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Davis, California

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Column: Nuclear ambitions

Sometimes it seems the older I get, the more I realize I don’t really understand.

Though I find matters of foreign policy fascinating, it seems very difficult to accurately predict or explain the actions of other countries. Too often people of one ideological stripe or another will bend events to serve their own purposes, often ascribing to others motivations and causes that conveniently fit into their own agenda. With this in mind, I have so far this year written exclusively on domestic affairs and sought to avoid the pitfalls of speaking on foreign policy.

But once in a great while, I feel compelled to make an exception to address foreign affairs. The Iranian nuclear program demands one such exception, in part because of the upcoming local showing of a very interesting film, Iranium.

It is common knowledge that Iran seeks nuclear capabilities, but beyond that there is much uncertainty and confusion over what has happened so far and what we should do, if anything, in response to the efforts of the Iranian government.

A few days ago I spoke on the phone with Dr. Marvin Goldman, a retired UC Davis professor and expert on nuclear radiation – the kind of guy who knows how to make a nuke. Iran has generally insisted that the purposes of their nuclear research are entirely peaceful, that they seek only more energy for the daily life of their people.

Is there a way to determine the intentions of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and the other religious leaders, should they develop a serious nuclear industry?

“It’s public knowledge that they have very many nuclear facilities throughout the country, far more than what would be needed to build a nuclear power plant,” Dr. Goldman told me. “A lot of these are built underground, which is strange for a peaceful energy program.” He added that it’s additionally odd for Iran to refuse to let in the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s designated nuclear watchdog, to inspect said Iranian facilities.

“If they’re not letting the inspectors in, what are they trying to hide?”

Simultaneously excited and honored to speak with such a distinguished faculty member, I probed further. How do we really know that their program isn’t peaceful?

“I think they have the third largest oil reserves in the world, as well as all that natural gas, so they have a lot of fossil energy,” Dr. Goldman said. “I also think their [nuclear] enrichment program goes far beyond what you would need for a peaceful program. They have something like 12 reactors.”

So not only does Iran have no need for nuclear energy, given their abundance of other sources, but the scope of their nuclear endeavors suggests far greater ambitions than a simple power plant.

“This is something we shouldn’t assume anything about,” Dr. Goldman said. “If the government there has the willpower to [make nuclear weapons], they certainly have the money to buy the expertise to do it too, and a very capable industrial capacity.”

Which brings me to the film Iranium. Skeptical as I should be of any film claiming to have the answers in matters of foreign policy, I was very pleased to be able to contact the director, Alex Tramain.

“Iran is on the cusp of getting nuclear weapons,” Tramain said to me one afternoon, despite a nine-hour time difference to Israel. “The same regime that has been a sponsor of terror for the last 30 years and oppressed its people is now going to get the most powerful weapon in the world.”

Having seen his film, I can attest to an impressive telling of the history of Iran going back to the 1970s, along with an analysis of what such an unpredictable and aggressive government could do with even crude nuclear weapons. Countless experts from all angles are interviewed, along with Democratic and Republican politicians, to make for a very convincing case that something needs to be done about Iran.

Perhaps the trickiest question on Iran is what exactly to do about their nuclear program, which most experts agree will “bear fruit” within a year or two. Commenting on potential military action against yet another nation in the Middle East is not something I am willing to do without a helluva lot more space than I have left, but the film does conclude by offering several recommendations for what we can do in our present predicament. I strongly advise anyone who is allergic to nuclear explosions to go see it.

The film will be shown this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, at noon at the Varsity Theater. Tickets are $10.

Reach ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.

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