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The Washington Post Bombs Nuclear History

Did Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz try to stoke Iran's nuclear ambition in the '70s?

1:35 PM, Mar 28, 2005 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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WHEN YOU ARE UP AGAINST the most worrisome modern security threat there is--the spread of nuclear weapons--history becomes more than an academic pastime. Get it right and you avoid the errors of the past. Get it wrong and the worst of the past is almost certain to rhyme into the future.

Take the Sunday Washington Post report, "Past Arguments Don't Square With Current Iran Policy," in which Dafna Linzer describes a nuclear negotiating strategy President Ford "reluctantly" endorsed for Iran that would reap U.S. nuclear vendors over $7 billion. Under this deal, which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger laid out in a memorandum in 1975, the United States, according to Ms. Linzer, would supply Iran with reactors and try "to accommodate Iranian demands" for plants to separate plutonium chemically from spent reactor fuel, even though the plutonium produced could be used directly to make nuclear weapons.

The reporter reminds us that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz served in the Ford administration and are now opposed to Iran's acquiring such dangerous nuclear capabilities. The reader is then steered to the following conclusion:

The Ford administration--in which Cheney succeeded Rumsfeld as chief of staff and Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation issues at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency--continued intense efforts to supply Iran with U.S. nuclear technology until President Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford in 1977.

There are many things upsetting about this history. But the worst of it is not the hypocritical flip-flop that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are accused of by the Washington Post. Instead, it's what the article fails to tell the reader.

First, whatever dubious approach to Iran Ford may have grudgingly endorsed in April 1975, he clearly reversed 18 months later. In October 1976, Ford, at the urging of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the National Security Council, and his White House staff, which was under Cheney's command, made a major statement on nuclear policy. Ford explained that several months before he had ordered a thorough review of U.S. nuclear policy and concluded that "reprocessing and recycling of plutonium should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation." He went on to explain that he had reached this conclusion because he believed "that avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests."

Ford's statement went beyond generalities. In it, he announced that he had prohibited any American export of reprocessing or nuclear technologies that could contribute to proliferation. He proclaimed that the United States would defer any domestic commercial separation of plutonium and called on all nations to avoid exporting reprocessing or enrichment technology for a period of at least three years. Ford also made it clear that the United States, in concert with like-minded nations, would help assure states that chose to forgo enriching or reprocessing a reliable supply of fresh reactor fuel and access to safe storage of their spent reactor fuel.

Second, although President Carter initially upheld the Ford administration's new nuclear policy, he subsequently undermined it, in the very case of Iran. In an effort to show support for the Shah, President Carter visited Iran in late December 1977. At the time, it was U.S. policy to export U.S. reactors but not to share reprocessing or enrichment technology with any state, Iran included. Yet, when he met with the Shah, Carter, to the amazement of his aides, cast U.S. nuclear policy aside and orally assured the Shah that he could have anything nuclear he wanted from the United States, including reprocessing, if he liked.

Unfortunately, these two historical facts failed to make it into the Washington Post's account. Nonetheless, they suggest that U.S. officials ought to be judged as much by how they measured up to Ford's 1976 nuclear policy statement as by what they may have done previous to its announcement.

Certainly, today we are struggling with some of the very same issues Ford gave fairly clear guidance on. It would still be best if the United States and other like-minded nations encouraged others to forgo expanding the world's current capacity to reprocess or enrich. And the further export of these and related technologies still needs to be curbed. Finally, just as 30 years ago, the recycling of plutonium for commercial reactor use should be proscribed until and unless effective ways are devised to prevent the quick diversion of this material to make bombs.