Iran Nuclear Deal: Physics, Politics and Diplomacy

The Middle East Working Group at Virginia Tech organized a panel discussion on the Iran Nuclear Deal on September 15. Along with Professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani of the Economics department, Professor Paul Avey of the Political Science Department, Professor Patrick Huber of the Physics Department spoke to an audience of over hundred students and the general public about different aspects of the Iran Nuclear Deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the Western powers and Iran. Dr Bettina Koch of the Political Science Department was the moderator of the panel.

Dr. Avey kicked off the panel by explaining why countries may seek nuclear weapons – to increase their national power and to secure themselves from invasion by other countries.
He pointed out that with Pakistan and Israel in possession of nuclear weapons Iran has strong incentives to acquire nuclear weapons. In addition, since the 1979 revolution US has threatened Iran with regime change. After 9/11, President Bush put Iran on his axis of evil list, along with Iraq and North Korea. North Korea, which developed nuclear weapons has not been overthrown while, Iraq which did not, have been overthrown. Given these outcomes, developing nuclear weapons seems like an obvious choice to any rational actor.

The next speaker, Dr. Huber first explained the science of nuclear energy, noting that the knowledge required for producing electricity from nuclear energy is the same as that required to build weapons. In fact, the physics of nuclear energy for civilian use is the same as for non-civilian use! He primarily pointed out that the Iran nuclear deal severely reduces the ability of Iran to make a bomb since uranium enrichment is restricted to below 5%.

The last speaker, Dr. Salehi-Isfahani, explained how much of the controversy surrounding the deal is about the nature of Iran’s society and its politics. He argued that Iranians are divided over the economic benefits of the nuclear industry as well as over the value of projecting national power in the region or beyond. He said that the election of the moderate president Rouhani signified the preference of the average Iranian to win in what he called the “Quiet Game” rather than victory in some “Great Game.” [He borrowed this term from the wonderful book written by Peter Hopkirk on the geopolitics of Central Asia).
He said that nearly half of Iranians are now middle class; they want good schools, good health care, economic prosperity, and jobs. Dr. Salehi-Isfahani asserted that most Iranians would prefer to live in a country like Turkey that has a healthy economy but no nuclear weapons, than a country like Pakistan that has nuclear weapons but an ailing economy. Dr. Salehi said also that Rouhani administration needs to do lots of economic reforms to improve economy which is stagnant since 2011. For doing that, he needs money to inject to economy to bring back hope and economic prosperity to voters who will vote next February in Parliament election. This deal is a starting point for Rouhani to bring back economy to growth and prosperity path.

After Dr. Salehi’s talk, the audience asked their questions from the panelists. Audience questions ranged from the politics of the region, to what happened if Iran cheats? Also, Students are very curious about physics of nuclear energy that Dr. Huber addressed them. Another question is about difference of Europe vs. US in relation to the Iran nuclear deal. Dr Salehi pointed out that since Europe bares all the costs of the chaos in the Middle East, such as refugee crisis, its condition is different with US and Europe welcomes to the Iran nuclear deal very quickly.

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