether on the battlefield or in a grand power play that goes wrong. What Washington rightfully fears is that its three-decade-long tussle with the Islamic Republic is unwinnable – which is nothing short of defeat for the world’s last superpower.

Unable to get off its current trajectory of escalation, the US continues to seek new, illogical, increasingly indefensible ways to squeeze Iran’s population. But the fact is that sanctions simply don’t work: Iran is not going to stop its nuclear enrichment. Iranians aren’t going to eject their government.

This will not end well for the US. Iran…I’m not so worried about.

This is the second in a two-part series on my 2012 research trips to Iran to discover what makes the Islamic Republic so resilient in the face of Western economic and political pressures. You can read Part 1, “Why Arabs Need Iran” here.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.