Iran's fiery president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seems to delight in provoking howls of outrage from the West. Most Iranians also seem to enjoy the spectacle.
To fete the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ahmadinejad gleefully announced his nation will enrich uranium to 20%. Western outrage was not long in coming.
US, European and Israeli politicians and media loudly denounced Iran's latest nuclear effort, claiming it would put Tehran within striking distance of achieving the 85-90% enrichment needed for nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the Florida-based US Central Command has been ostentatiously deploying anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems to Arab allies in the Gulf to counter any potential Iranian retaliation for a future American attack.
However, on closer view, the latest Iranian-American brouhaha was pretty much a tempest in a nuclear teapot.
Iran plans to only enrich 22 lbs of low-grade uranium to 20% level in order to fuel a small research reactor in Tehran to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and imaging. Iran insists it has no plans to produce nuclear weapons.
Tehran has offered to swap the initial 22 lbs of uranium and then larger amounts later for fuel rods from Europe and Russia. But Iran says the swap must be simultaneous, while the US-led Western powers demand Iran hand over its uranium first, then get the fuel rods at some later date -- if it behaves.
This rather silly fracas comes as Iran slowly develops a nuclear power industry to produce what it maintains will be electricity. Iran's oil, its sole major natural resource, is being depleted.
Forty other nations are at similar or more advanced stages of nuclear power generation. This is all quite legal under UN nuclear agency rules.
Both UN nuclear inspectors and US intelligence say there is no hard evidence Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Documents purporting to show Iran working on nuclear warheads have been debunked as fakes produced, as in the case of Iraq, by Iran's enemies. Like Iraq, Iran has been cagey about its military industries for fear of identifying them as targets for possible US and/or Israeli attack.
But this did not stop US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from just insisting Iran was working on nuclear weapons. Apparently, she puts more credence in Israel's intelligence estimates than those of the United States. Clinton's increasingly harsh criticism of Iran probably has more to do with her domestic political ambitions than the Mideastern balance of power.
Secretary Clinton also blasted Iran for becoming 'a military dictatorship,' heedless of the fact that Egypt, one of America's key Arab allies, has been a brutal military dictatorship for over three decades. Or that Washington is now all smiles and hugs with the ghastly Stalinist dictatorship of Uzbekistan, whose opponents have been boiled alive. Such selective morality is a leading cause of anti-Americanism around the globe.
Meanwhile, nuclear-armed Israel and its American partisans keep warning Iran is rapidly developing nuclear weapons and demand severe sanctions or full-scale war. European nations with rightwing governments also support the US position -- more out of fear of the economic disruptions a US-Iranian conflict would bring than out of fear of Iran, a major European trading partner.
Why does Iran keep provoking Western anger, defying the Security Council, inviting sanctions, and risking devastating Israeli attack when it could simply buy fuel rods from Europe that cannot be used for nuclear weapons?
Thirty-one years ago Iranians overthrew the hated, US-backed monarchy of Reza Shah Pahlavi. The revolution was led by an exiled Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and an old university friend of mine, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. This historic uprising was ignited by Iranian's anger at being misruled by a Western-installed despot who mocked Islam, allowed his rapacious family to loot the nation, and spent billions on US and British arms when his people went hungry and illiterate.
The dreaded US and Israeli-trained secret police, Savak, kept the Shah in power through a reign of terror and torture. Iranians later blamed the US and Britain for engineering and financing Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran which cost one million Iranian casualties.
In the 1970's, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld went to Tehran to offer to sell the Shah 31 nuclear reactors. Israel reportedly offered to swap medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads for Iranian oil. But after the revolution, Iran was declared a "terrorist regime" when Khomeini demanded that Mideast oil money be shared by its people rather than go to 1,400 Saudi princes and other US-supported monarchies, and championed the Palestinian cause.
Nuclear power has become Iran's key national issue. Ali Khamenei, Iran's current spiritual guide, asserts Britain and the US are determined to deny the Muslim world modern technology in order to keep it backwards, weak, and forced to buy Western arms and exports. The Imperial British Raj did the same to India, keeping its colony economically backwards for two centuries.
Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa banning nuclear weapons as "un-Islamic."
Ironically, if Iran's theocratic government were replaced by a secular one - a key Western objective -- the secularist nationalists might quickly opt for nuclear weapons for self defense.
For most Iranians, developing nuclear power means breaking out of their Western-imposed technological ghetto and achieving industrial modernization. It's a matter of profound national pride and defiance: Iran was repeatedly invaded by Britain and Russia, its governments were overthrown by Western powers, and its oil exploited. We all remember German aggression against Poland in 1939, but who recalls the British Empire's aggression against Iran in 1941?
Nuclear technology offers independence, and, potentially, weapons for self-defense, if Tehran so chooses. This writer has long believed that one day Iran will opt to deploy nuclear weapons.
The Western and Israeli claim that Tehran's 'mad mullahs' are intent on inflicting worldwide nuclear doomsday is a chimera worthy of the Victorian yellow press. Iran is well aware that it would be wiped off the map by Israel's nuclear arsenal if it ever fired nuclear weapons at Israel. In fact, Israel's nuclear triad of land, air, and sea-launched missiles is now invulnerable to surprise attack.
To Western dismay, most of the current Iranian protest movement's leaders back its nuclear program. If Ahmadinejad were replaced, Iran's nuclear efforts would continue unless the US and Britain managed to achieve their strategy of imposing a new, compliant royalist regime in Tehran.
In the Iranian view, if France and Britain, and neighbors Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India (now with US help) can have nuclear arms, why can't Iran at least boil water for tea using nuclear energy? Of course, the most technologically advanced Arab state, Iraq, tried that and look where it ended up.