This summer, like millions of Brits and Americans, Iranians are glued to their TVs, watching pirated copies of the mini-series Chernobyl written by Craig Mazin and directed by John Renck.
They are watching because it’s a beautifully produced, gripping drama.
They’re also watching because the story of Chernobyl feels like an ominous warning about our own nuclear industry, supported and protected by cynical, corrupt politicians.
Oh...and Iran’s only functioning nuclear reactor is Russian-designed, and located in an earthquake zone.
The original book, Voices from Chernobyl; the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was written by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. It was translated into Persian more than three years ago but comparatively few people read it.
Then came this year’s blockbuster mini-series for TV. Huge numbers of Iranians are rediscovering the story of the 1986 Chernobyl humanitarian catastrophe, when the Soviet nuclear reactor near the town of Pripyat in Ukraine went into meltdown.
Chernobyl dramatizes the story of Soviet bureaucrats and apparatchiks who concealed the truth about the meltdown for weeks as a cloud of radioactivity drifted across Europe.
Iranians identify with the Soviet citizens who were manipulated by their bosses and lied to by their leaders. If our nuclear system developed a fatal flaw, or if some secret aspect of it triggered war with the US or Europe, Iranians wonder how much our politicians would tell us. We ask ourselves if we would even have enough information to protect ourselves.
The final episode of Chernobyl is set in a courtroom. There we see Soviet nuclear scientists confronting their own complicity and guilt in the disaster. Inevitably that brings to mind one of our own officials, Ali Akbar Salehi, the current head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Commission.
Highly educated and politically astute, he knows better than anyone that Iran’s expensive nuclear program makes no sense as a means of generating electricity. Yet he toes the party line, and perpetuates the lie that Iran needs nuclear energy for power, even though we have tiny uranium reserves, endless solar potential and too little revenue to justify the program’s enormous cost.
Just like the Soviet scientists in Chernobyl, Salehi has been bought – with money, status and access to the government’s inner circle. Just like the Soviets, he lacks the courage either to quit, or to tell the Supreme Leader that Iran’s nuclear program is an expensive and provocative sham.
When Iranians see the propaganda slogans posted on walls in the Soviet town of Pripyat — “Let’s put the peaceful atom into every home!” — they can’t help but think of our own: “Nuclear energy is our inalienable right.”
An historian quoted in Alexeivitch’s book says: “Chernobyl [was a] catastrophe of the Russian mindset. It wasn’t just the reactor that exploded, but a system of values.” We now all know that heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union.
If Iran’s nuclear program coupled with incompetent leadership provokes an invasion or a war, our regime may collapse too.
Call it a political meltdown. And with our opposition in disarray with no credible plans for a fresh start, the risk is huge. We who survive it are likely to end up as traumatized, disoriented and damaged as the survivors of the catastrophe at Chernobyl.